I have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will be able to choose its own Eurovision entrant and be proud that we chose them. I have a dream that one day talented singers and songwriters will look to the British national final as a worthwhile contest to enter. I have a dream that one day we will have a national final that is worth watching on its own merit. I’ll cross the stream. I have a dream.
I’m sure most British Eurovision fans share my hopes for a better tomorrow, however unrealistic they may be. I doubt I’m alone either in having my own specific ideas for how the BBC should do a national final. With the announcement that the BBC is going to return to a public selection for Stockholm 2016 (while being typically secretive about the details), we have the chance to dream.
I wouldn’t normally indulge into this sort of fantasy head-of-delegationing for fear it would come across as vanity, but the BBC pretty much matched the first part of my plans spot on with their announcement on Wednesday. It’s no use saying “I thought of that” after the event, so this is a handy way of getting my method down in writing in the hope I look clever later. That’s probably still vanity, but of a different sort.
1. Get your songs from a variety of sources
If the BBC are going to ask the public to choose the entry, an open submission process is a necessity. By inviting the great unwashed to have a go, the contest is given legitimacy. It’s difficult to claim a song represents a nation if the options given come from a narrow cabal of songwriters.
That said, there’s a strong chance that the songs submitted could end up being fucking awful. One just has to have a look at the Swiss song portal to see the sort of entries you can get when you go for a fully open process. There needs to be a backup. We need that narrow cabal.
The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) is as good a cabal as you can get. They are an organised pool of professional songwriting talent who will take the contest seriously. Well-known songwriters will be much more willing to enter than big name performers. Entering Eurovision is not going to ruin the career of someone who professionally sits in the background.
Finally, it’s also worth having input from the record industry. Songs that have been sitting at the back of Sony or Universal’s cupboards probably won’t provide the strongest element to proceedings, but it’s worth getting them involved. If nothing else, it will provide connections for the other artists and their songs. At the end of the day, you want to be able to get some of these songs in the charts and they can only help.
The BBC have pretty much got this all right. I wouldn’t have asked OGAE to filter through the public submissions, based on their reputation for enjoying cheesy pop and ballads with a key change. While they may yet surprise me with their tastes and will at least filter out most novelty acts, their inclusion seems more a way for the BBC to palm off the responsibility and avoid the blame.
2. Promote it
This is one thing I can criticise the BBC for. I have yet to see Graham Norton on the One Show sofa telling people how to enter their songs. I have yet to see an advert between shows. Hopefully that’s coming, because having an open submission is pretty useless if no one knows it’s happening. I’m sure there are a lot of great undiscovered bands and songwriters out there in the UK, but I doubt that many check the BBC Eurovision homepage on a daily basis. If the submission isn’t promoted, the public entrants become a self-selecting bunch and we get songs from people that have been waiting for their Eurovision chance. It’s a fair bet those will be in what they consider to be “Eurovision style”.
Once we have our acts and the whole show is set up then there’s a new promotional challenge. The BBC have to get people at home to watch it. A competition of songs you haven’t heard before by artists you don’t know can be a tough sell. The simple solution is to let people get to know the songs.
I’d launch the project by having a day where all the selected songs get premiered on BBC radio. Grimmy and Evans can have one each in the morning, with Scott Mills and Ken Bruce each championing another, then other people introducing the others (can you tell I don’t listen to either radio 1 or 2?). Add in further coverage on the One Show, campaigns by the acts on Twitter and Facebook, and BBC adverts directing you to listen to the songs on the website and you might get some public interest.
3. Put it on a big stage
Now we come to the show itself. I think one of the most important things the BBC can do with the show is differentiate it visually from the X-Factor and The Voice. That means getting it out of the studio. The show should look more like a concert than a tv programme. They can easily sell out the Hammersmith Apollo and it would be the perfect venue. It’s not too big and expensive to run and the BBC are used to filming there. It can move around in future years, but it feels right to have the first one in the capital.
4. Sell records
A very simple thing. At some point in the night the host can casually mention that all the songs are available to download from itunes/google play and wherever else you buy music. If the songs are good, they will chart. Måns Zelmerlöw can make the top 20 off one Saturday night performance. Our entrant, who in my plan will already have had pre-promotion, can do the same. Voice cover versions have already performed the same trick, so there’s no reason to think a strong national final song can’t sell in big numbers if released on national final night.
5. Have a jury, not judges
Pretty much a no-brainer. I don’t think there are any fans out there who are interested in hearing what John Barrowman, Bruno Tonioli or Carrie Grant think of each song after it is performed. The audience won’t be told what to think at Eurovision, so they shouldn’t be led in their voting at the national final. Plus, it’s dull and it’s already done on every rubbish reality karaoke show going.
We should have a jury, though, whose sole function is to give out votes at the end. Include well-known music industry figures: DJs, music journalists (who will then handily write nice things about the show), songwriters, producers, promoters. No singers please. There are already singers on the stage. We don’t need a big star looking down on them as if they’re better than them. Even if it’s only Lulu.
6. Don’t pick a loser
I won’t bore anyone with my convoluted scoring system for deciding the winner, but one thing I think should be avoided is a last place. We can do what the Danes and Norwegians do and send the top 4 to a superfinal before we give out voting figures. It’s a big enough risk for an artist to attach their name to the toxic Eurovision brand without adding the extra ignominy of coming last. This brings me to…
7. Don’t mention the E word
This is a hard one. Eurovision doesn’t have the best reputation in the UK. If you can somehow make a Eurovision national final without talking about Eurovision all the time it might help to make the show a success. You don’t need Graham Norton to host it. Other hosts are available who aren’t so linked to the camp Euro cheesefest of public perception. You don’t need a montage of the best and worst of ESC history. The more you reference ABBA as an example of ESC breeding success, the more desperate you sound. You certainly don’t need to call the show “Eurovision: Your Country Needs To Make It’s Mind Up for Europe”.
The show ought to be able to stand alone as a song contest. Over time a show like this could get good ratings if it’s not seen as Eurovision’s little cousin. You can add more prizes other than just Eurovision entry. Give them money, give them a spot on the BBC’s Glastonbury stage, give them airplay, give them a little trophy. It would be great if the focus of the programme would just simply be on finding a good song. Worrying about whether it fits Eurovision is an unnecessary distraction. If the UK like it, so will Europe.
This last element of my wishlist has largely been and gone. They can still call the show something different and focus less on past glories, but the announcement has strictly focused on Eurovision and quotes Mr Norton. There are still another five elements of my national final dream that have a chance of coming true over the coming months. Let’s hope I don’t wake up screaming.