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Culture House Daily

Eurovision 2014: the booing of Russia was a disgrace

11 May 2014

3:05 PM

11 May 2014

3:05 PM

Yet again, the best Eurovision entries rose to the top on the night. Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria were the bookies’ favourites before the betting started, and no amount of ‘buddy voting’ upended that. What did disappoint me was the booing of the teenaged girls representing Russia. I felt desperately sorry for the Tolmachevy twins, who had a decent song and pulled off an impressive stage performance. I can’t remember the last time I heard a Eurovision audience boo anyone; during the Iraq war in 2003, no one booed Britain. We just came last with no votes from anyone. The acrimony should be in the voting: Poland didn’t have to say ‘nul points‘ to Russia, it just happened and everyone enjoyed it.

So what explains the viciousness? Even before Russia’s moves in Ukraine, Putin’s abridgement of gay rights won him fresh enemies in the West and made him a hate figure amongst LGBT audiences. And anyone watching Eurovision last night could see that there were — how to put it? — a lot of men in that audience who had forgotten to bring their wives. But to actually boo the 17-year-old Tolmachevy twins, and boo countries who gave then 10 or 12 points, was an unedifying spectacle. There’s a difference between the Russian government and the Russian people, and the girls were there to represent the latter. They didn’t deserve the obloquy. And the Danes were wrong to have made the booing so audible.

Eurovison was broadcast to the Chinese this year — what they’d have made of it I don’t know. Perhaps they’d have seen another side to Israel, who in giving 12 points to Austria reminded the world that there is an avant-garde side to the country normally known only for conflict. A side also shown to the world in when Dana International triumphed in Birmingham in 1998. They’ll have seen a continent where a drag queen can win the world’s biggest talent contest – but not because she’s a drag queen. Austria’s Conchita Wurst had a superb melody: close your eyes, and you would have heard the best vocal performance of the evening.

And Britain? There are those who say that Britain can never win because we are on a different cultural wavelength; that we would never have chosen a drag queen in a beard to win such a contest. But if so, why did we give Conchita Wurst the full 12 points*? And why did seven million of us tune in? We have one of the best music industries in the world — we could win every year if the BBC handled this properly. Their commissars picked Molly, then dropped her in front of the world’s biggest TV audience for any musical event even though she had no experience of performing under such circumstances.

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I’m not down on Molly, the song (which she wrote it herself) was our first half-decent entry for years. But the BBC can’t just pick a tune, then order people to like it. Molly’s entry peaked at a lowly no48 in the UK charts, most Brits had never heard it before last night – never mind the foreign audiences who decide these events. How can Britain field a song that Brits don’t really like? Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands all had laid on songs last night that went to no1 in their own domestic charts; songs chosen by audiences in television vote.

You win these competitions by laying on a pretty good stage performance, for a TV audience. As Austria knew, the stage performance is a clincher. That’s why Armenia went from bookies’ favourite to loser: as soon as Aram MP3 stood on stage it exposed the fact that he had no stage performance to go with his expensive video. As Camilla Long puts it in today’s Sunday Times, he looked like a recently-exhumed corpse. By no coincidence, Armenia’s entry – like Britain’s – is chose by a state broadcaster with no competition.

Compare Molly’s rather startled performance (“look what the BBC has made me wear!” her face seemed to say) with the assurance of Sweden’s Sanna Nielsen, who a veteran of six MelodyFestival TV finals where she had failed to qualify. Molly was not given the training that the candidates from almost all other countries had: her song was good, I thought it deserved to finish in the top half. But the people she was up against were, to borrow a phrase from The History Boys, thoroughbreds — groomed for this one particular race.

Graham Norton, by the way, was a great host. My only complaint is that he could have spoken more — there was so much to send up last night. The Danes were out of their depth, the jokes were awful – at times it looked like a bad episode of Borgen. The BBC present a Eurovision. But no bureaucracy can pick pop hits. Bureaucracies don’t know the nature or the location of talent.

Britain does have talent, world-beating talent, and the BBC ought to find some for 2015. And if it can’t, then had Eurovision over to a broadcaster who can.

* My colleague Mr Steerpike points out that the British public voted for Carry On Poland, but expert jury votes put it last. The Times has today devoted a page to this. But of 25 Eurovision entries, the British public (and the jury) also put Conchita Wurst in third place (results breakdown here) and the Netherlands in 2nd place (it finished second overall). So there was a good deal of harmony between the UK public voting and the overall finishing positions of Eurovision. As so often,  Eurovision’s voting system works far better than any run in Brussels for the EU.

Poland’s popularity in Britain will be in part explained by our large Polish population. Until the jury system, Germany never rated the Turkish entry highly – that changed under televoting, when there was a mechanism for Turkish immigrate in Germany to show support. It’s a fun story, but does not alter the fundamental point that Britain is plenty capable of producing a Eurovision winner if someone  like Simon Fuller would take over the selection process.

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