Britain's rocky Eurovision relationship is rekindled by unlikely boyband battle

Jedward and Blue among favourites to win contest, and are set to cash in despite tacky traditions

It is loved and derided in equal measure – a festival of terrible fashion, Euro power-ballads, unlikely rap numbers and ill-advised dance routines. But Britain's rocky relationship with Eurovision could be rekindled this year by a boyband well past their sell-by date and a certain pair of Irish twins with gravity-defying hair.

The bookies certainly think so – Blue and Jedward are among the top five favourites to win – and there are strong hopes that, after a disappointing 2010 competition, the unlikely entries will bring a turnaround in fortunes.

Last year the UK's entry narrowly avoided "nul points" to finish at the very bottom of the leaderboard, and ratings for the BBC's coverage of the show fell in the face of competition from Britain's Got Talent, so there is much resting on the shoulders – and hair – of this year's contestants.

"Ratings did take a little bit of a dip last year," said Phil Parsons, head of the UK delegation and executive producer of the BBC's Eurovision coverage. "We're hoping an act like Blue this year will be good for the ratings. A good British entry is important."

Jedward – the former X Factor contestants John and Edward Grimes, who almost won over Simon Cowell with their original but not particularly musical interpretations of Ghostbusters and Oops! I Did It Again – should also prove a draw for UK audiences, while representing Ireland.

Blue were fourth favourite for the title on Friday , behind France and Ireland and equal with Azerbaijan, according to William Hill – who admitted they had been surprised by the reception to the boyband, who retired in 2005. "Blue started at 16-1 which I thought at the time was far too short," said the bookmaker's spokesman, Rupert Adams.

"Last year we felt that the political situation in Europe and tactical voting meant that the UK hadn't got a hope. But for some reason Blue have done very well. They're still popular in Europe and they're down to 10-1 and are genuine contenders now."

Doing even better in Düsseldorf are Jedward. Having romped through their semi-final on Thursday evening the pair are now second favourites at 11-4.

"We thought they were a joke that wouldn't appeal to the European sense of humour," said Adams. "But they seem to have the [2006 Finnish winners] Lordi effect in that they have this incredible momentum despite the fact they are utterly rubbish."

When Parsons approached Blue they were already considering a presumably Take That-inspired reunion. It took a couple of months of talks to persuade the band. "Acts are very, very wary," he said. "There is a stigma about Eurovision. It's been cheesy, but it's not really that any more."

Britain has also never taken the song contest particularly seriously. "Other countries don't get it," said John Kennedy O'Connor, the British author of The Eurovision Song Contest – The Official History.

"People from other countries say to me: 'Britain gave us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, so why do you send these acts to Eurovision each year?' But this year we've sent a credible band who have had success in the UK and Europe. It shows that we are serious."

Despite a distinct lack of recent serious acts – the last time the UK won was in 1997 with Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves – Britain still loves a Eurovision party, with fans planning themed events for the evening.

"It's my favourite day of the year. I've even turned down free Pink Floyd tickets for Eurovision," said Lydia Mulkeen, 24, from London. "I have a party every year – it's a family tradition. We have scorecards with different categories: costume, novelty factor, key changes and a national cliche bonus.

"I love how Europe takes it so seriously and we don't."

David Simpson, a research student and Eurovision enthusiast who will also be hosting a party, said the reason other countries took it more seriously was that they needed the exposure Eurovision provided.

"It's a chance to break through. Whereas in the UK, singers don't need Eurovision – which is why we generally get such bad singers," he said.

Not all nations view the contest as a matter of life or death, however. "Some take it seriously and some take more of a sense of fun. The French a couple of years ago sent Jean Paul Gaultier to do the commentary," said Parsons.

But everyone has an opinion on the political voting that has come to delight and infuriate audiences across Europe, with neighbouring countries and those with historical ties awarding each other strangely high marks.

"It's improved now there's 50% televoting and 50% juries," Parsons said. "The thing is, we moan about political voting, but it actually tends to be cultural really. If you look at eastern Europe, for instance, the countries tend to have a sound they like and recognise."

In any case, it might not be the tactical votes that really determine the outcome of Saturday night's show. Not only is France's entry, sung by tenor Amaury Vassili, considered a very hot favourite, but there is also the running order to overcome.

"It's very important. Jedward are at number six, which hasn't won since 1957. The winner nearly always comes from the last 10. In fact generally they are in the last five," said O'Connor.

"Blue are at number 14, which has produced five winners – and Bucks Fizz won from number 14. That's very encouraging, so that could help them."

It seems unlikely that Britain will be seriously worrying while waiting for the results. At least not while there is still a Eurovision party to enjoy.


Vicky Frost

The GuardianTramp

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