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Will other Eurovision countries punish Britain for Brexit?

The late Terry Wogan famously claimed that our 2003 entry Cry Baby got nul points because of the UK’s involvement in Iraq. But is Eurovision really this political? 

Normally when the UK trots out its age-old excuse for coming last at Eurovision (“Europe doesn’t vote for us because they hate us!”) it’s seen for what it is: an obvious whopper. This year though – the year in which we triggered Article 50 and began the formal process of leaving the EU – the claim might not ring quite so hollow.

One survey shows that more than half of Brits are already convinced that Brexit will scupper our hopes of Eurovision glory before Lucie Jones has even sung a note – but will it?

The power of political voting in Eurovision is often hugely overstated. The late Terry Wogan famously claimed that our 2003 entry Cry Baby got nul points because of a backlash to the UK’s involvement in Iraq. A compelling theory, but one that brushes over two rather crucial points.

Firstly, the hammer didn't seem to fall on any of our coalition partners to anything like the same degree. Poland, Iceland, Spain and Romania all placed in the top ten, and Turkey ended up winning.

Secondly, without wishing to inadvertently downplay our disastrous engagements in Iraq, Cry Baby was a national disgrace in its own right. We’re lucky we got away with just last place. We deserved sanctions.

But let’s presume for a moment that there is some mileage in these Brexit fears. If the EU really was hellbent on using Eurovision as a way to humiliate the UK (a strange platform to use, given how regularly we humiliate ourselves without any outside assistance) how effective would a Brexit voting bloc be?

There are 42 countries competing in this year’s contest, of which 25 are EU members (Luxembourg and Slovakia are sitting this one out).

Under the new voting system, each country can give points to as many as 20 different countries. That being so, a voting bloc of 25 is too big to be beneficial for everyone involved. Five EU countries would have to agree to sacrifice their scores completely, simply to spite Britain.

Moreover, the plan only works if the EU could be certain we wouldn't pick up any points from non-EU members – but with 16 non-members in this year’s contest, that’s by no means a guarantee.

Between them, the 16 non-EU countries in this year’s contest have a maximum of 384 points to offer the UK. This is more than enough to finish in the top five, no matter what happens elsewhere on the scoreboard.

But how likely is it that the EU will cut us loose completely? Among the EU25 are two of our closest Eurovision allies: Ireland and Malta.

Even in our most artistically fallow years (the years of Josh Dubovie, Electro Velvet, Scooch) Ireland and Malta have always stepped up to give us points – and we have responded in turn.

Ireland and Malta have not had particularly successful decades in Eurovision. The last three Irish entries failed to qualify for the grand final, and the one before that came dead last. Malta have, arguably, fared even worse.

It makes no sense for them to start busting up the only alliance they have, so if things do become tribal, Ireland and Malta would side with us long before they took on the risks associated with being part of any Brexit bloc.

As for the rest of them? In 2009 (the year of Jade Ewen) we got points from 19 different EU countries. In 2011 (the year of Blue) we got points from 12 of them. As much as we like to pretend that Europe never picks up the phone for us, it seems that when we send modern, credible entries we get a good response.

By almost every measure, the UK’s entry this year is a solid one. According to the model I put forward in these pages this time last year, it very closely matches the musical profile of a modern Eurovision winner.

Never Give Up On You is in a minor key (D minor, the most successful key of the 21st century), the melody sits within a winning range, the tempo is good, the lyrics mention storms, it was co-written by a previous Eurovision winner and it’s been drawn in the second half, which is the more favourable of the two.

It’s understandable that we’re bracing ourselves for disappointment. Disappointment has been our bread and butter in this competition for nearly twenty years now, but we’re actually in a pretty decent position this year.

And if it does all go belly-up, we’ll be out in a few years anyhow – so maybe Russia will let us join Intervision?

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game