No kitsch please, we're British: UK torn on glam Eurovision
Competition expands: Australia in competition, U.S. to broadcast final
Britons are about to vote in a poll that cuts to the heart of their country's conflicted relationship with Europe.
The issue is not the U.K's membership in the European Union — subject of a June 23 referendum — but this week's Eurovision Song Contest, an annual celebration of bling, baubles and bubblegum pop that pits nation against nation for the continent's musical crown.
Saturday's grand final — which follows a semi-final on Thursday — is likely to be watched by almost 200 million viewers across Europe, but in pop as in politics, Britain stands apart. U.K. viewers will tune in, too — but with sarcastic commentary, guilty pleasure at all the cheesy Euro-pop, and the suspicion Britain is not going to emerge on top.
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John Kennedy O'Connor, author of the competition's official history, said many Britons regard Eurovision "as kitsch, camp, a bad show for novelty songs," while other countries are more willing to give praise.
"It's not that they take it deathly seriously," he said. "It's that they have an eye for what is ridiculous and a respect for what is good."
A launchpad for ABBA, Céline Dion
First staged in 1956, Eurovision helped launch the careers of ABBA — 1974 winners with Waterloo — and Canadian chanteuse Céline Dion, who won under a Swiss flag in 1988.
Britain is a five-time Eurovision champion, and in the 1960s sent big names including Lulu and Cliff Richard to fly the Union Jack. But the U.K. has not won the contest since 1997, when Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves took the prize.
In recent years, Britain has tended to languish in the bottom half of the rankings — and many in the U.K. blame politics for their poor showing.
Eurovision strives to remain above controversy, banning pointedly political lyrics and flags, but the contest faces perennial accusations of regional bloc-voting and geopolitical games.
Winners are decided by the votes of viewers and national juries, and regional alliances are often evident.
Russia can generally rely on support from former Soviet republics, while Greece and Cyprus routinely give each other maximum points, as do the Nordic and Baltic nations.
Some say this is the result of neighbours sharing similar musical tastes, but many in Britain see more sinister forces at work. Britain is seen to have few natural allies in Europe, apart from Ireland. In 2003, when Britain received the dreaded "nul points" — not a single vote — BBC Eurovision presenter Terry Wogan blamed Britain's dismal result on a backlash against the unpopular Iraq war.
Wogan, who died in January, hosted the BBC's Eurovision coverage for more than 25 years, and his skeptical, sarcastic commentary contributed hugely to British viewers' enjoyment of the show.
But it often riled other nations. Christer Bjorkman, one of the producers of this year's contest in Stockholm, said last month that Wogan's "mocking" attitude led a generation of Britons to view Eurovision as irrelevant, and stopped the country sending strong acts.
"It's a lot easier to joke than to win," Bjorkman said.
This year's U.K. entry is Joe and Jake, two likable but untested lads who teamed up after appearing on TV talent show The Voice. Few expect them to triumph over slick performers including French singer Amir and Russian former boyband star Sergey Lazarev. The Russian is bookies' favourite to win with You Are the Only One, a pulsing techno-anthem staged with dazzling visual effects.
Eurovision sets sights beyond Europe
For all their grumbling, few Britons want to drop out of Eurovision, whose BBC broadcast attracts more than 8 million viewers. Prime Minister David Cameron was even asked in the House of Commons whether a vote to leave the EU would imperil membership in the contest, whose participants include countries outside the 28-nation EU — and even outside Europe.
"Given that Israel and Azerbaijan and anyone anywhere near Europe seems to be able to enter — and Australia — then I think we're pretty safe from that one," Cameron said.
But O'Connor said another defeat could reinforce Britain's sense of drifting apart from the rest of Europe — just as Eurovision is setting its sights even wider.
This year's final will be broadcast in the U.S. for the first time, on Viacom's Logo! network, and will feature a half-time performance from Justin Timberlake.
"My fear is on Saturday night when the U.K. gets another kicking, it's going to be 'You see? Everyone in Europe hates us,"' O'Connor said.
"We hear that every year. They don't ever say, 'Actually, you know what? We sent another rotten song."'