It’s that time of year again when parties are held, often with the campest of costumes, much drink is consumed, and we laugh, cheer and argue in equal measure. But wait! It’s only May. It’s not Halloween, Hogmanay, or even a bank holiday weekend. What is this new tradition in our annual calendar of escapist events we hype up to brighten our lives?
Celebrating the Eurovision Song Contest, often with ridicule and a generous spoonful of mock-patriotism, is now a national custom. We get to boo and laugh at national stereotypes while acting out our own. We joke about the conspiracies between Balkan, Slavic and any Johnny-foreigner nations, ignoring how we appeal for the same faux-loyalty from Malta, the Scandinavians and practically any other country that speaks English as its first language or was on our side in World War II.
Eurovision has evolved since European broadcasters first conceived of the idea back in the mid-50s to become larger than life and indeed larger than Europe.
Like so many European institutions, the Eurovision Song Contest is now lazily perceived as being part of the European Union, smothered in the EU’s blue and gold flag. But just like the UEFA Nations Football Championships or the Ryder Cup, it would carry on regardless if the EU were to collapse under the weight of its own self-regard.
That’s not just some glib assertion from a camped-up campaigner for Brexit. For it is a fact that more countries outside the EU (18) have won Eurovision than countries that are EU members (13) (and the public keeps saying it wants facts about the EU).
The first winner of Eurovision in 1956 was Switzerland, a country that has never joined the EU – and to show it doesn’t matter that it stayed outside, it managed to win again in 1988, the last time the winning song was sung in French.
The roll call of winning nations that have never been in the EU include Azerbaijan (2011), Monaco (1971), and Norway, which finally broke its duck in 1985 after famously being known as “Norway, null points”. To show it wasn’t a fluke, the Norwegians won again in 1995 and 2009.
Yugoslavia was the first communist country to win in 1989 and then, as the Iron Curtain was torn down there was no holding back Ukraine (2004), Serbia (2007), and Russia (2008).
Israel famously took the competition beyond the European continent and has won it three times in 1978, 1979 and 1998, while Turkey (half in Europe and half in Asia) won in 2003.
There have also been 12 wins by countries who were not EU members at the time, including of course the UK when we won in 1967 with Sandi Shaw, and Lulu in 1969. Others that took the same route include Austria (1966), Denmark (1963), Estonia (2001), Ireland (1970), Latvia (2002), Spain (1968, 1969), and Sweden (1974, 1984, 1991). That’s right, Abba won with their hit Waterloo while Sweden was outside the EU.
There have been 15 wins by 10 countries that have never been in the EU and 12 wins by eight countries that later joined the EU. The changing nature of Eurovision reflects the changes in the EU – English language now dominates, with even France having entered songs sung in English.
Now the song contest is truly international, with entries from Australia and the final being broadcast in China and this year the United States. I doubt the founders ever saw that coming! And while there’s every possibility that patriotic feelings will run high if the UK does well, if we don’t, we’ll just shrug our shoulders as usual, blame it on a continental plot (concocted by the French, Germans, Russians or anyone else that catches our eye), and reach for the drink while tripping over our glammed-up platform shoes.
Whether you vote for Brexit or not, when you’re Making your Mind Up, remember that Eurovision is for Everybody to enjoy, bitch about and wonder what it was all about the next morning.