No, this isn’t a joke: the United Kingdom has come second in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Listening to the song, it was never beyond the realm of possibility. Singer-songwriter Sam Ryder’s ‘Space Man’, an intergalactic ode to appreciating the people in your life, is polished and catchy, with a big soaring chorus.
He’s got a powerful voice and a likeable energetic personality that always promised big things. And now, he’s broken our losing streak and we couldn’t be more proud (especially to come second-place to worthy winners in Ukraine).
And yet, the idea of the United Kingdom doing well at Eurovision felt faintly ridiculous. Despite winning the contest five times since signing up in 1957, our recent track record has been, in a word, embarrassing. Since 2000, we’ve finished last five times – twice, finishing with a dreaded nul points overall. We’ve also racked up five bottom-three finishes. Something, somewhere, wasn’t clicking.
So what was behind our past terrible performance? As a reminder of just how far we’ve come, here’s why our five last-placed songs tanked so hard, in order from most to least cringeworthy:
Jemini – Cry Baby (2003)
Poor old Jemini’s last place finish in Riga is perhaps the most notorious of them all. In 2003, the contest featured a then-record 26 countries competing, which meant their last place was more ‘last’ than ever before; it also came just one year after Jessica Garlick had finished in a very respectable third place. Plus, objectively speaking, their performance was terrible.
The song itself wasn’t a complete disaster. To 2022’s ear, it sounds unforgivably cheesy and disposable, but in 2003, the charts were full of songs by reality TV winners like Gareth Gates and David Sneddon, and the cheery pop of S Club 7 was still echoing in the distance. ‘Cry Baby’ probably wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Top of the Pops.
No, the issue was the performance on the night. Due to a technical hitch, neither singer could hear the backing track properly for the first 30 seconds of the song. Off-key and visibly nervous, the two of them struggled through the song anyway, but the result is so awkward that it’s still painful to sit through.
Josh Dubovie – That Sounds Good To Me (2010)
After a few dismal results in a row, the BBC had established a new method for choosing Eurovision songs the previous year: get an established talent to write the song, then hold a televised competition for up-and-coming singers to decide on the artist. For Jade Ewen and Elton John in 2009, it worked pretty well, and they finished fifth. But history didn’t repeat itself.
‘That Sounds Good To Me’ was written by two-thirds of legendary production trio Stock Aitken Waterman (so, Mike Stock and Pete Waterman, plus Steve Crosby), and Josh Dubovie was chosen by the public vote on Eurovision: Your Country Needs You. But things were awkward from the start: Dubovie has since admitted he was extremely disappointed when he heard the song, which he thought was cheesy.
Things only got worse once he got to Oslo, as the producers decided to change the key of the big note at the end. Apparently, the change was made to introduce drama, so that the audience would be invested in whether or not he could hit the correct note.
Unfortunately, as Dubovie was well aware, he couldn’t.
Andy Abraham – Even If (2008)
Andy Abraham’s entry had something over Jemini’s and Josh Dubovie’s: he was actually involved in writing it. In 2005, Abraham had been the runner-up in The X Factor, behind Shayne Ward, which launched his music career. His original song was Terry Wogan’s favourite at the BBC’s Eurovision selection (then called Eurovision: Your Decision) and he won the public vote… and that’s about as far as it went, as he only mustered 14 points in Belgrade.
Rather sweetly, Wogan continued championing Abraham after the contest, laying the blame for his defeat in eastern Europe: according to him, Russia’s victory was due to the number of douze points awarded to the entry by former Soviet states.
Accusations of political voting aside, though, there’s a pretty obvious difference between the level of polish between the UK and Russian entries. While the staging for Abraham’s dated soul-pop featured brightly coloured lights that evoked 70s TV, Russian entrant Dima Bilan went for all-out eye-popping drama.
His power ballad, ‘Believe’, was staged with a smoke machine, a billowing white shirt, and an actual ice skater zipping around (often skating perilously close to Bilan’s bare feet). Who needs conspiracy theories when the other entries are just… better than ours?
Michael Rice – Bigger Than Us (2019)
At this point, you can count off the red flags: Michael Rice was a former singing competition winner, having won the BBC’s All Together Now; he’d been chosen by the BBC’s Eurovision selection show, now renamed You Decide; and the staging for the song was, er, uninspired.
Måns Zelmerlöw might have proved that you don’t need sequins to win Eurovision, but the trend for British entries to go so understated you wouldn’t look twice at them on the bus doesn’t seem to be doing us any favours. And the star field graphics, while pretty, aren’t much more exciting than your average Windows 95 screensaver.
What Rice did have going for him, though, was a good song. ‘Bigger Than Us’ is catchy and anthemic, a good solid power ballad that got decent radio play in the lead up to the contest. DJ Scott Mills was enthusiastic about the song and his excitement seemed to be contagious.
Its fatal flaw? That might be found in the songwriting credits. ‘Bigger’ Than Us was written by Laurell Barker, Anna-Klara Folin, Jonas Thander and John Lundvik. The same John Lundvik who represented Sweden in Eurovision in the same year as Michael Rice competed. Actually, Lundvik had originally planned to sing the song himself, but then passed on it in favour of ‘Too Late For Love’.
Singing a cast-off from another country’s artist? That maybe didn’t give Rice the best possible chance of winning.
James Newman – Embers (2021)
Our most recent wooden spoon finish felt particularly crushing. Singer-songwriter James Newman, brother of chart-topper John Newman, had been internally selected by the BBC: bruised by failure, the selection show was ditched, the broadcaster deciding to trust its own staff’s judgement over the fickle public’s.
Newman had been due to represent the UK in 2020, in the contest that had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, with the decent-if-unremarkable love song ‘My Last Breath’. For 2021, he kicked things up a notch. ‘Embers’ was conceived as a party song, something big and brassy (literally) that people could dance to. And the studio version is a banger!
Again, though, something went awry between studio and screen. All sorts of rumours about how the song would be staged came out ahead of the performance, with mutterings about pyro and last-minute prop changes, but whatever got changed, it wasn’t enough.
On the night of the grand final, Newman was swaddled in an overlong black leather jacket – uncomfortably hot even to look at – and flanked by giant trumpets. Vocally, it wasn’t quite a Jemini-level disaster, but he seemed out of breath and strained. It just wasn’t anything like the triumphant return to form the BBC had promised.
Heartbreakingly, Newman became our second entry to ever finish with nul points. He seemed to take it on the chin, but it can’t have been fun.
But now, thanks to three all-important minutes on the night, Sam Ryder has broken the curse and shown that maybe – just maybe – we can one day win the competition too. Congratulations, Sam!