Did Terry Wogan cause Brexit? Will anyone in Europe give us any points? Does anybody know the name of this year’s entry? Ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon this weekend, Gary Ryan talks to superfans and acts at London’s biggest Eurovision Party.
At 1pm, Jade Coburn was excited to be first in the queue. “This is the Eurovision equivalent of Radio 1’s Big Weekend!” the 24 year old South Londoner enthuses, five hours before doors open to the annual London Eurovision Party, where a gaggle of entries from the likes of Bulgaria, Lithuania and Montenegro perform in front of 700 die-hard enthusiasts singing every word in different languages. There are glitter cannons. There are more key changes than a swinger’s party.
Outside the capital’s Café de Paris in early April, fans from as far as Switzerland, Estonia and Australia – bafflingly, it’s been competing since 2015 – brandish diverse flags that even The Big Bang Theory’s vexillology-loving Sheldon Cooper might struggle to identify. As Icelandic pop-twink Ari Ólafsson – performing tonight – emerges, some rush at him like he’s a food parcel air-dropped into a war-torn country. “I never realised how hardcore the subculture was until today,” boggles Rasmussen, Denmark’s Viking-themed entrant.
But 63 years after the first contest united countries in war-ravaged Europe, its stock among the British public has plummeted. When Theresa May cosplayed a normal person on The One Show last year and was asked if Britain would leave Eurovision, she replied: “No… Although I’m tempted to say in current circumstances, I’m not sure how many votes we’ll get.” Since we last won in 1997, the UK has finished last three times, and failed to scrape the top ten for the past seven years, so it’s perhaps unsurprisingly a recent poll found 56 per cent of Britons wanted to Brexit the competition.
“We’ve got to change our attitude,” declares Coburn. “In Sweden, they have a six-week televised search for their entry called Melodifestivalen. The grand final is watched by half of the country. It’s seen by big acts as a career helper, whereas in the UK, we only send complete unknowns or people who haven’t had a hit for decades.
“People say to me: ‘You’re from the country of Adele and Ed Sheeran, why aren’t you winning?”
Big names such as Jarvis Cocker have threatened to toss their hat into the ring before. “Around ten years ago, Morrissey wanted to represent us, but was told by the BBC he’d have to enter a TV selection contest with former soap stars,” notes Paul Jordan, aka pundit Dr Eurovision, who’s worked behind the scenes on the show. Draped in a Spanish flag, fan Alejandro Fernandez says: “If the UK loses, they’ll blame Brexit. But in the past when you’ve sent joke acts like DJ Daz and Scooch, you’ve been surprised when the rest of Europe sees you as a punchline.”
Seizing the poisoned chalice as the UK’s entry this year is SuRie, with a Jess Glynne-lite number ‘Storm’. “If I can get anything above zero points, I’ll take that as a victory,” she tells NME, after a fan hands her a crocheted Union Jack beanie (which you sense she’ll eat if she wins). Will Brexit thwart our chances? “I don’t think it’s got anything to do with a song contest,” she disclaims. “The song is the driving force for the top of the leaderboard and will rise above any political chatter. It doesn’t affect what happens, which is about escaping all that for one precious night.”
Will she be strawpedoing a bottle of wine when the scores come in? “Who knows?” she laughs. “There’s going to be an element of nerves and adrenaline. I’m not a competitive person but when we get to the scores, I’ll feel it. The funny thing with doing it for the UK is I have zero expectations. When people expect so little of me, maybe I can surprise them and be queen of the underdog.”
With a record 43 countries participating – unusually none have withdrawn this year in geopolitical protest – Israel are tipped to win with Netta, not present today. The video to her #MeToo-inspired banger ‘Toy’ – which comes on like Lady Gaga meets a ‘90s Chicken Tonight advert – is the most-viewed Eurovision YouTube clip ever. The bookies’ third favourite today is backpack-favouring Mikolas Josef, aiming to bring home the Czech Republic’s first trophy with ‘Lie To Me’, a jazzy Jason Derulo-style toe-tapper. Today, he’s besieged by gifts. “Everywhere I go, people are giving me camel toys” – in tribute to the mammal that appears in his video. “Actually,” he says, “in the first Eurovision meeting, I said ‘I want to perform sitting on a camel’. But unfortunately,” he sighs, “no animals are allowed.”
Do the rest of Europe hate us because of Brexit, Mikolas? “I would love it if people put their politics aside,” he says. “People from different countries come with their own political baggage, but in the end, it’s just a person singing onstage. In music, there’s no politics – just emotional connection.” It’s such a rousing statement, you momentarily forget the lyrics to his song position him as a fuckboy Ed Sheeran (sample “Then it got heavy/Mom, I’m feeling home already/But steady plenty motherfuckers wanna eat my spaghetti“.)
If there’s one country with more reason to be bitter than the UK, it’s Ireland, who used to reign supreme at Eurovision – to the extent that Father Ted spoofed the suspicion that after coming first four times in the ‘90s and thus incurring the expense of hosting four competitions, state broadcaster RTÉ deliberately selected shonky acts to sabotage their chances. Over the last decade, however, they’ve failed to qualify for the final six times.
Ryan O’Shaughnessy hopes to reverse their fortunes – and that he does better than his uncle Gary, who placed 21 out of 23 when he represented Ireland in 2001.
“Ireland has a rich history of having the most wins at Eurovision, but we’ve become a laughing stock,” says the former Britain’s Got Talent finalist – following in the footsteps of, among others, Jedward and a rave turkey puppet called Dustin. “I’ve decided the success of [Portuguese winner] Salvador Sobral last year has paved the way for proper real songs like mine, instead of naff novelty acts.”
Rumours had abounded that Russia threatened to censor his performance because the video for his ballad ‘Together’ features a gay couple. “It’s nice to raise awareness – albeit unintentionally – that not all Eurovision countries are liberal,” he says.
But with Russia vocally wanting to win – previously they’ve fielded tracks by Timbaland and RedOne – doing anything that would upset a large proportion of Eurovision’s viewership would prove counterproductive. As Portugal’s entry, Suzy, puts it: “The appeal of Eurovision is similar to following soccer. It’s the gay men and straight women version of football.”
“It’s the sort of event where you have to ‘out’ yourself as a straight man and that’s refreshing,” laughs Jordan. “One study found German men equated telling people they were a Eurovision fan with coming out of the closet in general.” Though the show officially eschews politics, he points out that it can act as a Trojan Horse of gay visibility in repressive regimes: a kid in Azerbaijan can see Dana International or Conchita Wurst winning and momentarily feel less alone or imagine a better life where the streets are paved with (Liquid) Gold.
Inside the venue at night, fans go drunkenly berserk with glowsticks to a DJ playing Eurovision deep cuts. “There’s a typical origin story in the UK,” says Eleanor Chalkley – who runs a Desert Island Discs-style podcast called Eurovision Castaways – of the fan appeal. “As a child, you were allowed to stay up on Saturday night. It was exotic, glam and fun. There were different languages. Everybody has their wilderness years. Mine was Britpop. But when they come back to it, they realise it means lots of travel, socialising and discovering new, interesting artists. I’ve become an expert on the Estonian garage scene through Eurovision.”
With a marathon runtime and featuring an Epcot Centre’s worth of countries’ entries, both past and present, there’s a lot of Eurovision to pack in. The acts are visibly taken aback by the crowd’s lovebombing. “This is insane! I have goosebumps!”, says Sweden’s Benjamin Ingrosso, who’s a bit like an IKEA flat-packed Troye Sivan and, while you might imagine the jam would remain resolutely unpumped to the subject matter of France’s entry – Madame Monsieur’s ‘Mercy’, about a child born to Nigerian refugees on a boat in the midst of the European migrant crisis – it emerges as a Christine and the Queens-shaped fan favourite.
Watching wide-brimmed Quaker hats being lassoed above heads to Poland’s Avicii-like ‘Light Me Up’ (Gromee feat. Lukas Meijar) why do the faithful here think Eurovision gets such a bad rep? Most here put it down to the late Terry Wogan.
“I could write a thesis on how Terry Wogan caused Brexit” says Chalkley. Though his commentary started off affectionate, as Europe grew beyond the traditional Western nations and the music stopped being old-style chanson, “he began to invoke myths of Anglophone cultural superiority, developing a ‘funny foreigner’, ‘them-versus-us’ narrative. His commentary turned toxic when the UK stopped doing so well.”
“When basically the only thing you know about 20 of the 28 countries in the EU is that it’s ok to make fun of their pop music because Wogan says we’re culturally superior, it’s easy to separate yourself off from the bloc.”
Conversely, tonight feels surreally like a victory party in a parallel world where Remain overwhelmingly won the referendum. It’s one of the few places where Union Jacks can be waved without feeling Ukippy (it’s more EDM than EDL), and a rendition of a Ukrainian entry from 2008 called ‘Shady Lady’ is rapturously received as if the ghost of Prince rocked up and dropped ‘Purple Rain’. There are stage invasions, and even Graham Norton-style ribbing: co-host Nicki French – who carried the torch for the UK in 2000 – is mocked that she’ll be treating us to “a medley of her hit.”
Yes, hopes aren’t high for our entry. “You’ve got someone like X-Factor runner up Saara Aalto representing Finland who’s ironically got more support from UK fans than our own entry – they’re ready to stage a coup,” says fan Jonathan Hawkins. But forget Theresa May’s gloom-mongering, as another defiantly quips: “Eurovision Means Eurovison – And We’re Going To Make A Success Of It.”