Brits think Eurovision is all politics

YouGov’s EuroTrack survey released today reveals that Brits are most cynical about the Eurovision Song Contest.

As if our MPs squabbling over Britain’s EU membership wasn’t enough, a poll has revealed that Brits are the most cynical about the Eurovision Song Contest.

A new survey released just a day before the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest final in Sweden, a pan-European YouGov poll has shown that Brits are most likely to say that some countries suffer unfairly from political voting, and don't have any real chance of winning the annual talent contest.

YouGov’s EuroTrack survey, which tracks public opinion in Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, found that a monstrous 75% of Brits believe some countries don’t have a proper chance of winning Eurovision because of political voting by other competing nations.

Britain has won five times since the competition began in 1956, but has done particularly poorly since 1999 when the rule that songs must be performed in one of the official languages of the participating country was abandoned. It has only finished in the top ten twice since 1999, and last year’s entry, musical veteran Engelbert Humperdinck, ended second last in 25th place.

In the past it has been suggested that voters were reluctant to vote for Britain following the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. Indeed that very same year, Britain’s entry of male-female duo Jemini received a record 0 points. The pair admitted they had sung off-key but claimed they were unable to hear the backing track due to a technical fault. Performer Chris also claimed Terry Wogan had warned them before the contest that they would not get any points due to the Iraq War.

It is worth noting, however, that while the number of competing nations has increased over the years, the probability of Britain winning has naturally decreased. There were only seven countries represented when the competition started and in recent years there have been 26. Britain’s entry this year is veteran Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, who will perform ‘Believe in Me’ tomorrow night at the final held in Malmö, Sweden.

Does Eurovision really unite Europe?

The Eurovision Song Contest was started after World War II with the aim of bringing European countries closer together around a programme of fun, light entertainment.

However, the YouGov EuroTrack survey shows that all of the countries surveyed, and especially Britain, are rather skeptical about Eurovision’s capacity to unite. The Swedes are most likely to see Eurovision as a unifying force, with a third (33%) saying it helps bring Europe closer together, whilst only 14% of Brits felt the same.

Commenting on the EuroTrack findings, YouGov Director of Political and Social Research Joe Twyman said: “We haven’t won Eurovision since 1997, and a more than decade-long losing streak has obviously had an impact on how people in Britain feel about it. While all of the countries we surveyed have some degree of cynicism about Eurovision, it’s interesting that the Swedes – who won last year – are most likely to say it helps bring Europe together. I think it’s reasonable to assume that were Bonnie Tyler to win, or even finish strongly, Brits might start to feel just a little more enthusiastic about Eurovision.”

Last year's Eurovision winner Loreen of Sweden. Does the contest really bring Europe together? (Getty Images)
Hugo Glendinning
Show Hide image

The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.