The United Kingdom and Eurovision: A History of Ambivalence?, by Dr Ben Bland

It’s perhaps an understatement to say that the United Kingdom has a slightly more complex relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest than many of the other competitor nations. The UK is one of the so-called “Big Five”: the five countries – also including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain – who provide so much funding for the competition that they automatically qualify for the final. The UK missed two of the first three contests (1956 and 1958) but has since appeared in every single final (a run no other country can match) and has won the contest five times (in 1967, 1969, 1976, 1981, and 1997). Only Ireland and Sweden have won more often (with France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands matching the UK’s victory tally). It has also hosted the contest a record eight times (in 1960, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1982, and 1998), even before this year’s event kicks off in Liverpool. Whilst London hosted on four of these occasions, the contest has also been held in Birmingham, Brighton, Edinburgh, and (rather more surprisingly) the well-to-do North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. When it became clear that Russia’s war in Ukraine would make it impossible for last year’s winners to host this May, the UK (as 2022 runners-up) was swift to step in despite the multi-million-pound cost. Such a lengthy history of financial and cultural participation in Eurovision might make it seem as if the UK takes Eurovision uniquely seriously – but anyone who has tuned in to watch country after country award the UK nul points in recent years knows that this does not tell the whole story. 

Surveying media coverage of Eurovision over the last sixty-five years makes it clear that hostility has often been a key feature of UK attitudes towards the contest. When the BBC first launched a webpage for its Eurovision coverage, back in May 1999, one Observer writer praised the corporation’s move as ‘a great step forward for humanity, for it means that the BBC can now gracefully abandon the telecast and put on something really classy and up to date. Dad’s Army, for instance’.[1] Similarly sneering and dismissive views were also being aired way back in the contest’s early days, when those who were hostile to the idea of greater involvement in Europe cited the contest as indicative of a continental cultural malaise – one that UK viewers were increasingly subjected to thanks to increased BBC access to European programming (through the European Broadcasting Union, often confusingly referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as “Eurovision”). In 1959, for instance, Daily Mail television critic Peter Black sneered that the contest ‘was scarcely worthy of the trouble’ and that it was ‘like opening the Eurovision network to show an international knobbly knees contest’.[2] It’s worth emphasising, however, that the worst of the UK commentariat’s Eurovision ire has often been saved for the UK’s own contestants. ‘One would have to be a very odd patriot – I don’t believe even an Empire Loyalist could manage it – to get a sensation of pride and glory out of this success’, Black wrote of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s “Sing Little Birdie”, which achieved a second-place finish in 1959.[3] A little over twenty years later the same paper savaged UK Eurovision victors Bucks Fizz for their ‘antiseptic and thoroughly sanitised’ music and performance.[4] In the build-up to the 1995 final, meanwhile, writer and lecturer Andy Medhurst expressed amazement in the pages of the Observer because ‘the unthinkable [had] happened’: the UK would ‘be represented by a good song’.[5] It is fair to point out that the UK has had some spectacularly unremarkable entries over the years (some are included in the playlist below) as well as a few absolute disasters (I’m afraid we’re looking at you, Daz Sampson) but what regularly competing nation hasn’t?

Selected UK Eurovision Entries Playlist. Available at:

By the turn of the century, barely concealed distaste for Eurovision had increasingly turned into genuine scepticism as to the UK’s future participation. This was boosted by an increased sense that UK viewers were largely ambivalent about the competition. Only around six million viewers had watched the 2000 contest in the UK (less than half of those who had watched BBC coverage at some junctures in the past) and a mere 45,000 people had voted for Sheffield schoolgirl Lindsay Dracass to be the 2001 UK contestant. This, compared to the million-plus people who were participating in reality TV votes for shows such as Big Brother at the time, seemed paltry.[6] Trevor Dann, the former head of BBC Music Entertainment, was quoted in The Times decrying continued participation as a waste of resources: ‘I can’t see any value in it at all anymore. The BBC puts it on because of nostalgia over Terry Wogan’s role’. He also acknowledged that there may be some geopolitical concerns: ‘nobody wants to be seen to axe it’, Dann claimed, with reference to Eurovision’s place as a symbol of postwar European cultural cooperation.[7] This sentiment has hung around over the following two decades, despite the odd spike in the viewing figures. It has often been accompanied by assertions either that the UK does not take Eurovision seriously enough or – more interestingly – that it doesn’t understand the dynamics of the competition. In 2021, following James Newman’s last place, nul points finish, the Guardian’s Helen Pidd argued that his unflashy style made him ‘Exactly what you do not need to be to win the silliest singing competition in the world’.[8] This attitude, of course, also betrays the same sense of cultural superiority that has been such a marked feature of the UK’s coverage of Eurovision. We all know that, on one level, Eurovision is very silly, but then it doesn’t exactly pretend to be Glastonbury or the Last Night of the Proms.

The above snapshots are, of course, just that: snapshots. They don’t tell the full story of the UK in Eurovision, a story that feels conspicuously under-written given the tensions between Britishness and Europeanness that have ebbed and flowed over the near seven-decade history of the competition. They do, however, demonstrate that the UK has always been a little uncomfortable accepting Eurovision as part of its cultural identity. It’s hard to tell whether so many in the UK continue to love Eurovision in spite or because of the cultural disconnect that it is often taken to symbolise. As excitement builds ahead of the contest’s imminent return to UK shores, we may all want to reflect on how difficult it is to imagine a future in which the UK doesn’t take part in Eurovision – not to mention one in which it doesn’t complain about having to do so. 

[1] John Naughton, “Vapid, vacuous drivel – hurrah for the Eurovision”, Observer, 23 May 1999, 94.

[2] Peter Black, “Peter Black’s Teleview”, Daily Mail, 12 March 1959, 16.

[3] Ibid. The term ‘Empire Loyalist’ refers to the League of Empire Loyalists, a far right anti-decolonisation pressure group that later fed into the National Front.

[4] Simon Kinnersley, “The second-hand sounds”, Daily Mail, 11 June 1981, 22.

[5] Andy Medhurst, “Taste and style: nul points”, Observer, 7 May 1995, C6. 

[6] Paul McCann, “Eurovision contest faces its Waterloo”, The Times, 12 May 2001, 3.

[7] Quoted in Ibid.  

[8] Helen Pidd, “Nul points again: how exactly can the UK win Eurovision?”, Guardian, 23 May 2021,

Dr Ben Bland is a Leverhume Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Reading, specialising in modern British music, youth, and racialisation within the urban.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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