24 April 2016
Christer Bjorkman, Sweden’s Melodifestivalen and Eurovision guru, made headlines during the week when he slammed Terry Wogan, Britain’s former BBC commentator, for making Eurovision irrelevant and kitsch to a generation of British people. Wogan’s antics of mockery and derision “totally spoiled” the show, caused the British to send poor entries, and if it were up to Bjorkman, Wogan would never have been hired.
“He did this for 28 years and his commentary always forced the mockery side and there is a grown-up generation in Britain that doesn’t know anything better.
“He raised a generation of viewers believing this was a fun kitsch show that had no relevance whatsoever.
“It totally spoiled Eurovision. Because of what Terry Wogan did, the UK don’t put in their best efforts.
“But it’s the BBC who wanted him and let him, they did not stop him. He did his best and he did what he did very well, make fun of something, but if I would have been in charge I would never have chosen him.”
It must be noted that Sweden sits at the polar end of the Eurovision spectrum compared to Britain. It takes Eurovision very seriously, meaning it aims to send quality artists and songs every year. It’s no surprise that its national selection process, Melodifestivalen, is one of the biggest and most popular domestic contests each year. TV ratings for it are huge, and even more so for Eurovision. While Australia brags of a million viewers, that’s only 4% of the population compared to 60% or more that watch in Sweden. It’s no surprise then that Bjorkman would have serious concerns with the likes of Wogan and the BBC in general.
Does Bjorkman have a point? If the “defence” of Wogan in Britain’s Daily Mirror is any indication, it’s a resounding yes. Claiming “Wogan’s commentary was indeed why any sane person chose to watch Eurovision in the 70s and 80s”, the Daily Mirror listed Wogan’s “best” Eurovision phrases:
1) Every year I expect it to be less foolish, and every year it is more so.
2) That’s the whole point of it, of course, to sneer at the foreigners.
3) They will have to shoot me to stop it. I shall cling to the wreckage for as long as I can.
4) It’s supposed to be bad. And the worse it is, the more fun it is.
5) Every year I go to see it and every year I say: ‘Isn’t it terrible? It’s worse than last year!’
You could accept that in the 70s and 80s there needed to be a lighter side to a contest often dour and serious, or too dowdy. In the 90s, and especially the 21st century, with the inclusion of public voting, Eurovision has transformed itself into a far more contemporary and exciting show. There’s no need for many of the snide and demeaning remarks.
In later years, Wogan wasn’t just disrespectful, he was often rude, particularly with his penchant for talking over songs. Eurovision became more about him than the music. While much of the talking was over the start of the songs and before they were fully completed, at times he’d inject himself during a song. It was the height of rudeness and arrogance and, yes, totally spoiled the show.
It wasn’t just Britain that suffered, Wogan left a terrible legacy in Australia, where arguably the regard for the contest is much lower. If Christer Bjorkman ever saw the Australian broadcast or the official local website, he’d collapse in horror. So much of the promotion is about seeing tacky acts, silly costumes and engaging in drinking games.
When Wogan retired in 2008 and SBS took over the commentary in 2009, they continued the flavour of looking for any moment for mockery or ridicule. It spoke volumes about their intentions that Sam Pang, a 100% Eurovision apostate, was chosen as one of the commentators because of his alleged comedic value. Julia Zemiro, while a fan of the event, seemed unsure of her role, and often cringed with her ignorance. As a pair they were amateurish and often embarrassing.
Julia and Sam have found their groove in recent years, and particularly with Australia directly involve, are forced to view it more seriously and be more informative overall. The website has also mirrored this effort; only occasionally dipping into cheap frivolity. That’s fine, because the audience here knows little else and it could take a generation for the mentality to change. Fans more engaged with the actual music always have the official ESC site and several good independent sites anyway.
In Wogan’s later years, he also grew very cynical of the bloc voting, which no doubt exacerbated his antics. The “contest” aspect of the contest had become a farce, with the semi finals in particularly ruined. Why be serious about something if it can’t be serious about itself? ESC was slowing losing all credibility and Wogan’s increasing irreverence was a barometer for it.
The low point was the 2008 contest in Serbia, in which, right from the start, the whole of Europe seemed to know Russia would win. Even worse, and the real bane of bloc voting, the standard of entries was poor. Wogan had already announced 2008 would be his final year, so it was fitting both he and the contest hit their nadir in the same years, forcing remedial action for both. Graham Norton came in for Wogan, while ESC reintroduced juries for a 50% voting stake and eventually would reform the semi final draw to evenly spread “vote friendly” countries.
The contest has improved substantially both in credibility and songs, as have Britain’s entrants. While results haven’t been spectacular, you can’t argue against the names selected of Jade Ewen and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Blue, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bonnie Tyler, Molly and this year’s Joe and Jake. This year also saw a return to a public selection, so maybe Bjorkman is right there too, that a change of attitude brings a change in the quality of entry.
Wogan died in January of this year so it’s a shame he can’t defend himself. No doubt he could have responded with something witty. Remember, Wogan was at times brilliant, and certainly did his bit to help promote Eurovision in Britain and in Australia. His only problem being that he outlived his usefulness and couldn’t adapt to a quickly changing contest and the audience it was drawing. The approach of snide sneering and mockery had reached its limit for audience capture, and for Eurovision to go to the next level in both the UK and Australia, it needed a presentation more balanced and more respectful.