Celebrating ancient European values such as 'live, laugh, love'

May 18, 2020   4 mins

Aristotle thought one of the main purposes of art was to inspire pity and fear in the people watching it. It’s a shame he wasn’t still around to see Eurovision — Shine A Light, the replacement show for the cancelled Eurovision Song Contest shown across Europe on Saturday night.

Immediately before, the BBC set off a marathon session of Eurovision viewing with Come Together, its own production, which showed notable performances from the last 61 years of the contest. Viewers could vote for their favourite. (Spoiler — the winner was “Waterloo”. This was never in doubt, but it didn’t matter.) The show was jolly, frivolous, perfectly pitched, hosted by Graham Norton with a sure, light touch. It made striking a balance between the inherent silliness of Eurovision and the staggering shock of a global pandemic look easy-peasy.

And then.

At 8pm the European Broadcasting Union took over with Shine A Light. The main event was surely going to be even more fun, even higher an uplift?

Within seconds it was apparent that something was terribly wrong. Whereas Norton had hosted his show informally, in medium close-up against a suitably sparkly greenscreen background, the three presenters of Shine A Light were socially-distanced across the big stage of an enormous empty television studio in Rotterdam. They were often seen from far away, being buzzed by hovering drones.

TV studios when everybody has packed up and gone home are eerie places, like haunted theatres. The acoustics are designed for rows of loud, happy-clapping spectators. Without them, the atmosphere was echoing, ghostly, as if the Phantom of the Opera was lurking up in the lighting rig.

Eurovision hosts are legendarily somewhat awkward and robotic, but this deserted abattoir/ basement garage ambience added extra uncanniness. This was topped off by their repeated attempts to interact with quarantined ‘guests’ over satellite links. Jokes were made hesitantly in the presenter’s second, or possibly third, language. They were then beamed up into space. They bounced back down to Earth seemingly months later to the interviewee, who responded with jittery, nervous laughter of the “I didn’t quite catch that, a-ha-ha-ha” variety.

These opening moments were dizzying to the viewer, like walking straight from a children’s party into a public inquiry convened to investigate a tragic accident. My finger hovered over the off button. But then the contestants started giving us inspiring messages, and it became impossible to look away.

Over the years Eurovision has gone from being an unintentionally camp old laugh to an intentionally camp old laugh, which took something of the fun away. It has always had something of a ‘Kumbaya’-ish, like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing quality, which isn’t surprising given its birth in a Europe devastated by war. In recent years this has transformed into an earnest but non-specific message about saving the planet, living in perfect harmony, etc. (This was brilliantly spoofed by Eurovision itself in 2016, with two former Swedish winners performing the parody song “Love Love Peace Peace” as the interval act.)

But it’s true to say, I think, that Eurovision had lost almost all of its ingenuous naffness. It had become a bit of a trial, an increasingly long, increasingly lavish jamboree. Now, great news, the bizarre circumstances sent the quotient of naff roaring back up. Because unlike the BBC’s Come Together, the EBU’s Shine A Light aimed for high seriousness and meaning, trying to squash the shock of Covid-19 into a Europop envelope.

Rather than show all 41 of the entries in full, which would’ve taken about a hundred years, we got a minute or so of each one, followed by a quarantined video message from the contestant or contestants.

The songs were much as you’d expect. We kept hearing that “music is a universal language” but nearly everything was sung in English and sounded more-or-less like American hits from nine years ago. There was the customary pop schtick of pretending something people do all the time without comment is shockingly outrageous; San Marino’s entry told us that it’s ‘freaky’ to ‘drink on rooftops and kiss in the dark, dance around late at night in the park’. I dunno, maybe it is in Dogana?

But it was the banality of the contestants’ messages that brought the joy.

“Music brings us together. You need to be yourself. You can make your dreams come true. Every journey begins with a single step. When this is all over we must live in peace and love.”

There were hours of this. You started longing for one of them to say something like, “I make music to wreak disunity and chaos on the peoples of the world, nya-ha-ha!” (One of the Russian contestants did opine that “the entire idea of nationhood should be abandoned”, which had a refreshingly forthright, if sinister, ring to it. God also did get a mention, the once, and it was like someone had farted).

If a friend came to one of these people with a serious problem, looking for some comforting words, would they really fix them with a soulful look and say, “Be yourself”?

In the context of coronavirus this hot air became grimly fascinating. To break up the insights there were full-song videos from previous winners, haunting excursions to the deserted streets of Belgrade and Tel Aviv. Another interval was a tour of the inspiring historical monuments of Europe, cathedrals and palaces and towers raised by people with political and spiritual precepts. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris was built as a project of religious and national renewal. Nobody’s going to erect something like that to the high principle of finding your vibe and following your dreams.

What Shine A Light, very amusingly, highlighted is that these are the vague, mushy doctrines that we live by, our anchor in dark times. We have no more useful steer, no stronger rock of faith or philosophy. I can’t help thinking it’s thin stock. If we face an even bigger existential threat will these be enough as communal values to see us through?

But Shine A Light did provide another worthwhile revelation. One of the original aims of the contest was to gain a sense of ourselves through gaining a sense of others, and in this it certainly succeeded.

The clash between Come Together and Shine A Light showed that for all we British go on about our shift from stuff-upper-lip to sentimentality, we remain positively starchy, compared to our neighbours. Sceptical, gently mocking, slightly suspicious of and embarrassed by grands projets. We are truly inclusive, accepting of people as individuals; we mustn’t forget that the two exemplars of the British attitude to Eurovision are Irish.

And we don’t make a song and dance about it.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.