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Your Country Needs You gets underway  
The search for the act to represent us at Eurovision has now begun...
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Eurovision 2009

There’s a new gung-ho, can-do mood in the UK’s Eurovision HQ this year. From Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s accepting the poisoned chalice to write our song and his Churchillian appeal to the nation’s singers to enter the show to find a performer, and Graham Norton taking over as commentator, we are taking this thing seriously at last. OK, perhaps not too seriously, as the tongue-in-cheek homage to Dad‘s Army in the opening credits of Your Country Needs You, with all those Union Jack arrows pushing eastwards across Europe, demonstrated.

But when it comes to Eurovision these days, Eastern Europe is indeed our musical foe. In a matter of years it has annexed the contest with its cultural, neighbourly and political voting, plus all those expats living around Europe and voting for their particular motherland (why else would Ireland keep giving 12 points to Lithuania?).

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s offensive, though, has been more one of charm to win foreign hearts and minds over to the UK cause. Mission impossible? “Research and advance, LW, ” the bespectacled Ms Frobisher, our gel in the bunker, crisply advised the Lord.

No sooner than you could sing Putin on the Ritz, Lord Andrew was off in a private jet to Moscow to meet the Daddy Bear of them all, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, while Graham Norton sniffed out tourist tat and bemused Russians in Red Square. Despite evading the question about why Eastern Europe always votes in its own back yard with the steely expression of a world leader, Mr Putin promised to vote for the UK in May. Mind you, he never seemed to look ALW in the eye, and I’ll bet he had his fingers crossed behind his back.

Potentially more useful in terms of votes was the vow from last year’s winner, sultry hunk Dima Bilan, to get his fans to vote for us – he‘s a big star and has legions of them. Dima triumphed in Belgrade writhing around on the stage while an Olympic Gold medallist skater twirled round him on a patch of ice the size of a Bucks Fizz skirt.

Perhaps we could get Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy to do something similar for the UK entry this year? Or we could take a leaf out of Frenchman Sebastian Tellier‘s book and drive a vehicle on stage. What’s Lewis Hamilton doing in May?

So on from Russia went those red, white and blue arrows to Poland and Hungary, where their love of Lord Lloyd Webber knows no bounds and douze points is seemingly in the proverbial bag. That we should take the contest more seriously was the constant message from abroad, including an awkward-looking group of foreign ambassadors in London (and the Beeb was even spoiling them with some Ferrero Rocher).

It might seem obvious but it‘s an important point. Having studied Russian and visited the Soviet Union in the Seventies, I recognise the wisdom of Lord Andrew’s remark that: “Eastern Europe takes the contest very seriously but we just laugh at it. When they were part of the Communist zone, Eurovision was a beacon of light for them and I think they resent the fact that we just make a joke of it.” It‘s also a question of expectation from a nation with the best pop music in the world to bring something half-decent to the Eurovision table.

But there is change afoot here in Blighty (though perhaps the BBC accountants don‘t actually want us to win the thing as it‘s costing Russia 28 million euros to stage the contest) and there‘s no time for whingeing. Albania and Turkey have already chosen their songs for goodness sake!

So now the battle is on to find who will represent the UK at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium on May 16. Having waded through a swathe of submitted videos of the good, the bad and the ungainly, held auditions and workshops, Andrew and record industry executive Colin Barlow (who has managed Girls Aloud and Take That) have narrowed the field down to six acts: a capella group Emperors of Soul, twins Francine and Nicola and soloists Mark, Damien, Charlotte and Jade (about all of whom, more very soon).

As they say in Russia: Vsyevo koroshevo! (Good luck).

Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967)

Mark Cook is a journalist and theatre critic for the Guardian Guide and The Big Issue

Posted on: 5th January 2009

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