“Do you curse where you come from?” sang Nick Drake in 1970. It’s highly likely that he wasn’t singing about Britain’s inability to field a winner in the Eurovision song contest. After all, back then, when we ruled pop on a worldwide scale, the Eurovision was a cinch to us Brits. We would make sure our charts were full of world-beating singers and songwriters. Whatever was left over, we would throw into a big pot called Song For Europe and, in all likelihood, it would still be ace enough to come in the Top Three: Mary Hopkin’s Knock Knock Who’s There; Sandie Shaw’s Puppet On A String; Lulu’s Boom-Bang-A-Bang. When Cliff came second to Spain’s La La La with Congratulations, the ensuing furore tore across Europe, with several newspapers suggesting that Spanish state television had rigged the vote on behalf of General Franco’s fascist regime – withholding from Britain the points necessary to nudge Cliff ahead of the victorious Massiel.
When exactly, then, did we lose the knack of fielding a strong Eurovision entry? A chart of final placings over the years would plot the co-ordinates of our demise – from the string of close-calls that bridged winning songs by Brotherhood of Man and Bucks Fizz to the uniformly pungent entries of the past ten years. We have turned into one of those countries we used to laugh at. We look and sound like a nation in the throes of a pop confidence crisis. Cast your mind’s eye over our recent failures – Scooch! Andy Abrahams! Englebert Humperdinck – and tell me that seems any other way. It remains to be seen whether Bonnie Tyler will arrest the slide tonight, but looking ahead to future contests, behold a checklist of strategies that have served many a past winner well.
1. Write a decent song
Set aside your snobbery. The fact is that the majority of Eurovision winners – from Waterloo to Lordi’s “monster rock” call-to-arms Hard Rock Hallelujah – are fundamentally strong compositions. You need to write one too. If inspiration fails to strike, choose a million seller, write down the chord sequence in reverse and put a new melody over it.
2. Earn your place
For reasons knowable to the Eurovision Illuminati, Britain is one of a small number of Euro “superpowers” who get to skip the ignominious qualifying stages. Our showing has been far worse in the years since this system was introduced, suggesting that our business class status has cause ill-feeling among other competing nations.
3. The comprehensibility of the title is inversely proportionate to its chances of winning
It’s all about spreading the likelihood. By tapping into some sort of mystical Eurovision Esperanto that few speak but all understand, Herreys (Diggi-Loo-Diggi-Ley, 1984); Izhar Cohen & The Alphabeta (A-ba-ni-bi, 1978) and Teach-In (Ding-A-Dong) all rode to Euroglory. Universally understandable terms – Boom-Bang-A-Bang (Britain, 1969), Hallelujah (Israel, 1979) and Genghis Khan (second for Germany in 1978) have also fared well.
4. Leave the door of postmodernism ajar
You double your chances of success if you get the unreconstructed Eurovision fans and the ironic watchers on board. In recent years, songs that have done just that – Lordi and Dana International spring to mind – have performed strongly. However, Lithuania’s We’re The Winners (Of The Eurovision) was a different matter altogether. Its smug, irksome knowingness saw them crash out.
5. Love Thy Neighbour
The Scandinavians give eachother douze points; so do Greece and Cyprus. Now that the old Soviet Republic has broken up like a meringue, recent years have seen the East accrue a monopoly of Euroglory. We need to follow their lead by ceding independence to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Cornwall, The Isle Of Man, The Isle Of Wight, Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney. Then we can all vote for each other.
6. Get a gimmick
With more songs than ever competing in the Contest, you need something to make people remember you. Would Lordi have won if they hadn’t used prosthetics to make them look undead? Would Ukraine’s Dima Bilan have emerged victorious had he not brought a tiny ice rink that appeared to have been unpacked from a specially-made briefcase?
7. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
Abba returned looking stronger and slightly sillier after failing to win their domestic qualifiers with 1973’s Ring Ring. Members of Bobbysocks (1985) and Bucks Fizz (1981) all foundered on previous occasions only to finally emerge victorious. Perhaps the most well-known serial trier is Norway’s Jahn Teigen, the first ever nul points recipient in 1978. Teigen has sang in two subsequent contests and competed in fourteen domestic qualifiers.
8. If at first you do succeed, try again.
Of course, if you do win, then you run the risk of becoming typecast as a Eurovision winner. Seven years after winning in 1980 with What’s Another Year, Johnny Logan return to his metaphorical captor, winning again with Hold Me Now. That showed them.
9. Avoid controversy. This isn’t speakers corner, you know.
Some people use Eurovision as a platform to make a wider political point. Icelandic new waver Kojo was a case in point. The lyrics of his song Bomb Out railed against the proliferation of “nuclear shit” on the global political agenda. When German teenager Nicole won with A Little Peace, he called her a “stupid virgin.” In 2005, Ukraine’s Greenjolly adapted their song from the rallying call used by protesters to bring Viktor Yushchenko to power. Eurovision organizers disqualified them.
10. Make sure you like your song (because you’ll have to sing it for the rest of your life)
I once interviewed Mike Nolan from Bucks Fizz. Imagine if Terry Waite found himself released by his Libyan captors only to be told he had to carry his cell around with him at all times. That’s Mike Nolan from Bucks Fizz, that is.