Eurovision fans were aghast on the weekend when the producer for this year’s contest, Christer Björkman, told the UK’s Daily Mirror that the late Sir Terry Wogan’s famed commentary “totally spoiled Eurovision”.
While Wogan was not always entirely defensible – take, for example, his remark that 2014 winner Conchita Wurst was a “freakshow” – he must nevertheless be remembered as an important part of Eurovision’s history.
Wogan first began his commentary of Eurovision for the BBC in the 1970s and was known for his ridicule of contestants, hosts, and the event itself. Some might describe his mockery as gentle, others as acerbic, but for thirty-five years Terry Wogan was a Eurovision institution.
Upon Wogan’s death in January, many fans pondered whether he would receive some sort of tribute at this year’s show. Björkman’s comments as Contest Producer for host country Sweden leave this prospect in some doubt.
Watch Wogan’s interview on The Clive James Show in 1997, below, where he defended his style of commentary against critics from Europe saying, “You’ve missed the point, I LOVE the Eurovision Song Contest!”
Despite Wogan’s professed affection, it seems unlikely Björkman would sanction a tribute to a man that he “would never have chosen” to be the voice of the contest.
The BBC, on the other hand, spoke out on behalf of Wogan’s memory: “Sir Terry Wogan is and always will be part of the heritage of the Eurovision Song Contest. His unique brand of humour brought millions of people to the competition and he unquestionably helped to establish the show as one of the TV highlights of the year to audiences throughout the UK and beyond.”
Australia was one of those audiences from beyond the UK. When SBS first began broadcasting Eurovision in Australia in 1983, it was with Wogan’s BBC commentary. For many Australians, he became a beloved part of the Eurovision experience down under.
When SBS experimented with local commentary – from Mary Coustas in character as Effie in 2001, and cult movie host Des Mangan in 2003-4, fans were unconvinced by these departures from Wogan’s style.
It has only been since the introduction of Sam Pang and Julia Zemiro in 2009 that Australian Eurovision fans have embraced local commentary. Indeed, many have come to see this team as an integral part of the Eurovision experience, appreciating the juxtaposition of Sam’s novice perspective to Julia’s gushing fandom.
Many of the fans I have spoken remember Wogan fondly, but they also admit that they favour having a more Australian take on the event in recent years.
Importantly, Sam and Julia’s approach brings the commentators out of the booths, and into the workings of Eurovision itself. Whether amusing or insensitive, Wogan was little more than a “deep buttery voice” from a box; Sam and Julia’s immersion into Eurovision has become a mainstay of our coverage, taking fans backstage, and, particularly charmingly, flirting shamelessly with the contestants.
Relive one of those moments with Julia below:
Towards the end, Wogan’s commentary became increasingly jaded, cynical, and at times, outright offensive. Given his distasteful comments on Conchita, it is perhaps best that he retired from the running when he did.
Wogan was part of an old guard of Britishness perhaps well-suited to Eurovision’s earlier, Cold War years: who can forget, after all, his reminiscence for a time when “all Russian girls had moustaches and looked like Khrushchev’s mother”?
But the contest, its aesthetics, and its politics have moved on since then.
As Wogan’s successor, Graham Norton continues the tradition of British irony toward Eurovision but in a manner perhaps better suited to a post-Dana International world.
Somewhat fittingly, Norton debuted in 2009, when the contest was hosted by Russia, which was receiving criticism for its stance on homosexuality and so-called “homosexual propaganda”.
For a contest increasingly known for its LGBTI fan base and for pushing the boundaries of gender politics, openly gay Norton’s tart humour and flamboyance complement the competition, ensuring that a continued generation of Eurovision fans in the UK enjoy the commentary as much as the spectacle of the event itself.
As a Eurovision fan since childhood, Wogan made me cringe as much as he made me laugh, but I cannot agree with Björkman that he ruined Eurovision. For me, and for many other Eurovision fans in the UK, Australia and elsewhere, Wogan was as much a part of the Eurovision Song Contest as the songs themselves.
Despite his often caustic commentary, and his increasingly out-of-touch criticisms of the cultural significance of the event, it should be remembered that Wogan expressed great love for the Eurovision Song Contest. “It will continue long after I’m gone,” he said upon retiring his role in 2008, “Just please don’t ask me to take it seriously.”
Jess Carniel is a researcher at the University of Southern Queensland currently conducting a project on Eurovision fans in Australia. If you would like to be a part of the project, contact her via Twitter or email.