On the night of the Eurovision Grand Final, just as Mahmood & Blanco are taking to the stage to represent their country on home soil, the uttering of one man’s name will leave a sour taste in my mouth.
Terry Wogan is more responsible for the demonisation of British public perception of the Eurovision Song Contest than anyone else, and yet the BBC’s current commentator Graham Norton will continue his annual tradition of leading the raising of a nationwide toast to his late predecessor.
Norton does this in honour of Wogan’s advice to him when he took over commentary duties in 2009. Wogan told Norton not to drink any alcohol before song nine in the Grand Final.
Wogan passed away in January 2016 and at that year’s contest in Stockholm, Norton started the tradition. During the broadcast of the postcard for song nine, Norton said: “I would urge you back in the UK at home to raise a cup, a mug, a glass, whatever you have in front of you and give thanks to the man who was, and always will be, the voice of Eurovision, Sir Terry Wogan”. Similar messages of the same sentiment have been uttered by Norton in subsequent contests.
The rubbish Terry said
“Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? Actually, I do. I’ve seen the rehearsals,” Wogan quipped in the opening moments of the 2007 contest. To selfishly disrespect each and every performer who was moments away from singing in front of 200 million people in one generalised and sweeping statement is cheap and uncalled for. In a further bid to discredit performers 12 months later, he described the impending performances of the 2008 contest as “painful musical mayhem”.
Wogan was all over the place during the entire broadcast of the 2008 contest if truth be told. Throughout the voting sequence he was clueless and intolerable. On Spain gaining more points than he expected he said: “If you look at the points that the absolute rubbish from Spain gets…is it funny anymore?” That despite the viewers in the UK he was commentating for awarding points to Spain too.
“This will go Baltic,” he briskly spat ahead of Latvia awarding their points despite Estonia and Lithuania being absent from the Grand Final. On F.Y.R Macedonia awarding 10 points to Serbia he said dismissively: “They’re keeping it among the Balkans, you’ll have noticed”. Further incorrect cries of “political voting” were whined when Estonia, Ukraine and others awarded their points but Wogan made no verbal complaints when Ireland dished out eight points to the UK.
Earlier in the decade Wogan made a totally misjudged excuse regarding the UK’s first nul points result at the contest with Jemini’s Cry Baby. The song was awful and the performance was even more so, but Wogan couldn’t admit that. “I think the United Kingdom is suffering from post-Iraqi backlash,” he said instead. The 2003 contest was taking place just two months on from the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces led by the United States and UK. If Wogan’s brazenly incorrect judgement that voters across Europe didn’t vote for the UK because of the country’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq, I wonder if he deliberately chose to ignore Poland securing their second best placing ever in a Eurovision Grand Final that year despite being a part of the coalition that invaded Iraq just two months earlier?
Then come his comments without the commentator’s microphone in his hand. During an episode of Clive James On Television in 1997, Wogan said of the contest: “It’s supposed to be bad. The worse it is the more fun it is”. He went on to add: “That’s the whole point of it, to sneer at the foreigners”. This was a mere six months after Katrina and the Waves bagged the UK’s first win since 1981 so Wogan could’ve used that moment to celebrate the success of the band and the country. Instead he chirped out yet another cheap remark at the expense of the contest’s reputation.
Seven years later during the opening dialogue of the UK’s national selection show Making Your Mind Up, Wogan made a sweeping statement in the direction of “Johnny Foreigner”, a derogatory and far less than formal piece of terminology which drew wincing and uncomfortable laughs from the audience.
The man had such a crushingly inappropriate attitude towards Eurovision and had a thorough misunderstanding of what the contest is about. The BBC was chasing Saturday night television ratings so it made sense to keep Wogan in his role because he could be relied upon to bring in audiences. But that doesn’t excuse what he got away with saying because the majority of those things are inexcusable.
The final nail in the coffin came in 2014 – six years on from hanging up his commentator’s microphone – when Wogan reviewed Norton’s autobiography in The Irish Times. “I’m bound to say that the Bearded Lady who won this year, reducing Graham to tears, might have had a slightly different effect on me,” he said of Conchita. “I’ve always seen the Eurovision as a sometimes foolish farce, but not as a freak show,” he finished. Describing Conchita as a “freakshow” is a disrespectful display of disgrace of someone whose identity is celebrated in Eurovision circles.
Outside the realms of Eurovision it has to be said that Wogan was a phenomenal broadcaster; in a league of his own for the majority of his career. Wogan was a stalwart of broadcasting in the UK and Ireland for half a century and – in his prime – was the most famous, most listened to and perhaps most influential radio broadcaster in the UK. He fronted the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show for 27 non-consecutive years earning a loyal listenership. In the final quarter of 2009 when he was presenting his final breakfast shows on the network he drew in a staggering 8.1 million listeners. His nearest rival at the time – Chris Moyles on BBC Radio 1 – was nearly a million listeners behind; an Atlantic sized gap in listening figure terms.
Wogan’s titular chat show ran on BBC1 three nights a week for a decade starting in the mid-1980s and was essential viewing for 13 million Brits at its peak. However, his most successful and rightly-lauded role was fronting the BBC’s charitable telethons for Children in Need for 34 years, only stepping aside due to poor health. For some, he didn’t just present Children in Need, he was Children in Need; the absolute embodiment of the charity.
With a long career of professionalism it’s a shame Wogan lowered his own standards for the purpose of his self-made definition of entertaining Eurovision commentary.
Participants deserve their moment
On what might be considered a trivial note, it’s more than just a shame that the performer of song nine in the Grand Final should be robbed of due prominence, limelight and introduction from the commentator ahead of what will probably be the biggest live performance of their life. In 2016 Frans barely got an introduction to the viewing British public, instead just a cursory and fleeting namecheck from Norton ahead of the performance of his song If I Were Sorry.
Looking ahead to this year’s Grand Final, it’s entirely unfair that Mahmood & Blanco – the latter of the two being the youngest male vocalist to have won Festival di Sanremo – be denied a full and all encompassing introduction to the British audience in the same way Frans was just for Wogan to be granted an unnecessary and undeserved nod in the broadcast.
In an interview with the BBC in 2008, Wogan responded to people saying he “takes the pee” out of Eurovision saying: “Yes I do because that’s the very essence of it.” Why should we be encouraged to raise a toast to a man who openly admitted to unapologetically joking at the contest’s expense is beyond me?
It’s simply unfathomable how people who genuinely love and celebrate Eurovision can give Wogan – a man whose comments were dismissive, damaging and defamatory – even a shred of credit and appreciation given the lasting negativity he caused towards the contest in the UK. He doesn’t deserve to be celebrated and congratulated because, quite frankly, his attitude towards the contest stank and still reeks today.
During Mahmood and Blanco’s postcard I’ll be raising a toast to the Italian duo and subsequently taking a sip to wash away the sour taste in my mouth that Norton’s namecheck of Wogan will leave.