Ever since the UK entered its ‘flop period’ (2000 to present), we have seen the former five-time winner and 15-time runner up consistently achieve low results in Eurovision. This has reinforced a negative perception of the contest that exists among the general public in the UK, and has led to viewers and media outlets falsely claiming that there is an ‘anti-UK bias’ from other participating countries. Following a painful score of 0 points in the 2021 contest, the UK’s future in Eurovision seems uncertain, with rumours that BMG have parted ways with the BBC after their deal agreed in 2019.
However, despite two decades of poor results, there have been glimmers of hope in recent years. Some entries have shown that the UK can indeed do well in modern Eurovision, achieving respectable results and making an impact on the night of the contest. Here, we will review some examples of respectable results and best practice recently demonstrated by the UK in Eurovision, and try to understand what we can learn from these.
2009: Jade Ewen – It’s My Time
Following a slew of bad results from 2003–2008, the BBC acknowledged that they needed to opt for a new strategy. As part of this, the BBC invited musical theatre magnate Andrew Lloyd Webber to compose and manage the UK’s entry, forty years after he unsuccessfully submitted a song to the 1969 contest. Lloyd Webber composed a song entitled ‘It’s My Time’ with Diane Warren, an award-winning songwriter with several hit songs under her belt. In line with Lloyd Webber’s repertoire, ‘It’s My Time’ had a distinct musical theatre sound, and was a welcome contrast to the UK’s previous entries from the same decade. In order to select the artist, BBC commissioned a 4-week national selection, entitled Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, which aimed to find a singer to perform Lloyd Webber’s song. Following many auditionees (including Rita Ora) and weeks of performances, the competition was won by Jade Ewen, who was to join forces with ALW in Moscow. Ahead of the contest, Jade embarked on a promotional tour of Europe, performing at national selections and other events across different countries. On the night of the Eurovision 2009 Grand Final, Jade was joined on stage by Lloyd Webber himself playing piano. The UK placed 3rd with the juries and 10th in the televote, placing 5th overall with 173 points.
The UK’s performance in Eurovision 2009 is a perfect example of what can be achieved when the BBC uses their resources effectively. BBC put the effort in to source one of the best songwriting teams possible, and hosted a national selection to find a singer who had the stage presence and vocal ability necessary for a strong Eurovision performance. As well putting in the work to promote the song effectively. By the time of the Grand Final, the UK had a potential winning performance on their hands. Perhaps the BBC’s only misstep this year was getting their timing wrong by entering in such a competitive year, had they sent this package in 2008 or 2010 they very well could have won the entire thing. It would be a welcome change if the BBC had a ‘2009 moment’ again, and put the UK in contention to win, rather than hoping simply to avoid last place for a consecutive year.
Following the success of this selection method, the BBC did this again in 2010, although this time it was executed terribly. After a disastrous national selection and a song written by 1980’s relic Pete Waterman, the UK came last in Eurovision 2010; an unfortunate turn of events, given the success of the previous year.
2011: Blue – I Can
After the disaster that was 2010, the BBC dramatically changed their approach, and went for an internal selection for the first time in the UK’s history of Eurovision. A range of established artists were rumoured to be the UK’s representative, including Pixie Lott, Hurts and Katherine Jenkins. In the end, the BBC opted for Blue, a four-piece boyband with a string of hit singles in UK and Europe during the early 00s. Their song, ‘I Can’, was an early favourite as soon as it was released, and was consistently in the Top 3 of the betting odds in the lead-up to the contest. There were some whispers about the possibility of a UK win, with Cardiff apparently being earmarked as the 2012 host city had Blue been victorious. On the night of the contest, Blue placed 11th with 100 points, remarkably coming 5th in the televote despite a low jury score (rumoured to be due to a shaky performance in the jury final).
Despite just missing out on a Top 10 placing, the UK’s performance in 2011 can still be considered a good achievement, as the BBC did many things right this year. ‘I Can’ was a Eurovision-ready package, and Blue were seasoned performers who could deliver on the night. The song and staging were impactful, and the performance was distinct to the other 24 entries performed in Düsseldorf. In addition, Blue took part in a promotional tour of Europe ahead of the contest, which most likely contributed towards their high televote score, as well as helping them chart across Europe after the contest. 2011 showed that by delivering a strong performance by a well-established artist, the UK can gain a respectable result. Perhaps most importantly, Blue’s placing on the scoreboard demonstrates that the UK can indeed do well in the televote, despite the ‘anti-British bias’ that is claimed to exist in the contest by many.
2014: Molly – Children of the Universe
In 2014, the BBC continued their internal selection method that had started three years prior, but changed their way of choosing the artist. Rather than selecting once-prominent artists who were past their prime (i.e. Englebert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler), the BBC made use of their BBC Introducing platform, which aims to promote and support undiscovered UK talent. BBC Introducing helped launch the careers of a range of well-known and commercially successful artists, such as Ed Sheeran, Marina and The Diamonds and London Grammar. From this platform, the BBC selected singer-songwriter Molly Smitten-Downes with the song ‘Children of the Universe’, which was written by Molly herself. ‘Children of the Universe’ was well received ahead of the contest, with the entry being consistently high in the betting odds, leading to a sense of optimism across the UK fans and the BBC. On the night, Molly closed the Grand Final with her song, and the UK came 17th with 40 points. Some were disappointed with the UK’s result this year, however, this entry is still regarded as one of the best British entries of recent times.
The UK’s 2014 effort is what many fans believe the BBC should replicate each year. BBC Introducing is an excellent opportunity to discover raw talent and, by using this platform, the BBC put forward one of their most original and authentic entries in years. It also highlights why the UK’s artist should have creative control over the entry, as unfortunately the BBC has not allowed this in recent years, which has led to many prominent artists refusing to take part in the contest despite being otherwise interested. Overall, despite being underrated in the final results, the UK can be proud of what they put forward for Eurovision 2014.
2017: Lucie Jones – Never Give Up on You
After achieving mostly modest results with internal selections, in 2016 reverted to having a national selection, which was rebranded as Eurovision: You Decide. The introduction of You Decide did not appear to make a large difference to the UK’s Eurovision scores versus previous years, with Joe & Jake coming 24th in the 2016 Grand Final. However, the BBC still had confidence in You Decide, and continued with this same national final format the following year. Eurovision: You Decide 2017 featured six potential artists, all of whom had competed in The X Factor at some stage, including X Factor 2009 finalist Lucie Jones. In the end, You Decide 2017 was won by Lucie with a song entitled ‘Never Give Up On You’, written by none other than Eurovision 2013 winner Emmelie de Forest. Following feedback from fans, ‘Never Give Up On You’ was revamped to give it a more Eurovision-competitive sound. In the Grand Final, Lucie achieved a respectable 15th place overall, coming 10th with the juries.
2017 is the last year (and the only time since 2014) that the UK has avoided coming Bottom 5 in the results. There are many reasons for this; in the first instance, ‘Never Give Up On You’ was a good quality and well-composed song, written by a former Eurovision winner. The revamp of the song was done right, with the revamped version having a thicker texture instrumentation and a stronger atmosphere than before that most likely improved its chances in the contest. Lucie Jones was an experienced performer who had been performing on the West End since her X Factor stint, and was able to deliver an impactful performance with a flawless vocal. The staging for the entry was sublime and visually distinct to any of the other entries on the night; Lucie performed within a ‘seashell’ of mirrors that reflected the golden galaxy effect displayed by the LED screens. Perhaps this performance merited a Top 10 placing but, nonetheless, 2017 can definitely be considered one of the better UK efforts of recent times.
What can the UK do next time?
We’ve seen a few examples of the UK getting it right in recent times, but that begs the question, why do the UK keep getting it wrong so often? Following the worst-case scenario of nil points coming to fruition this year, it’s clear that the UK needs to reconsider its approach to Eurovision going forward. Here is a summary of some lessons that we can take from the entries that have been somewhat successful:
Put the effort into selecting an artist and song.
It may sound obvious, but the BBC will achieve better results by putting the time and effort into selecting a song that is Eurovision-competitive and an artist who will be able to deliver on the night.
If you’re going to do a national final, do it properly.
National finals can be hit or miss (particularly in the case of the UK), but a well-produced and well-formatted national selection can be the right mechanism for success in Eurovision. The BBC should try to avoid single-show national selections, and instead consider a format that comprises a series of live shows, as was done in 2009. This not only increases the chances of selecting the right song and artist for Eurovision, but demonstrates that the broadcaster is taking the competition seriously.
Promote, promote, promote!
Promotion isn’t always a guarantee of success, some entries are tirelessly promoted across Europe and still end up bombing in the contest, others have barely any exposure and still manage to do well or even win. Nevertheless, the BBC should always ensure their entry is well-promoted across Europe, and a promotional tour for the artist is good way to do this. The BBC might want to consider releasing their entry slightly earlier in the selection season, rather than in mid-March, to allow the opportunity to promote their entry at other countries’ national finals.
Staging needs to be on point and impactful.
The UK cannot afford to have underwhelming staging for their entries. The staging can be elaborate and expensive as it was in 2011 and 2017, or it can be simple straightforward as it was in 2009 (although, ideally without elbowing a violinist in the face!), but overall it needs to be impactful.
Consider up-and-coming talent.
Choosing ‘big names’ to represent the UK is generally a good idea, but it does not guarantee success at the contest. Viewers may recognise a name like Bonnie Tyler when watching the contest, but they are not going to vote for them on name recognition alone. Therefore, the BBC should consider to new sources of talent as part of their selection process, as they did in 2014 when they used BBC Introducing to select their artist. There are a range of up-and-coming artists who potentially have a lot to offer to the contest; by selecting one of these and allowing them creative control over the entry, the BBC can be confident that their entries are authentic and stand out in the contest.
As we enter the 2022 season, we are still unclear about what the BBC are planning to do for the upcoming Eurovision in Italy. Hopefully, they can learn from some of these recent examples of getting it right, and apply this in their delivery of the UK entry for Eurovision 2022.