SO, even enlisting the help of a singer who has sold more than 150 million records wasn’t enough. Not even Engelbert Humperdinck, not even The Hump, could do it for us. Europe once again looked the other way last night as the United Kingdom’s soul searching quest for a Eurovision Song Contest winner threatened to go on and on and on. Humperdinck, with the song “Love Will Set You Free”, mustered just 12 points at the Crystal Hall in Baku – a solitary chip from Belgium, two from Latvia, four thrown our way from Ireland and a welcome five from Estonia.
Even the Jedward twins, singing for Ireland for a second year in a row, trampled on that lowly score. It’s been 15 years now since the UK captured the Eurovision crown, but it’s not as if the formula of sending into battle a 76-year-old crooner was necessarily misguided. Age, it turns out, is no barrier to a more respectable score in Eurovision. Humperdinck is the same age as the lead singer of the Buranova Babushkas, a circle of grandmothers from a remote Russian village, dancing in traditional lime bark shoes, who came second.
In his final years as the BBC’s commentator/cutting remark generator, Terry Wogan would grumble about the Eastern European bloc’s voting, but even those theories could not explain what happened in Azerbaijan last night, with Sweden surging away to an emphatic victory.
The Scandinavians have a proud Eurovision pedigree of their own to defend. This was their fifth win, matching the UK’s number of winners; a last laugh on all of those who mocked their entrant on Twitter as “Claudia Winkleman dancing like a crab”. The Claudia Winkleman lookalike they were referring to was the thick-fringed Loreen, who sang a clubby song called “Euphoria”. She said she “freaking loved” everybody who had voted for her.
Away from the dance floor, she was one of the few participants who did not put their fingers in their ears, as debates raged about Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the run-up to the contest.
It was reported that she had even met activists opposed to government clampdowns on freedom of expression in the days before performing. Local authorities had insisted in response that this kitschest of annual events should not be politicised. Loreen was asked later for her thoughts, to which she said: “There are two parts of me. One that is private and one that is my work that I’m doing here. Just today. I want to keep the focus on this energy that we created right now.”
Eurovision is never short of that energy and there was no difference in Baku, with the customary sights of gymnast dancers, performers blowing kisses into cameras at every turn and pyrotechnic brass instruments. But while Eurovision’s elements have stayed broadly the same, the days when the United Kingdom – Remember Lulu? Remember Bucks Fizz? – stood a chance of winning seemed to be gone. Humperdinck did have to sing first, a bad draw – nobody has won from there – but his final score meant only Norway fared worse on the night. This second-from-last finish follows three occasions in the past 10 years when the UK has finished bottom of the heap altogether. You have to go back to 1997 to find a UK win with Katrina and the Waves, a time when Tony Blair had only just got his feet under the table at No 10 and Princess Diana was still with us. On that score, it is fortunate for fans that the United Kingdom’s status in the competition means it cannot be relegated. The upside, too, is that there will be no extra expense in staging next year’s event as winners.
The joke too close to comfort backstage was that Greece finance ministers were desperate for their act not to win and face a bill of anything up to £30m to play hosts next year. The Swedes will now have to bail us all out of that one.