The UK hasn’t had a good Eurovision for a long time, but last year’s contest was woeful even by our own low standards. We finished at the bottom of the leaderboard in 2019 with 11 points, the 2020 edition was canceled due to the pandemic, and then 2021 saw James Newman’s snappy dance-pop number Embers receive nul points in both the jury and audience votes: the first song to score zero on both counts in Eurovision history.
That makes this year’s Eurovision odds feel faintly surreal: according to bookmakers, the UK’s 2022 entry, Space Man, is second favorite to win on Saturday, just behind Ukraine. Performed by 32-year-old vocal powerhouse and TikTok sensation Sam Ryder, the song is a rollicking power ballad about cosmic loneliness that recalls classic British pop such as Elton John’s Rocket Man, Bowie’s Starman, and Queen. Co-written with Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge, it’s slick, dramatic and formidably catchy, and it’s not hard to see why Ryder is our best bet in ages.
Ryder, has been gearing up for the final in Turin on Saturday – mainly by trying to avoid catching Covid or a cold. “You don’t want to be getting on that stage in front of 200 million people with a scratchy throat,” he says. But he isn’t getting carried away by the bookies’ odds. “We’re flattered, but it’s just a number, so let’s not get hyped,” he says, sporting his trademark grin.
If Space Man does succeed, it will be no fluke: this year, the UK’s strategy for picking a Eurovision entry underwent a much-needed overhaul. For most of the competition’s history, the UK candidate has been chosen via a televised competition, but in 2021 the BBC enlisted the help of record label BMG. The ensuing null points disaster prompted Ben Mawson and Ed Millett of TaP Music – known for managing major pop stars such as Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding and Dua Lipa as well as indie darlings such as Caroline Polachek and Purity Ring – to get involved. The pair believed the UK was wasting an opportunity to showcase a promising artist to a huge global audience. They were also convinced there were some easy fixes to the UK’s predicament. “The bottom line was: why, in the home of some of the most wonderful pop music in the world, are we doing so badly each year?” says Mawson.
The first issue was the music. One problem, Millett thinks, was that the UK had been plumping for “radio-friendly pop songs” with slow-burn appeal – not ideal for a competition based on a single, high-impact performance. Instead they recommended something “very instant” that “would deliver on a one-listen”. The immediacy of Ryder’s song and his show-stopping voice from him meant he was chosen over some well-established artists that record companies pitched to the pair – including one who had recently scored a No 1 album.
Ryder’s enormous existing fanbase was also a consideration. Having toiled for years as the frontman of various bands, and with one scrapped solo album to his name, the Essex native struck social media gold during the pandemic, when his vocally arresting covers of songs such as Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time garnered millions of views. Now Ryder is the most popular UK musician on TikTok, with 12.4m followers. Yet he’s not sure this will give him any great advantage over his competitors. “TikTok is an amazing platform but it’s also incredibly unpredictable,” he says. “I don’t think it can be used to canvass for votes in an obvious way – it’s way less sales-y than any other platform, so I can’t say if it will make much difference.”
In fact, the team soon discovered that old-school promotional tactics were surprisingly important. Millett and Mawden consulted Andrew Lloyd Webber, who masterminded Jade Ewen’s 2009 performance of her – the last time the UK finished in the top five. He advised them to “get out there, go to all these countries, show them you’re likeable and you aren’t an arrogant Brit,” says Mawson. “It was thinking about it like a political campaign as much as a music campaign.” One strategy involved targeting specific countries. “One of the things I learned about Eurovision from the BBC was that San Marino and Malta have as much voting power as Germany and France. And it’s easier to do promo in Malta and San Marino, for example, versus trying to win over the whole of Germany.”
It’s not merely the neglect of on-the-ground promo that has historically made the UK seem “sniffy towards the competition”, thinks Mawson. Lack of money spent is also a factor – something evident from our previously underwhelming stage shows. This year, however, will be “spectacular”, Mawson confirms, thanks to a four-fold budget increase as supplied by Ryder’s label Parlophone. There is seemingly a new embrace of Eurovision’s campness, too. According to Ryder, his staging will be “pointy, flashy and metallic”. His set of him features a huge metal structure – reportedly the biggest prop in this year’s competition. Plus: “there’s a lot of glitz in the outfit as well – it’s Eurovision, you’ve got to go for it.”
Millett and Mawson are hoping this will be “the launchpad for a long and successful career” for Ryder, perhaps even emulating the huge post-competition success of last year’s Italian victors Måneskin. (The glam rockers broke the US and scored two UK Top 10 hits).
What they aren’t necessarily hoping for is a win on the night. “I think if the Ukraine wins no one will be complaining, because of the horrific situation that’s going on there,” says Mawson. “We actually donated our fee from the BBC to a Ukrainian direct action charity on the ground there, so that’s rightfully a focus. But second place would be incredible – that would be like winning in a way.” Ryder is also rooting for Ukraine, viewing Eurovision as “a celebration of inclusivity, peace and love. I think it’s important that it uses that platform to show solidarity to Ukraine – I know myself and all the other entrants are doing exactly the same.”
Yet the question remains: could an impressive entry and a humbler approach to marketing really override what often seems like an ingrained negative attitude towards the UK from our European neighbors – one that can have only been compounded by Brexit? “People have said it’s all political,” says an unconvinced Mawson. “We’ll find out on Saturday whether it really is.” For his part, Ryder is sure the idea that we’re intrinsically unpopular is all in our heads: at no point in his Eurovision journey, he has experienced any negativity. “People are generally really lovely and this stigma that we carry at home that the UK isn’t liked is something we choose to repeat – it’s nothing more than a negative thought pattern,” he insists. “We’re just torturing ourselves. It’s time we gave it up.”