Shining a light on the United Kingdom: 60 Years at Eurovision

Jade Ewen represented the UK in 2009 BBC
Geneva, Switzerland

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the first participation of Austria, Denmark and the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest. Denmark last won the contest in 2013 and hosted the competition in Copenhagen the following year, when Austria won for the first time since 1966. The UK hasn’t fared so well in recent years and 2017 also marks the 20th anniversary since the United Kingdom last won the Eurovision Song Contest with Love Shine a Light performed by Katrina and the Waves. With just a few weeks to go until the UK selects its song for Kyiv, we look back at some of the UK’s memorable moments in the competition.

The UK joined the Eurovision party in 1957, one year after the contest began. Contrary to popular fan myths, the UK did not intend to enter in 1956 as the BBC had previously created their own separate contest, the Festival Of British Popular Songs, and elements of that contest were incorporated into the 1957 Eurovision Song Contest. Patricia Bredin flew the flag for the UK in Frankfurt with one of the shortest songs ever to grace the Eurovision stage, All, which finished seventh out of ten.

The following year the BBC was the first choice to stage the third edition of the contest, but following a failure to get an agreement from various artistic unions, they withdrew their bid in the summer of 1957, and the Dutch broadcaster then took over. Initially the BBC planned to submit an entry in 1958 but subsequently withdrew, they returned in 1959 and have been present at every single Eurovision Song Contest final since. A string of top ten results ensued following the UK’s return to the competition, including five second places, before the country scored its first victory with Sandie Shaw in 1967.

The UK has finished second more times than any other country in the Eurovision Song Contest, 15 times in total. However, the second place in 1968 was a particularly disappointing result for Cliff Richard who was widely tipped to win in London with his song Congratulations. The UK lost to Spain’s La La La performed by Massiel on the last vote. Following the contest Cliff joked that he congratulated the Spanish representative by “shaking her warmly by the throat”. It wouldn’t be long before the UK was to triumph again though, although unfortunately for Lulu, her song Boom Bang-a-Bang, had to share first prize with three other countries in one of the most controversial moments in Eurovision voting.

The 1970s saw the UK in the top four every year apart from on two occasions, 1978 and 1979. The UK won the contest by a landslide in 1976 with Save Your Kisses For Me performed by Brotherhood of Man meaning that the competition returned to London in 1977.

The 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast live from Wembley, was a challenge for the EBU as it took place a month later than originally planned due to industrial action at the BBC. It was also a challenge for the director of the show, as at the last minute various broadcasters objected to the planned postcards, as they showed their artists and delegations wining and dining and enjoying themselves at an official BBC party, and it was felt that viewers at home wouldn’t be too happy seeing their money being spent this way, so instead viewers were treated to shots of the audience, some of whom looked a little uninterested between the songs.

Co-Co’s entry in Paris in 1978, The Bad Old Days, proved prophetic when the group scored the UK’s worst placing in the Eurovision Song Contest up to that point. Singer Cheryl Baker was part of the group Co-Co and vowed never to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest again. That was until she was invited to join Bucks Fizz, a pop group formed specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest. Their performance of Making Your Mind Up in 1981 is one of the most iconic in Eurovision history and their skirt-ripping trick inspired dozens of costume changes and gimmicks in the years that followed.

The 1980s were not the UK’s finest era compared to the previous two decades however the country did finish in the top ten every year apart from 1987 when Rikki took over Co-Co’s record and took the UK to 13th place with Only The Light.

1988 provided one of the most exciting moments ever in Eurovision voting when Switzerland’s Celine Dion beat the UK’s Scott Fitzgerald by just one point, again, like 1968, on the last vote. Immediately after the show Scott put aside any personal disappointment and congratulated the winner, telling the RTE camera crew that “the best, most professional lady won”. More recently he reflected on his experiences in Dublin when he appeared at a fan event in the UK and looks back on his Eurovision experience with fondness.

The 1990s were a time of change in the Eurovision Song Contest as more countries participated and the intensity of the competition increased. The decade saw a conscious effort from the UK to experiment with different musical styles and saw the country enter a rap song in 1995, Love City Groove.

Gina G’s entry in the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest, Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit, proved that you don’t need to win Eurovision to have a massive hit. The song went to number one in the UK, sold millions around the world and was even nominated for a Grammy Award.

The UK may not win very often but when it does, it wins big. In 1997 Katrina and the Waves lifted the trophy in Dublin with Love Shine a Light, 70 points ahead of its nearest rival, Ireland. The landslide victory was the first for the UK since Bucks Fizz won in the same city, 16 years prior.

The following year the contest was held in Birmingham for the first time in what was a ground-breaking production by the BBC. It was also the year that the country finished second for the 15th, and to date, last time. It also marked the eighth time the contest had been hosted in the UK, a record that they still hold to date, having also taken on the task several times when other broadcasters had declined the opportunity.

The new millennium saw Nicki French take to the stage in Stockholm with Don’t Play That Song Again. Despite being widely tipped to do well, she finished 16th on the night, taking on the onerous record of scoring the UK’s worst placing in the contest. Nicki is the host of the annual London Eurovision Party and regularly appears on TV around the time of the contest and speaks highly of her experiences in Stockholm. 

Just three years after Nicki's 16th placing the UK would plunge to new depths with a double whammy when Jemini not only finished last but also scored zero with Cry Baby. Keen to ensure that the country did not face the humiliation of zero points again, the BBC overhauled its national selection format the following year. However this did not translate into success on the scoreboard and UK remained well outside the top ten in the years that followed and finished last again in 2008.

2009 saw world-renown composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber team up with legendary songwriter Diane Warren. Jade Ewen was chosen to perform It’s My Time, in a new selection format which also saw Rita Ora participate in the early rounds. Jade took the UK to the top five and to date, it remains the UK’s best placing since the country finished third in 2002.

Between 2011 and 2015 the BBC opted for an internal selection which saw a number of new and established acts represent the UK. Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler may have sold millions but they failed to make the top ten of the Eurovision Final by a considerable margin. On the other hand, Blue’s I Can did see the country score a top five placing with the public vote, but finished 11th overall.

In 2016 the UK brought back its national final for the first time since 2010 and saw the duo Joe and Jake take to the stage in Stockholm with You’re Not Alone. The juries rewarded them with a 17th place, including a memorable 12 points from Malta. However, after all the votes were in, the pair finished in the bottom five on the night. Joe and Jake continue to perform together and consider the Eurovision Song Contest to be an experience that they will always remember.

The search is on to find Joe and & Jake’s successor in the Eurovision Song Contest. Who will be the 60th act to represent the United Kingdom? The UK national selection, Eurovision: You Decide, will take place on Friday 27th January and the six competing entries will be unveiled in the coming weeks. For more details visit the BBC website.

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Måns Zelmerlöw and Petra Mede hosted the two Semi-Finals and Grand Final in 2016.

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