LONDON // Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sing … and Europe ends up in turmoil.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, unbridled joy erupted in Russia as Dima Bilan, a pop singer, won the Eurovision Song Contest, defeating 24 other nations in a contest watched by more than 100 million people across the continent.
"Invincible Russia!" declared the nation's press on Monday. "The Victory Plan is Working!" added Tvoi Den, which devoted its first nine pages to the Eurovision triumph. But they were singing from a very different hymn sheet in Britain after its entry finished last with a miserable 14 points, more than 250 points behind Russia. An MP tabled a parliamentary motion calling for Britain, one of the main financial backers of the competition, to withdraw funding because the whole thing had become "a joke".
Meanwhile, Sir Terry Wogan, the doyen of radio broadcasting in the UK, threatened to refuse to commentate on any more Eurovisions after presenting the contest on the BBC for 30 years. For once, it is not a case of the British simply being bad losers.
Because points are awarded on the basis of viewers' phone or text votes after all 25 songs have been performed (though you cannot vote for the country where you live), the system has been taken over by bloc voting. Balkan countries vote for other Balkan entries; likewise, among the Baltic nations and those of the former Soviet Union. Additionally, countries with heavy concentrations of migrants end up voting for their homeland - Germany, for instance, always comes up with a lot of support for the Turkish entry.
"This is no longer a music contest," Mr Wogan said. "I don't want to be presiding over yet another debacle. Russia were going to be the political winners from the beginning. "Western European participants have to decide whether they want to take part from here on in because their prospects are poor. "I'd like to think that the British music industry and the European Broadcasting Union [the Eurovision organisers] will find some way of making the voting a little bit fairer."
The motion before parliament, tabled by a Liberal Democrat MP, calls on the BBC to end its funding of the competition unless the voting is sorted out. However, a spokesman for the corporation, which chips in about £180,000 (Dh1.26m) to each contest, said that the money represented excellent value. Many in Britain, however, feel that Mr Wogan has a point. Although the British entry was not regarded by many as the finest example of contemporary music, it was still a lot better than many of the tunes that attracted many more votes - the Azerbaijan song, for example, featuring a fluffy angel and the devil, or the Latvian entry performed by a group of rollicking pirates. (Sadly, the Irish entry, featuring Dustin the Turkey, a glove puppet popular on Children's TV in the Emerald Isle, did not make it to the final in Serbia, which hosted the event on the grounds that it won the 2007 contest.)
Paul Gambaccini, a US-born radio and TV presenter in the UK, pointed out yesterday that a perennial problem in the song contest was that no major, British performers were prepared to take part these days because the competition had become such a lottery. While Bilan is a heartthrob in both his native Russia and in other parts of eastern Europe, the British singer at the weekend was a former rubbish collector who had finished a runner-up in a TV talent show some years ago.
One half-serious idea gaining support is Britain should split into its constituent nations for next year's Eurovision, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - and, maybe, even the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man - each entering a song and then, when it came to the voting, each supporting the others. It has also been suggested that the voting should revert to the old system where, instead of viewers' votes, the points awarded to each country's song were decided by panels of music industry professionals in the participating nations.
This system, though, was not immune to dodgy practice. This month, it was reported that General Franco, the fascist ruler of Spain, arranged for panellists throughout Europe to be bribed to enable the Spanish entry - a truly awful song called La, La, La - to win the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. That news did not please the British, as the song pipped at the post that year was Congratulations by Cliff Richard, who is as enduring to British pop music as Mr Wogan is to radio broadcasting.
None of this, though, was denting this year's celebrations in Russia where the song contest victory is seen as a fitting climax after the nation's triumph in the ice hockey world championships and the success of the Zenit football team in winning the UEFA Cup. Bilan, who performed his song Believe in English, received congratulatory messages from Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, and from Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister.
"What else could a country of fan-patriots want?" asked the Izvestia newspaper. "Now we have to beat the Chinese in ping-pong."