Eurovision: 'A joke for 364 days of the year'

Dana International with bird feathers Israeli transsexual singer Dana International won in 1998, when Guy Freeman was last producing

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As the country gears up for the Eurovision Song Contest, the show's executive producer Guy Freeman talks to Ariel about comedy acts, tactical voting and the possibility of an elusive victory.

What is the Eurovision Song Contest to you?

Outdated talent show? Cherished institution? Undermined by neighbour-friendly voting?

Guy Freeman Guy Freeman: Eurovision 'feels like an old friend'

Those novelty comedy acts - hilarious or embarrassing? Whether those adjectives describe continental entrants or recent UK attempts is another matter entirely. But for every cynic there are just as many passionately engaged fans.

And for the nine million UK viewers last year, it certainly resonates. These are impressive figures for a talent show that celebrates its 60th anniversary next year.

'If it was pitched now to a network nobody would ever commission it because it's too out there,' says Freeman. 'But it absolutely thrives on its tradition.'

Excuse for a party

That tradition embraces everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, he adds, although the logistics of hundreds of millions of people not just tuning in but voting make it the biggest and most ambitious TV music event in the world.

Engelbert Humperdinck Big names like Engelbert Humperdinck have failed to turn the tide of UK failure

'It has a huge sense of tradition in people's lives,' says Freeman. 'It's a fixture in the annual calendar. It's a joke for 364 days of the year and then for one night it's an excuse to have a good old party, have the telly on, share drinks and hopefully believe for a moment that the UK act might be something that you can get behind and will do us proud.'

But let's be honest, in recent years genuinely believing the UK will win has been a bit like convincing yourself it's not too late to become a professional footballer when you're 47 and drink more yards than you can run.

Freeman's favourite UK entry

Katrina and the Waves

'By a mile I'd say Katrina [and the Waves]. I was with Terry [Wogan] in the commentary box. We had sweepstakes and I got the UK - and we won. So I was as happy that I'd won the sweepstake as the fact that we then won the Eurovision.'

Three of the last 11 UK attempts finished rock bottom. The past two years have seen golden oldies Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler similarly fail to resonate.

Eurovision as Bucks Fizz

It's all contributed to a bit of a perception problem in the UK.

Even this year's UK participant Molly Smitten-Downes admitted her initial apprehension, telling the BBC: 'I had a few reservations. Eurovision's not got the most credibility in this country.'

Many people focus on the comedy and joke songs, says Freeman, something which is - and always should be - a part of Eurovision. And yes, he adds, this year there's a bearded guy singing a ballad in a dress and a song about cheesecake.

'[But] we have a slight mismatch at the moment between perception of what Eurovision is and the reality of songs that are winning.

Molly Smitten-Downes Molly Smitten-Downes will perform for the UK this year with a self-penned song

'People still have this idea of Eurovision as Bucks Fizz, and ripping off skirts and novelty... [but they] forget that the songs that win actually do tend to be very good contemporary songs.'

He respects anyone with the courage to perform before 'millions of eyes' but, in his first return to the helm since running the UK-hosted 1998 edition, he felt it was time for a change of direction.

Freeman's favourite foreign entry

Dana International

'Dana International [1998] - I was determined that I wanted the show to run to the second, to prove that you can actually time a live show, and when Dana won, she ran to the dressing room, locked the door and wasn't coming out - and none of us knew why.

'The clock was ticking, Terry was on stage filling [time], and we've got a shot of her floor manager banging on the dressing room door and then she emerged with a different Gaultier top on, with exotic bird feathers coming off the shoulders and being dragged to the stage, flung on the stage [with] a mic in the hand and off she went again. I think we only overran 15-20 seconds in the end.'

'When it was apparent that it needed someone to look after it, I was eager to take it back on - it just feels like an old friend really,' he says.

He admits that there's no 'magic formula' to selecting an entrant.

Most countries opt for a public vote, but with that avenue having thrown up the dubious delights of Scooch in 2007, it's no guarantee of success.

And with a tv market saturated with The Voice, X Factor and other talent shows, Freeman doesn't envisage much appetite for a public selection process in the near future.

So this time it came down to a selection team of three: 'Me, a producer, and a researcher, fundamentally.'

He understands the frustration from some fans at the perceived lack of transparency, explaining that this year was very experimental. 'We didn't know where that journey was going to end when we were on it.' Next year will be more open as a result, he says.

Molly Smitten-Downes was discovered through BBC Introducing, a platform for unsigned and undiscovered artists. The selection team was drawn to her 'distinctive tone', while she understood the brief and was 'a great fit from the off'. The fact that she is performing her own song - Children of the Universe - is also something of a rarity.

'We got back an amazing track first time round, and there were only a few tweaks after that,' he says. 'We were lucky it got us to a place where we think we have a great entry. The response has been really positive so far.'

Terry Wogan and Katrina (without the Waves Sir Terry Wogan presented for 35 years, including when Katrina and the Waves won
Tactical voting

Some people have been turned off Eurovision by what they see as political or 'bloc' voting. Even Terry Wogan said that it was 'no longer a music contest' upon completing 35 years of presenting the show in 2008.

Freeman's favourite comedy act


'There was a guy called Guildo that year [1998], who was a German act. He was supposed to be a heavy metal kind of character but it was such bad pantomime it was hilarious, he was trying to be all sorts of things.'

Freeman dismisses the notion that there's anything malicious at play here, stating that it's 'entirely logical' for neighbouring countries to like and be familiar with the sound of music in a bordering country. And besides, he doubts it makes any crucial difference.

'The truth is, yes, Cyprus and Greece - if they're both in it - might both give each other 12 points every year - but when there are almost 40 countries casting their votes, there's absolutely no way of that deciding an eventual winner - it just doesn't work that way.'

Freeman remembers watching Eurovision as a child, when the tv sound quality was so low that you had to listen to the radio at the same time.

So he's particularly pleased that it's still managing to attract the young crowd, with audience research highlighting a broad range of viewers.

'It's a quirky, unique thing, and just a great piece of entertainment - and we're a big part of it.'

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