Europe doesn’t hate the UK after all, it was just waiting for a decent song. This is what seasoned Eurovision watchers concluded after seeing Sam Ryder take a triumphant second place on Saturday night.
It was a runner’s up slot that felt like a victory, given it had been widely expected that Ukraine would and – in the wider scheme of things – should win the contest.
After a long, emotional evening in Turin, Kalush Orchestra won for Ukraine with their anthemic folk/hip-hop song Stefania. The band members had received special permission to leave the country and will be back involved in the war effort in two days. The victory led to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy defiantly promising that the contest would “one day” be held in Mariupol.
It was a remarkable and important moment. The next question, certainly for British fans, was who would come second? And given the UK’s dismal recent record – including nul points last year – how low would its vote be this year?
Instead Ryder and his song Space Man came a glorious second with 466 points.
“It puts the argument firmly to bed that the UK hasn’t won because of Brexit or because of what Europe thinks of us,” said the TV critic and Eurovision pundit Scott Bryan. “It has been down to the fact that our entry was not interesting or good enough.”
He added: “The song was fantastic but just as importantly the performance was fantastic … it was a real thrill to watch.”
Ryder is the UK’s biggest success since Imaani was runner-up to Israel’s Dana International in 1998. In the intervening years UK fans have watched a succession of flops, including Engelbert Humperdinck finishing 25th of 26, Electro Velvet 24th and, for the last two contests, a national pride-piercing last place.
The repeated failure is down, people have said over and again, to countries voting for their friends and allies and the UK never being one of them.
That was rubbish, the BBC’s Eurovision host Graham Norton said after the contest on Saturday. “All those people wanging on about Europe hates us. I kept saying: ‘No … it is possible that with the right song, the right performer in the right year.’ We can do it and we did.”
Bryan said the problem for the UK in recent years had been an assumption that the entry should be “Eurovision-ey”. “It has to be a particular sound, rather than an artist or a song who could be a big-selling artist in their own right, he said. “Someone was telling me that Sam Ryder’s song was played this morning on Capital Radio. That sounds an odd thing to say, but Capital Radio don’t play Eurovision entries.”
Ryder was already a star, in that he is the most popular British musician on TikTok, thanks to his home-recorded versions of songs by everyone from Adele to Justin Hawkins to Michael Jackson. His performance of I Ain’t Got You led Alicia Keys to remark: “Yo. He killed this. This is hard for me to sing.”
TikTok has given him 12.6 million followers, which helps. But what really mattered on Saturday, said Bryan, was the strength and the memorability of the song, co-written with the Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge. And the brilliance of the live performance. “Plus the order we appeared, only a couple from the end, that helped us stand out,” he added.
The contest was watched by a global audience of 183 million people and in the UK by an average of 8.9 million, peaking at 10.6 million. Last year’s “nul points” viewing figure was 7.4 million.
It was, said experts, a very strong contest, with even the stranger entries – Subwoolfer’s Give That Wolf a Banana for Norway – having something about them.
Ryder said afterwards that his performance was all “about the love of singing, the joy it brings you”. The whole team had positivity, he said. “Being in that arena and witnessing this tangible energy of life, was incredible.”
He predicted that next year the UK would go one better, telling Radio 4’s Broadcasting House: “Next year, it’s going to be mad. I can’t wait to see it … I hope with all my heart that the plethora of talent, the diverse pool of talent that exists in the UK, is going to bust down doors to be part of Eurovision next year.”