As a cultural historian, I am often asked: Would British withdrawal from the European Union mean that we’d get thrown out of the Eurovision Song Contest? I’m happy to be able to offer reassurance on this point. Don’t worry – our traditional place towards the bottom of the Eurovision results table is absolutely safe.
The contest was created by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an organisation that is entirely separate from, and predates, the EU. And, pleasing to note, the EBU is a largely British initiative, launched in 1950 on a model proposed by the BBC: an international body bringing together one broadcaster per country in pursuit of the dream that ‘nation shall speak peace unto nation’.
The idea was to share programmes so that we could better understand each other. On Whit Sunday in 1956, for example, the BBC broadcast a United Protestant service from the New Church in Amsterdam. That week there was also a Germany-England football match from Berlin, a tour of Montmartre in a special edition of Saturday Night Out, and a programme from Westphalia about ‘the traditional rounding up of the Duke von Croy’s stud, when wild horses are driven into an arena and caught’.
But the big event of May 1956 turned out to be the launch of the Eurovision Song Contest, the format that survived long after the Duke’s stud had been forgotten. Unfortunately it had to make do without the UK in that first year. The BBC screened the show, and we did mean to participate, but we got the timing wrong: the Festival of British Song, intended to select our entry, wasn’t actually staged until after the contest itself. We did enter in 1957 (Patricia Bredin came seventh in a field of ten with ‘All’), missed it in 1958, and finally began to take it seriously in 1959. Since when, we’ve been present on every occasion.
The first victory came in 1967 with Sandie Shaw and ‘Puppet on a String’. Over a 15-year period starting that year, the UK had an impressive average finish of third place. But then Margaret Thatcher came to power and began handbagging her European colleagues, demanding that they give us some of our money back, and we fell from favour; in the 15 years from 1982 our average finish slumped to sixth.
There was a false dawn when Tony Blair was elected in 1997 with a promise to put Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’, and was greeted the following day with a victory for Katrina and the Waves (‘Love Shine a Light’, written by the mighty Kimberley Rew). But then the rest of Europe sussed that, despite the rhetoric coming from Downing Street, the reality was that we were still semi-detached from the continent, and over the last 15 years, we’ve slumped to an average 18th place. How are the mighty fallen.
Meanwhile, the Song Contest wasn’t quite the only product of Eurovision that had legs. The EBU also gave us Jeux Sans Frontiers, starting in 1965, with Britain joining in the following year, having renamed the show It’s a Knockout. Somewhat oddly, this had grown out of a domestic French show, which Charles de Gaulle himself had suggested might be developed into an international tournament to help ease European relations; he felt that once countries got used to throwing water at each other, while dressed as giant chickens and kicking beach balls round an obstacle course, the prospect of war would be too absurd to contemplate.
No other shows, however, came anywhere close to these two programmes in popularity. It wasn’t very impressive really. As the Daily Express pointed out as long ago as 1963, the sights of the EBU could be raised a little higher; how about, suggested the paper, ‘the Follies from Paris, a circus from Hamburg, opera from Milan, dancers from Madrid’?
But the public didn’t seem interested. The shared culture of Western Europe turned out to be a camp collection of cheesy songs and a slapstick game-show hosted by Stuart Hall. Or, at least, that was the perception of the British public. Maybe the continental nations loved each other’s programmes with a rare passion, but we weren’t much bothered: we were too busy watching westerns and cop shows from America.
And that was perfectly reasonable. Because ever since the Tower of Babel, language has been the bedrock of culture. The British have always been more interested in those countries that have the good sense to speak English. There’s a huge divide between our perceptions of Europe, on the one hand, and of the English-speaking peoples, on the other.
This goes back a long way, and (like so much else in Britain) it’s always had a class dimension. The great conflict in Europe – the reason that the EU project ultimately proved necessary – was the long, wearying struggle for power between Prussia and France that began with the accession to the Prussian throne of Frederick the Great in 1740 and, later that year, the death of the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI. The ensuing War of the Austrian Succession saw the two countries take up arms against each other in earnest, starting a rivalry that didn’t end until 1945. That same war also saw the last-ever occasion when a British king, George II, led his troops into battle. Which seemed appropriate: at a time when Parliament was looking to the building of the Empire, the Hanoverian monarchy was still identifying itself with European struggles.
This was seen more clearly still in the Seven Years War that started in 1755. The Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, was involved on the European mainland, but from Parliament’s perspective the important action was to be found in India, where Robert Clive defeated Bengali and French forces at Plassey, and in Canada, where James Wolfe died in the capture of Quebec from the French.
A similar division of interest between Europe and the wider world was to manifest itself culturally in the years that followed the Second World War. In 1948 John Maynard Keynes launched the Arts Council with the battle cry of ‘Death to Hollywood’, and for a long time thereafter it was a sign of sophistication to claim kinship with the great European artistic traditions rather than with America.
Thus the affluent middle classes were enthusiastic in their endorsement of European culture – by which, of course, was normally meant a summer in Tuscany, or even a year in Provence, rather than any understanding of, say, Northern Germany. Meanwhile the prosperous Sun-reading sections of the working classes tended to display little sense of identity at all with Europe, save for an annual holiday in Anglicized resorts on the Costa del Sol or a trip to Euro Disney (as a substitute for the real thing of Disney World).
And even that was too much for the proprietor of the Sun: ‘He dislikes Europe,’ Andrew Neil once wrote of Rupert Murdoch, ‘and barely even visits as a tourist.’ As it happens, a 1994 survey found that Australia, the land of Murdoch’s birth, was found to be Britain’s ‘number one dream destination’. (It may perhaps be relevant to note that the survey was conducted by the Travel Channel, owned by Sky TV.)
Despite the anti-American sneering to be found in refined circles, much of the most interesting British culture has looked across the Atlantic for inspiration. The most obvious case is pop music, where Britain has repeatedly taken on American styles and created something new from them (rock ‘n’ roll, punk, acid house), but the same is true for Lionel Bart, Anthony Newley and Andrew Lloyd Webber reinventing the stage musical; for writers such as Leslie Charteris, James Hadley Chase and Hank Janson borrowing from the hard-boiled tradition; and for the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison transforming the world of comics. From the Black and White Minstrels to Grand Theft Auto, it is the imagery of America that has shaped British popular culture.
Indeed, the dream of Stateside success has been a major motivating force. No rock ‘n’ roll band ever fantasized about breaking Austria, or making it big in Portugal. While French critics may have venerated Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur, he took care to stay in Hollywood when making his movies. And the awards ceremonies that get reported here are all American: an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy or Tony means more that, say, a Felix or a Rose d’Or. (The one exception is the Nobel Prize for Literature, but only when a British writer is the recipient.)
Admittedly, the lack of popular interest in European culture has been adjusted a little in the last couple of decades, but one shouldn’t get too carried away. In the late 1980s Balearic beat began to construct a genuine two-way interaction between British and European dance music (even if it rested on foundations built in the States); food that used to be found only in the pages of Elizabeth David is now sold openly in every supermarket (but not in the same quantity as burgers and curries); and some football fans have become attached to European competition, though for most even the Champions’ League is less significant than is the Premier League. And where, half-a-century ago, British emigrants headed for Australia, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia, they are now more likely to make the shorter journey to France or Spain.
At its most marked, the continental influence has produced a quiet mini-revolution in retailing. Ikea has popularised a version of the Scandinavian design that used to be the preserve of the metropolitan middle class, while Lidl, Aldi and Netto have mounted a challenge to the British supermarkets. There’s a long way to go, though: in 2015 Tesco and Sainsbury’s had 28.5 and 16.5 per cent shares of the market respectively, compared to Aldi’s 5.6 per cent and Lidl’s 4 per cent. The Europeans are also some way behind Asda, owned by American chain Walmart, who were the third largest player in the sector, with 16.4 per cent.
Those figures suggest that Britain’s cultural and social integration into Europe is not quite complete just yet, an impression born out elsewhere. Take the French movie The Artist (2011), which was nominated for 12 BAFTAs and 10 Academy Awards, becoming the first French winner of the Best Picture Oscar. By the standards of French cinema, it was a huge international success, largely because it was primarily silent, thereby getting over the language issue. But despite the acclaim, it still failed to make the year’s box-office top 30 in Britain. Similarly, the much-vaunted Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) missed the annual top 50.
Elsewhere, the enthusiasm for Scandinavian noir is more muted than the critics would have you believe. The second season of the Swedish show Wallander (2010) built up to an audience of over half a million when screened on British television. But at the same time the English-language version with Kenneth Branagh was pulling in over six million – and even then there was a clear class element: more than half the audience was ABC1. The much hyped relaunch of Maigret this week, with Rowan Atkinson in the title role, attracted similar viewing figures; some way behind shows like New Tricks and Grantchester.
And when it comes to more fantastical fictional heroes, we tend to look towards the Marvel pantheon, despite 20 years or so of the EU’s own character, Captain Euro.
The truth is that culturally the British people still don’t feel European. As a nation, we feel familial ties with New York, Sydney and Mumbai, rather than with Berlin, Paris or Rome.
So it’s hard to see how we’ll lose out culturally if we chose to leave the European Union. We’ll carry on watching American movies, drinking imitation lager that owes more to Chicago than Cologne, and eating American rather than Italian pizzas (while listening to BBC radio). When the calendar rolls around to Eurovision, we’re likely to slip still further into last place, but it won’t matter much – indeed, we’ll probably embrace it as a badge of honour.