Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Down here in the ashes

Image result for united kingdom eurovision heartUnited Kingdom
James Newman

Do you remember when we were kids with no fear? I do. I remember, vividly. It was Saturday 19th April, 1980. That year, the twenty-fifth Eurovision Song Contest was broadcast from a faraway place that the announcer called "Congresgebouw" in the Hague, in the Netherlands. 

Israel had declined to host the contest for a second year running and after runners-up Spain (and also reportedly the UK) turned it down, it was eventually hosted by the Netherlands (who came twelfth) on the condition they could scale down the production. Changes to the line-up that year included Israel who ended up withdrawing because the date chosen conflicted with their remembrance day, and Morocco who took part for the first and last time to date.

I don't remember those bits. But that night is my earliest memory. I was four, for crying out loud. I'm not that much of a loser. Mum and Dad had gone out for chicken in a basket and a blue comic and a star turn (Sharon Diamond, doing the hits of Shirley Bassey) at the club, leaving me and my little brother at my nan's. We were allowed to stay up for a bit, but nan had packed us off to bed after Prima Donna had performed for the UK with the lamentable "Love Enough for Two". 

But uncle Nigel knew the score. He'd tucked us in and left Radio 2 on quietly in the corner - and I remember as clear as day clutching the bed covers with wide-eyed excitement as the de-borda boat rolled in and secured Johnny Logan's first, and Ireland's second victory.

I was hooked. Kitschy, schlagery pop. An unnecessarily complex voting system. The sounds of commentators from faraway lands giving us snippets of different food, better cultures, and happier lives. Of course I loved the Eurovision, right from back when it still had orchestras and satellite delays and botched up archery stunts. Throughout my childhood I loved it to bits. It was European. And we were a part of it. An enthusiastic part of it.

So scroll forward to now. Shame. It’s the quintessential human emotion, says psychologist Michael Lewis in his writings. All extravagant behaviours are reactions to it, says psychiatrist Donald Nathanson. It’s the root of dysfunctions in families, says Jane Middelton-Moz author of “Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise”. Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself"

I know the feeling. I know it all too well. In a way it's hard to put into the words the intense, powerful feeling of abject shame that me and Lorna felt, waving our Union Jacks in the air in Oslo's Telenor arena in 2010 when Josh Dubovie took to the stage, cheered on by right-wing koi-carp 80s pop producer Pete Waterman, and did this. My god it's bad. It's the audio equivalent of having your own trousers pulled down in public to reveal that you have "messed" yourself. Actually, by the sounds of it, maybe he had.

Then there was this effort from has been boyband Blue in 2011. It sounded like something we'd heard a million times before, went nowhere at all after the opening 30 seconds and gave bankrupt (morally, sexually and financially) Lee Ryan a particularly difficult set of notes to hit, leaving him sounding like he'd got his "member" caught in a cash machine. Which, given the behaviour of bandmate Antony Costa that year, wasn't so unlikely.

You could take the year we sent "Botox Bonnie" in a leather jacket. Bonnie fucking Tyler. This is the woman who, on Saturday Night Takeaway that year, stumbled around nine sheets to the wind forgetting the lyrics to "Holding out for Hero"- not some obscure album track, but her second-biggest hit. That is what we sent to Malmo to represent the entire British music industry that year. Not London Grammar or Tom Odell or Ellie Goulding or Jessie J or the Arctic Monkeys or Bastille or Disclosure or One Direction or John Newman or Calvin Harris. We sent Bonnie Tyler. Shitfaced.

Or then there's this. A waltz. A fucking waltz. Back in 2012 we plucked 60's crooner Engelbert Humperdink from doing board games in his nursing home, plonked him in the middle of the Crystal Hall in Baku in Azerbaijan and asked him to open the whole show. With a fucking Waltz. "It's OK", said the BBC, "they love him in Eastern Europe and he can really sing!". Yes. We could see that.

That's us. In what I regard as the golden age of Europop, when Lena was Satelliting and Alexander was Fairytaling and Kate Ryan was shutting that door, we were tumbling half-arsed faded glories into the arenas of Europe, raising our voice and puffing out our chest and then getting offended when they didn't show us respect any more. It was the woman on Question Time that really did it for me. She was so familiar. There is someone like her in every queue, every coffee shop, outside every school in every parish council in the country. Middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, over-made-up, with her National Health face and weatherproof English expression of hurt righteousness, she’s Britannia’s mother-in-law. The camera closed in on her and she shouted: “All I want is my country back. Give me my country back. When we used to win Eurovision”.

And don't get me started on Terry Wogan. For me the most astonishing thing about our piss poor performances over the years is that Terry "what's another year" Wogan got away with slurring racist epithets from the commentary box whilst blaming our results on politics.  I mean just look at the evidence. In the year 2000 - just as the contest started to be modern, and fun, and exciting - we sent a woman called Nicki French to do something called "Don't Play That Song Again". They didn't. We were then stupid enough to repeat the trick the year after with a song called "No Dream Impossible". I can assure you it was.

In 2003 baffled Phoenix Nights act warm-up act Jemini did "Cry Baby" (really badly) and scored us the famous Nul Points. In 2004 and 2005 James Fox off "Fame Academy" and Javine Hylton off "Popstars" bored Europe to death. In 2006 scumpop w-rapper Daz Sampson offenced the continent with a set of Yewtree style saucy schoolgirls, doing a pound shop version of "Where is the Love?" (not here). In 2007 Scooch managed to "Fly the Flag" for us by taking the piss out of a contest that hadn't existed for 15 years. In 2008 Andy "Dancing Binman" Abraham convinced Europe that he shouldn't have given up his day job and in 2009 Andrew fucking Lloyd fucking Webber wrote a song for someone who somehow managed to become the final nail in the Sugababes coffin.

Or take 2015. That was the year that we entered a harrowing, amateurish, petrifying poor duo called "Electro Velvet" to sing a song that sounded like the Birds Eye Potato Waffles advert written by the man that wrote the theme tune to Jim'll Fix It. It was objectively shit. And yet we farage our way around Europe, demanding salted butter with our full English, urinating in the capital cities that our Ryanair flights have whisked us to to "stag" and "hen", blaming politics - politics! - for the fact that we do badly in the Eurovision.

Why are we like this? Why do we think this? Why do we baulk at health and safety? And gender-neutral toilets? And young people? We don’t know if we're coming or going, what with those newfangled mobile phones and kids on Tinder and TikTok. What happened to meeting Miss Joan Hunter Dunn at the tennis club? And don’t get us started on electric hand dryers, or something unrecognised in the bagging area, or Indian call centres, or the impertinent computer asking for a password that has both capitals and little letters and numbers and more than eight digits.

And anyway. Would you blame the rest of Europe if there was a slight political slant to their voting? I mean for christ's sake, we've voted Brexit, we treat EU nationals like scum and the other year our parliament literally turned around to thousands of refugee children begging for access to the UK and told them to get lost.

Look at 2016. Surely not. We cobbled together an astonishingly weak collection of newcomers into a badly staged BBC4 hosted National Final (so the BBC could blame the public for the outcome) and then picked two lads' lads from the early bit of a series of the Voice with all the charisma of a damp, maggot ridden horse corpse to sing lyrics like "I'll be your parachute oh oh oh". We sent what the BBC called "an anthemic pop song with a universal message" (that message being that the UK is shit) and what Graham Norton called a "really catchy pop song” (as he banked his cheque). BBC doublespeak twaddle, the kind of W1A bullshit peddled in the bowels of what is no longer called the BBC Light Entertainment department to cover the fact that our entry is being run by patronising, sneering, middle class, imaginationless cheapskates who hate everyone that watches the show.

Or take 2017. The woman that Cowell booted off of X Factor for being less interesting than Jedward. A song so morose that they had to speed it up to remove the last vestigates of negative emotion. This is what we are now, and this is what we do. We are rubbish. And when people point at us and notice that the emperor is naked, we run away and hide under some Brexit coats so we can return to former glories, all Brotherhood of Man and victoria sponge and 22 yards to a wicket and 15 hands to a horse and 3ft to a yard and Cliff Richard and four fingers in a Kit Kat and Lulu, back to gooseberries not avocados, back to deference and respect, back to Bucks Fizz and make do and mend and smiling bravely and biting your lip and suffering in silence and patronising foreigners with pity.

In 2018 we entered a woman called SuRie. To be fair, Sue Ree was brilliant, and funny, and talented, but the song wasn't. It was shite. There was a moment in the final when a stage invader disrupted her performance. The UK thought it might get us some sympathy votes. Well, I've news for us. If your song is lazy and your staging is half-arsed, you can be being repeatedly kicked in the face by a fucking horse on live TV and it still won't get you votes.

In 2019 a man-boy called Michael from the north won our tinpot national final, having won a song contest on BBC1 the year before that was watched by less people than that lottery show that used to be on with Dale Winton. It turns out that it's one thing to have a backstory that you work in a chip shop, but it's quite another to perform like you're on a double shift in one.  "It's bigger than us" he sang, when he meant "this is all bigger than me", and so we came last. Again.

This year a man called James has written a "banger" that is all over Radio 2. It's fine. It grates after a minute or so and the production is a bit rushed, but it's fine. It's fine. James is a nice man and a great vocalist and yes, sure, we should get behind him and sure, it'll never get better if people like me are so down on them every time they try hard. And come Saturday I'll get caught up and start to believe that this is the year we can do it.

It ought to be amazing. In 2013 James won a Brit Award for co-writing the British Single of the Year Waiting All Night, performed by Rudimental and Ella Eyre. It wasn’t long before he co-wrote another UK chart-topper, Blame, this time for Calvin Harris and his younger brother John Newman. The song was a massive hit in several countries including the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Mexico.

Yorkshire-born Newman has worked with many famous artists over the years, including Ed Sheeran who recorded the vocals for Lay It All On Me, a certified platinum single in the UK and US. The singer-songwriter has also been nominated for a Grammy twice, co-writing Coping from Toni Braxton’s album Sex & Cigarettes, and Let ‘Em Talk from Kesha’s album Rainbow.

But despite all this, in truth, it's not good enough. It's not memorable enough. The staging is cliched and the arrangement is weak and his performance is awkward. Ultimately, when televoters around the continent come to pick up their phone on Saturday, it won't be anyone's favourite, and that's what matters. Except some people in Malta. And a couple of people in Ireland. They'll like it. But no-one else. And I'm really really genuinely sad about that, in a way that is probably a bit too obsessive to be healthy for a man in his late forties.

You see, there remains something extraordinary for me in the power of a three-minute pop song to excite me, to cheer me up, to motivate me; to convey joy, and bring joy. And there's something genuinely magical when you know that is happening to you at the very same time that it's happening to millions of others around the world. There are so many artists and so many songs from so many countries that done it over the years. Occasionally, we have. Like Katrina with Love Shine a Light. Like Bardo with One Step Closer. And it's even more magical when you combine it with positive nation-building, and European travel, and weird interval acts, and Justin Timberlake interval acts, and daft slogans like "Confluence of Sound" and "Share the moment" and "Come Together" and "Dare to Dream".

My name is Jim, and I love the Eurovision song contest. I always have. I'm so glad it's back. I love the points bit (which is even longer and even better in two halves these days) and the glitz and the glamour and the songs and the show and the diversity and the travelling around Europe and the stadiums and the atmos and the feeling that it's like football but without the air of menace and violence. But I'm sorry James. Come 8pm on May 22nd, I won't be waving a Union Jack. I just can't bear the shame.