On 24 May 1956, a recently formed cartel of public service media pro-viders, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), mounted a small music show - a "Grand Prix of European song" - in the tiny Teatro Kursaal in Lugano. Its raison d'etre was to unite war-torn Europe through ritualised competition, in much the same spirit in which Inuit communities sublimate their battles by singing at each other. The original list of seven participating countries has since swelled to 40 (well, 39, because Lebanon has just been chucked out), and the audience for the competition has grown from thousands to a few hundred million (some say a billion).
The British have always dissed the Eurovision Song Contest. It's just like our ambivalent attitude to the EU, really. Terry Wogan, who has presented the live broadcast of the contest for the BBC since the early 1970s, personifies this approach. His lugubrious dryness, encompassing what comes across as a form of casual xenophobia, might have worked at the start, when, at least in Eurovision terms, he was a step up from the BBC1 presenter Pete Murray. One year, Murray kept referring to a country called "Monte Cristo". But Wogan has become bored with Eurovision, and I suspect he doesn't like it. The same jokes every year; the same increasingly inappropriate jingoism; the same accusations of unfairness.
Wogan has become as inaccurate as Murray ever was. Last year he couldn't remember how many times Johnny Logan had won (three - twice for singing and once for songwriting), and when Sertab Erener stole the show for Turkey in 2003 with a mix of rhythm and belly-dancing, he couldn't remember whether her country had ever won before (it had not). Eurovision is probably the globe's biggest televised musical show, and we in Britain are led through it by Wogan. Even minority sports have enthusiastic experts to commentate on them, specialist presenters who spend much of the year watching events that aren't televised in order to be top of the class when they are.
If Wogan did the same, he would recognise the various national superstars fielded in the contest - Sakis Rouvas from Greece last year, for example, or Ukraine's Ruslana. Their inclusion explains some of the voting patterns he can't identify and which get him so irate. He referred to Ruslana and her act as "the Wallopers" and Sakis as "Zorba the Greek".
One of the problems is that Wogan does not really commentate. During the voting last year, he made two attempts. "It's a three-horse race between . . ." he said, not finishing the sentence. Instead, he gives barbed editorial comment. He referred to the Romanian song as "desperate" after the Spanish voters decided it was their second favourite. In recent years, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey and Ukraine have taken Eurovision extremely seriously. Estonia and Latvia realised that membership of the EU lay beyond the gates of Eurovision triumph. These countries saw winning Eurovision (which would make them the contest's hosts in following years) as a chance to showcase their European credentials and hasten EU membership. And they were right.
Yes, there is politics in Eurovision. Wogan sees it at work every time a nation votes for its neighbour. Germany always votes big for Turkey because there are so many Turks in Germany. This expat factor also helps Bosnia and Russia. But neither has ever won. Greece and Cyprus vote for each other. They have a shared cultural history; they probably like each other's music. Again, neither of them has ever won. Bosnians like Serbian music, Albanians like Macedonia's.
"This is a farce. I'm sorry . . . someone's got to stop this. The EBU's got to take this in hand," Wogan said last year when Cyprus gave its top marks to the coun-tries that ended up in the first three positions (Ukraine, Serbia and Montenegro and Greece). Hardly a controversial vote, then. But he couldn't remember the song from Serbia and Montenegro. ("I must have been listening to something else," he mused. At the end he apologised for being asleep.) Nevertheless, he saw the Cypriot vote as part of what he called "a Balkan conspiracy", and referred to "Balkan block voting". The statistics at the end of the night revealed no such pattern. The Swiss gave more votes to Balkan countries than most Balkan countries gave to each other. And Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine aren't in the Balkans.
In Eurovision, Monaco is as powerful as Germany, Andorra has as much leverage as the UK. Suddenly the map of Europe looks very different. That Wogan kept hearing the names of Balkan countries in 2004 confused and upset him. I think it actually enraged him. As it happens, these countries did not club together to destroy Wogan's Eurovision dream. Only one Balkan country made it into the top six. Yet the political topography of Europe (and Eurovision) has changed. The centre has moved east. And some people are scared of that. Wogan voiced these fears. "It's getting worse," he cried. No, it's not. It's getting different. Britain's is at last realising its rightful size in Europe as one of many, many states.
Eurovision has a wide appeal - to the young, the old, the dateless. We love the indiscriminate flag-waving and wonderful array of European politics. It's time we had a commentator who wasn't scared by recent political developments; someone who doesn't laugh at foreigners getting English a bit wrong, or debase everyone else when "we" don't win. Who cares who wins? Welcome to the new Europe!
Tim Luscombe's play The Death of Gogol and the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest is at the Drill Hall, London WC1 (020 7307 5060) until 5 June. He has recently finished The Schuman Plan, a new play about the EU, for the National Theatre