The United Kingdom last won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997 with Love Shine a Light performed by Katrina and the Waves. As a result, the BBC staged the contest in Birmingham, the second-largest city in the UK, the following year. Terry Wogan and Ulrika Jonsson were the hosts for the memorable show. Following a website and social media competition, the dynamic duo were voted the favourite Eurovision presenters of the 1990s.
The 1990s were a time a great change in both Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. The decade saw the largest increase of participating countries since the competition began in 1956. It was also the decade that saw productions of the show becoming ever more ambitious and the live audience grow ever more vibrant. The 1990s are probably best remembered for being the decade that Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, roared. Ireland won four out of five contests, a string of victories that was broken by Norway in 1995, with a Celtic-inspired song and an Irish-born performer.
The 1998 Eurovision Song Contest was a landmark production. The BBC produced a ground-breaking show featuring a new innovative scoreboard, new broadcasting techniques and for the first time a watermark feature on-screen identifying which country was performing. The simple yet effective innovation continues to be used in the production today. It was the last year that the orchestra was used, the last year of language restrictions and the first year that televoting was used by the majority of participating countries. Dana International’s victory with the song Diva showed that Europe was perhaps a more tolerant place than first assumed.
The BBC opted to showcase the diversity of the United Kingdom in the 1998 contest and the interval act that year, featuring everything from bagpipes to banghra, is an example of this. The choice of presenters for the show also reflected this theme; an Irishman and a Swede were chosen to host the British production.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, Sir Terry had a 50-year long career on radio and television, including presenting the popular Wake up to Wogan on BBC Radio 2 or the Wogan chat show. Sir Terry Wogan was the British voice of the Eurovision Song Contest for many years, first providing the BBC Radio commentary in 1971 and television commentary every year from 1980 until he stood down in 2008. Over the years he also presented the UK's national selection, famously announcing the wrong winner by accident in 2007. Terry sadly passed away earlier this year after a short illness.
Ulrika Jonsson was a famous name in the UK having risen to prominence presenting the weather on UK breakfast station TV-AM in the 1980s. Born in Sweden in 1967 she moved to the UK when she was 12. In her memoirs she cited hosting the Eurovision Song Contest as one of the highlights of her career. The 1998 contest also provided Ulrika with one of the most memorable moments in the history of voting in the competition.
Ulrika and Terry fought off strong competition from Morten Harket who hosted the 1996 contest in Oslo with Ingvild Bryn. When asked about her recollections of the show in 1996 Ingvild, who still works for Norwegian broadcaster NRK, had happy memories despite her initial hesitation.
I was a correspondent in Washington when I was asked to host the show. I had just one answer: NO! The day after I still said no! The third day was also no! But after three weeks, I said ok, it's once in a lifetime! I had to learn to say "Good evening", "point" and count to 12 in French, a language I couldn't speak at all. The day before the show I called all the French-speaking countries to make sure nobody asked me any questions on air. I also remember that it surprised me a lot that Ireland won the competition, I expected Sweden to win. I still watch the show today - Ingvild Bryn.
Mary Kennedy, who presented the 40th Eurovision Song Contest in 1995, is also a firm favourite among many Eurovision fans. After Eurovision Kennedy continued to have a successful career and is known to many in Ireland for being the face of the shows Nationwide and Open House. She has fond memories of the 1995 contest, the year that Irish broadcaster RTE set the record for staging the contest on three consecutive occasions.
My abiding memory of my Eurovision was the spectacular entrance afforded to me by the set designer in 1995. I appeared at the top of a flight of darkened stairs covered in black silk which fell away to reveal lit steps as I made my way down. The trick was to descend without looking down and counting the steps in my head. And not to trip!! I was taken aback by the tumultuous applause of the studio audience. It was so encouraging and uplifting. A wonderful moment in a wonderful evening. I feel honoured to have represented RTE and Ireland as presenter of the Eurovision Song Contest - Mary Kennedy.
Fionnuala Sweeney presented the show in Millstreet in 1993, finished third in our poll. When asked about her time presenting Eurovision she remains immensely proud. Fionnuala went on to work as the main news anchor on CNN based in Atlanta and London.
It was a wonderful experience. My pride at having been selected to represent my country has only increased over the years. When I see how the contest has evolved I am even more honoured to have been associated with it - Fionnuala Sweeney.