Anti-Thatcherism, Eastern-bloc conspiracies, revenge for Brexit. For more than 20 years, there have been countless theories as to why the United Kingdom failed to make a (positive) impact at the Eurovision Song Contest.
But then, at the weekend, Sam Ryder came second in the 66th Eurovision — first in the jury vote and fifth in the public vote — and all those theories were exposed as being complete and utter guff.
“All those people wanging on about Europe hating us,” BBC host Graham Norton said. “I kept saying ‘No, with the right song and the right performer in the right year, we can do it’. And we did.”
The UK are not the only ones with a propensity to lean on a defeatist — at times even paranoid — rhetoric when Eurovision doesn't go their way. We are also guilty of that.
In 2008, when Dustin the Turkey flopped in Belgrade, it was because the other countries voting just didn’t get our sense of humour.
When Nicky Byrne failed to qualify in 2016, he suggested it was partially down to political voting and that ‘Western European countries’ were at a disadvantage. And when Brooke Scullion did not make it through this year’s semi-finals, viewers were indignant. ‘‘We wuz robbed!’ they harrumphed. Some even suggested there was no point in trying anymore. We peaked in the 1990s — why bother? We are never going to win anyway!
Look, I get the collective national frustration; who amongst us didn’t shout ‘Ah, for feck’s sake!’ when Serbia took the last spot? But also, let’s catch ourselves on. It’s so churlish to whine about fairness when we don’t get the exact result we want.
Instead of giving out yards, maybe we should be asking why is it that since coming last in 2013 (with Ryan Dolan’s Only Love Survives), we have only qualified for the final once, with Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s Together placing 16th in 2018?
Which of these three hypotheses seems more likely:
— The rest of Europe (and Australia) are biased against Ireland and incapable of recognizing our profound musical genius.
— The Song Contest is partisan (a misconception that has been proven to be untrue countless times). As we are an island with no land bordering neighbours, aside from Northern Ireland, we are at an immediate disadvantage.
— There is one other possibility. Maybe, just maybe, RTÉ didn't run an effective campaign.
Eurovision has massively grown in size and scale since the 1990, and our strategy does not appear to have evolved at the same speed.
Other countries' broadcasters, such as Italy and Sweden, turn to national record companies to find artists and run televised national song contests to select a winner. This means the act they send over has a fanbase, a hit song, and plenty of buzz around it.
It’s hard for Ireland to compete with that — sometimes it feels as if those acts have a 200m lead on us. But it’s not impossible.
The BBC changed tack this year. On its website, it describes the secret to the success as: ‘A great song, a performer who could sell it, a production that caught the eye’ but most importantly ‘a months-long diplomatic tour’.
The selection of Sam Ryder, the most popular UK musician on TikTok (with 12.5 million followers), was a shrewd move. The Beeb also enlisted the help of TaP Management (who work with Ellie Goulding) to get involved in the promotion, and Ryder embarked on a European promo tour before arriving in Turin.
“It was thinking about it like a political campaign as much as a music one,” Ben Mawson from TaP told The Guardian. “One of the things I learned about Eurovision was that San Marino and Malta have as much voting power as Germany and France. And it’s easier to do promo in Malta… versus trying to win over the whole of Germany.”
The UK received one of their highest combined scores from Malta: 12 points from the televote and eight points from the jury.
While Brooke and the Irish delegation did do promotional gigs and interviews, it was not on the scale of the UK.
Theirs was a strategic and thought-out campaign, on top of having a brilliant singer in a snazzy bedazzled pearl jumpsuit.
Ryders’s co-writer Amy Wadge thinks ditching the defeatist attitude was key to their success.
"For a long time we, as Brits, built this thing up of, 'Well, we're just going to lose'. But this year the thinking was, 'How about we don't do that...?"
A fatalistic Eurovision outlook is a downer, and it also lets broadcasters, like RTÉ, off the hook instead of holding them to account.
So maybe next year we should stop complaining about the contest not going our way or reminiscing about past glory.
Who knows, perhaps the UK’s success will put some Eurovision fire back in our bellies. Lord knows we need it.