Bernadette McNulty: Why the UK needs to take Eurovision seriously
AS leather-clad Eighties belter Bonnie Tyler lines up for Eurovision, Bernadette McNulty argues that if Britain really wants to win we need to stop thinking of it as one long ironic joke
The image that came to my mind when I heard that Bonnie Tyler was representing the UK at this year’s Eurovision song contest was one of BBC heads banging against a brick wall of failure. Following the curveball decision to hand Sixties crooner Englebert Humperdinck the mantle last year, and his resounding failure to win the prize, why on earth would we repeat the formula? Have we given up hope entirely of winning or is there, as many Europeans suspect, a kinkily masochistic bent, a “beat me now, you stern, inscrutable Continental mistress”, in our national psyche?
Tyler, like Humperdinck, feels like a name lost in time, last seen as a pint-sized, leather-clad belter on Top of the Pops some time in the early Eighties, a blonde, croaking tornado of Elnett and despair. As a child, I can remember it as the days of men and women in skintight stonewash denim and tassled leather jackets, of Cher and Meatloaf blaring from the radio, when the older kids down the working man’s club seemed to live in a fantasy of roaring motorbikes, white stilettos and dry ice, even if there was nothing on offer but buses, warm lager and saveloy sausages.
Sixty-one-year-old Tyler doesn’t look as if she has aged at all, because like Humperdinck, she always seemed old, even when she was young. She’s part of a tradition of great Celtic blues singers, from Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Lulu to Kelly Jones and Paolo Nutini. She was the salt-of-the-earth trouper from the Welsh valleys who could articulate a woman’s pain while being able to hold her drink with the fellas.
Her biggest hit, Total Eclipse of the Heart, brought the Bat out of Hell era of “epic rock” to a rasping, overwrought conclusion, re-emerging as a drunken karaoke favourite. But, like Humperdinck, her fame has continued in Europe, notably in France and Germany, where white working-class culture still reveres Eighties power ballads and big-haired matriarchal icons.
My guess is, that’s why the BBC chose Tyler. I don’t think they’ve given up, more that years of failure mean that they anxiously chase all the wrong tails. Some computer registered the words “France” and “hero” in Tyler’s back catalogue, clocked her ticket sales in lower Saxony, and came up with “douze points”.
Just look at the song choice. Penned by top American hitmakers, Believe in Me is a solid, soft-rock, country-tinged anthem of the sort that Bon Jovi or Aerosmith would kill for. Tyler delivers it perfectly, but it is completely wrong for a competition that has, for the last decade, overwhelmingly picked divas belting out contemporary Euro-trance bangers.
If we really wanted to win, we’d could just get any song the producer of Rihanna’s latest number, Calvin Harris, has tossed off in the past five years and have Charlotte Church, in her new electro-princess mode, perform it. But of course they wouldn’t touch the gig with a barge pole. Brits think Eurovision is one long ironic joke, celebrating the kind of glossy, bombastic cheese we’ve moved on from. We like our sincerity wrapped up with acoustic guitars in “authentic artist” packages such as Ed Sheeran and Emeli Sandé, not on stage in Malmö doing a dance routine dressed in silver lamé.
But for the rest of the Continent, and particularly the newest members, the Eurovision song contest is a deadly serious kind of fun, a modern pan-European folk tradition shoring up our political and economic unity, where the music of a country, not normally heard outside its borders, is given an audience of 125 million people. So when we choose Tyler, or Humperdinck, to be our national representative, having not bought their records in years, it looks to our neighbours as if we are just indulging in that other peculiarly British pastime – taking the mickey.
Bernadette McNulty Telegraph.co.uk