Eurovision 2019: 'Game time' for UK’s Michael Rice
As the final nears, UK Eurovision hopeful Michael Rice talks betting odds, boxing gloves... and why he's "sick" of Brexit.
The last few months have been "a whirlwind of emotions" for Michael Rice, the 21-year-old singer from Hartlepool who was chosen in February to represent the UK at this year's Eurovision Song Contest.
His promotional duties have taken him from Spain and the Netherlands to Croatia and Russia, with a brief visit to Israel to film the "postcard" video that will precede his performance on Saturday.
But with the big night in sight there's no more time for gadding about. "It's game time," he tells the BBC. "I've got my game face on, and I'm ready to go out and give the best performance.
"It's what we need after all these years, a good solid performance," he goes on, citing the 22 years that have elapsed since the UK last won the contest.
He's not wrong. Since Katrina and the Waves' victory in 1997, the United Kingdom has only finished inside the Top 10 on three occasions and has finished last the same number of times.
Last year's final in Lisbon - during which UK contestant SuRie had her microphone grabbed by a stage invader - was a particular low point.
Yet Rice has "no worries" of a repeat of that unsavoury incident, joking: "If anyone comes on, I'll have my boxing gloves at the ready."
The fighting talk continues in relation to his hopes for the competition. "Everyone's got the same chance," he insists.
"Because we haven't won for 22 years we're obviously going to be low in the betting odds, but it's all down to getting the perfect song.
"We've got different music to Sweden or Greece or wherever, so it's finding that one song that's going to translate to all these different countries.
"It's making sure the UK get better songs in general and don't keep putting joke acts forward."
Rice doesn't clarify which "joke acts" he's referring to but the likes of Scooch, Electro Velvet and Andy Abraham have hardly troubled the leader board, while heritage acts like Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler have also unimpressed.
"Because we haven't won it in so long or think it's cheesy, musicians and songwriters are being off from entering," claims Rice.
"We need to pick the right songs and get more talented musicians involved to get the UK back to the top, where we were."
'Everything is against us'
Jonathan Harvey, whose Eurovision-themed play Boom Bang-a-Bang has been fortuitously revived this month at South London's Above The Stag Theatre, also thinks the UK's fortunes will improve when the songs do.
"I just don't think the people who select the songs we choose from take it as seriously as the other countries," the playwright states in the programme for the show.
"We aren't a popular country in Europe," he continues. "Everything is against us. But if we sent a decent song we'd do okay.
"The last time we did reasonably well, we sent Andrew Lloyd Webber and we came fifth."
Harvey is referring to It's My Time, the Jade Ewen song Lord Lloyd-Webber wrote with Diane Warren for the 2009 contest.
Rice's Bigger Than Us - a power ballad with a bold key change and soaring, gospel-style harmonies - is perhaps one step in the right direction.
It is also a textbook instance of Eurovision's close-knit and rather incestuous network of songwriters and producers.
One of its co-writers is British-born John Lundvik, who is representing Sweden this year with his own power ballad Too Late For Love.
Another is Laurell Barker, who has also had a hand in writing the German and Swiss entries.
"I met [2014 winner] Conchita Wurst the other day who said I had the best male vocal of the year," says Michael proudly.
"It's crazy to think that Europe are getting behind the song and the UK for a change."
As one of the so-called "big five" nations, the UK get an automatic pass into Saturday's final, by-passing this week's two semi-finals.
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Rice is suffering from a slight head cold when we meet but is otherwise in fine fettle and high spirits.
The only thing that dampens his mood is mention of a certain subject about which he is continually quizzed by reporters.
"I'm sick of being asked about Brexit, constantly all the time," he moans. "I'm just a singer; I've never even thought about politics.
"We should be focusing on the music and getting the right song instead of droning on about stuff like that."
Nor does he have time for the social media haters who have been busily trolling about his looks and his background.
"People say he's fat, he's from the North-East, why is he representing the country? It just makes me laugh," he shrugs.
"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but to tweet random stuff about someone's appearance? Keep it to yourself.
"Obviously you're not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is what it is," he goes on. "I'm still going to be singing so it doesn't bother me.
"And even if they do try and take my mic I'll still be singing, a capella. It's going to be a great experience, and fingers crossed we'll get a good result."
The second Eurovision semi-final will be shown on BBC Four on 16 May from 20:00 BST, while the grand final will air on BBC One on 18 May from 20:00 BST.