When Sam Ryder took the stage at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, few if any predicted the United Kingdom would be hosting this year. It was a foregone conclusion Ukraine would win, given the huge outpouring of love for the country which, in spite of being at war, still managed to compete in the contest. But try as the plucky country might, sadly it just wasn’t possible for Ukraine to host this year.
Surprisingly the UK’s entrant, Sam Ryder, won the jury vote (even beating Ukraine) and came fifth in the public vote (overwhelmingly won by Ukraine) meaning an overall second place, so duly stepped in to host the contest.
No key change this year – but a world of difference for the UK
A rather obscure fact about this year’s contest is that for the first time ever, not a single song features a key change, so often used by songwriters to give their entry a certain lift towards the end. This year the key might indeed stay the same, but there has been a seismic shift in our nation’s love of this venerable European institution.
“I’m in Space, Man – and I want to go home”, sings Ryder. And yes, the contest has indeed ‘come home’ in a sense. Liverpool will be the UK’s record breaking ninth time as host, more than any other country. Somehow, very ironically, Brexit Britain has ended up at the very centre of Europe. Well, the centre of Eurovision, at least, which of course these days includes Australia.
25 years ago
It’s 25 years since the contest was last held in the UK, following Katrina and the Waves’ victory with Love Shine A Light the year earlier. Since then, our record has been mixed, to say the least. Until this year, the public has generally been ambivalent – or downright rude – about the contest, although it regularly features in the top ten most viewed live programmes of the year. Indeed, back in 1998 in Birmingham, with 3,000 in the audience, for those in the know (or in the fan club at least), tickets were fairly easy to obtain and cost a fraction of the price that Liverpool is charging. High prices didn’t stop tickets selling out within minutes, such is the renewed enthusiasm for the contest.
I was lucky enough to win tickets for Birmingham in a competition. They were the best seats in the house and had a face value of just £60. We were even treated, for the very last time, to the joy of having a full orchestra, rather than backing tracks being used. Since 1998, a lot has changed. The contest has become a three-show super festival with around 40 countries competing for the crown.
UK: an odd choice of host?
Even though the UK came an overall second in last year’s contest and is one of the “big five” nations with a guaranteed entry in the final, getting into this country is now not as easy as it once was. Thankfully for the acts, delegations and journalists, the UK government decided to relax the visa rules. But for EU citizens, who previously just needed national ID to enter the UK, a full passport is now required to get into Brexit Britain.
Needing a passport is small fry compared to what the acts – along with the delegations and journalists – might have needed had visa requirements not been waived for the contest. Hopefully no-one will suffer the same fate as the German Punk Band Trigger Cut who fell foul of the new rules, simply because one of them was a gardener. And after last year’s visa debacle for two Ukranian orchestra tours, this year the situation has become even worse with visas being refused for the Khmelnitsky Orchestra.
Who knows, when the papers become declassified, perhaps a secret plan to hold the contest in Rwanda will be revealed. Let’s just hope that the new rules don’t put too many people off from coming to Liverpool, although with ticket and hotel prices at astonishing levels and a threatened rail strike on the big day, it might be the year for staying in and watching at home. Or perhaps at one of the many events planned throughout the country, such as Birmingham.
For those lucky enough to be in Liverpool, a myriad of accompanying events are planned, including Eurofestival. There’s also some pro-EU activity taking place on 13 May, at 2pm at Keel Wharf, organised by a coalition of pro-EU groups. If you’re interested in taking part: Thank EU for the music.
Although Birmingham certainly came to life in 1998 and gave the contest a very warm welcome, there were no royal visits and even our first openly gay minister, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture at the time, was said to give the contest a fairly wide berth.
However, in Liverpool, our newly crowned King and Queen indeed found time to visit the city even publicly unveiling the set. The couple met UK entrant Mae Muller and were “egging her on”. Presumably Muller held her counsel and didn’t mention how much she detests the government, especially a certain Mr B Johnson.
Who’s competing this year?
37 countries are competing this year, the lowest number for many years. The peak was in 2008 with 43 entries. After being booted out of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Russia and Belarus are no longer eligible to compete while Bulgaria and North Macedonia decided not to participate due to an increase in the entry fee caused by Russia no longer being involved.
The one to watch, according to the bookies at least, is Sweden. Former winner Loreen’s Tattoo is the overwhelming favourite, with odds of less than two to one. Written by a very similar team who wrote Euphoria, her 2012 winning song, she is hoping to be the first double winner since Johnny Logan in 1987.
A win for Sweden would make Eurovision fans throughout the world spontaneously combust with excitement. 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of Sweden’s first Eurovision triumph – undoubtedly the contest’s most famous winners to date. Might Abba appear in person on the Eurovision stage once more? Of course, these days, they might well appear as ABBAtars!
Picks for this year
This year, barring voting irregularities being noticed, the countries going through from the semi-finals will be picked by televoting rather than a split of juries/televoting, making the results more difficult to predict. Other than Sweden – and yes, the United Kingdom – these are the songs that the fans and bookies reckon will do well on the big night:
- Finland. After listening to this, you’ll never hear Craig Revel-Horwood say Cha Cha Cha in the same way again.
- France – Edith Piaf for a new generation. Sublime.
- Austria have decided to sing about Edgar Allan Poe. And why not. Or perhaps why?
- Croatia have sent an anti-war song, sung in Croatian, though perhaps it’s more likely to have the wider audience thinking they’ve put something in their tea.
- After the pageantry of the Coronation, Norway are keeping the theme going with their entry “Queen of Kings”.
- For anyone who has travelled in Eastern Europe wondering where the vowels went, they’ve turned up in Spain with their entry “Eaea”.
One song which sadly isn’t tipped to make it to the Grand Final is Ireland, which to me sums up the contest – “We Are One”. It’s a shame, as it’s well sung and a good anthem for the contest, especially as this year’s motto is “United In Music”, although the band did have to split from their creative director after some transphobic Tweets were unearthed.
There’s certainly no room for any anti-woke sentiment at the event often dubbed the “Gay Olympics”, which most definitely includes the trans community along with every letter LGBTQIA+ stands for. After all, who can forget Dana International’s victory in Birmingham back in 1998? Eurovision is a world of diversity, inclusion and celebration. And of course, the quirk that you can’t vote for your own country stops any jingoism going too far.
Another song I’d personally like to see make it to the final is Belgium with Gustaph’s “Because of You” which thanks everyone who has helped the LGBT+ community achieve so many advances.
As always, it isn’t over until the fat, thin, man, woman, – and whatever pronoun the Croatian entrants prefer to use – have all sung. My only prediction is that the winning song won’t contain a key change. Whether Abba get a phone call about their availability next year is another matter. Enjoy!
All songs can be previewed at the official Eurovision website. The semi-finals are on Tuesday 9 and Thursday 11 May with the Grand Final on Saturday 13 May, from 8pm. UK viewers can vote in both the Grand Final and the second semi-final.