There have been many moving, generous shows of solidarity with Ukraine since Russia invaded, but none more magnanimous than the whole of Europe, this time last year, standing as one and pretending to like a song called Stefania by a group named Kalush Orchestra.
A continent-wide wave of support from televoters meant Ukraine won the 2022 Eurovision song contest but, with the country unable to host this year’s event for obvious reasons, the UK stepped in to deputise. So last night was Britain’s first staging of Eurovision since 1998, warmly embraced by the city of Liverpool under the slogan “United by Music” and flawlessly produced by BBC Studios live from the Liverpool Arena.
The show opened with a reprise of Stefania, our polite indulgence made easier by the distraction of a video treatment with shades of the filmed inserts at the 2012 Olympics: making inexplicable guest appearances were Joss Stone, a demonically grinning Andrew Lloyd Webber and, seated at a piano in a Windsor Castle drawing room, the Princess of Wales.
When that was over, it was time to meet the hosts. The show solved the problem of whether regular BBC commentator Graham Norton ought to stay in the booth and talk exclusively to UK viewers, or go on stage to co-present the show itself, by making him do both. He was there with Hannah Waddingham, Alesha Dixon and Ukrainian rockstar Julia Sanina for their introductory remarks, before trotting back to his booth.
The performances began, as only Eurovision could, with the Gaga-Dada kick-drum funk of Austria’s Teya & Salena, a duo singing about being possessed by Edgar Allan Poe (chorus: “Poe! Poe! Poe, Poe, Poe!”) with Poe’s face rendered in glowing red pixels on the 50ft screen behind them. “There’s a signature dance move coming up,” said Mel Giedroyc, filling in on the voiceover while Norton made his way up the stairs. “Auntie Gladys, do your calf stretches please.”
Norton was audibly breathless as he introduced the second act, Portugal, whose song was fast fado with a crimson-feathered Weimar flourish. After that, he and Eurovision settled into their rhythm, the songs offering the modern mix of mechanised modern pop – big wobbly key changes have long since gone out of fashion – and bewildering regional eccentricity.
Once again ably doing the affectionate mickey-taking perfected by the late Terry Wogan, Norton helped us through it all, kindly bigging up some of the less innovative acts and slyly dismissing also-rans, while also managing to gently satirise the presenting, despite being a part of the presentation team himself.
The first big hitter came in the form of Sweden, with their competitor, Loreen, remorselessly imprinting the chorus of power ballad Tattoo – big swooping note, cute trilling hook, big swooping note – into brains across the continent, despite lying down for most of the performance. Before the competition started, the bookies had had it as a straight fight between Sweden and Finland, a country where everyone from the ministry of economic affairs to the Ateneum Art Museum had spent the week tweeting memes featuring plastic green bolero sleeves. Wearing them, and not a lot else, on the night was Käärijä, belting out the hard, happy techno of his song Cha Cha Cha and mastering choreography that required him to ride a human centipede of cerise-clad ballroom dancers like a long, fabulous horse.
Apart from Austria, crowd-pleasers included Belgium, with a lovely slice of diva-disco that might have filled floors in gay clubs in about 1992; an inspirational ballad from Italy, which could be the hero’s-epiphany showstopper in the third act of a mid-ranking musical; and Norway, with lyrics about a warrior ruling “the north and southern seas” sung by Alessandra in a gold crown and shoulder-padded green tunic, a song that sounded like the theme to a Game of Thrones spin-off where everything happens at three times the speed.
The wildcard was Croatia with Mama ŠČ!, a stomping terrace chant performed by a quintet of hard men in fuchsia lipstick, handlebar moustaches, and trenchcoats that were ditched halfway through to reveal plain vests and pants. It looked like the result of someone lacing the porridge in a maximum-security prison with PCP, just before the lags who rule the murder wing take the stage at the Christmas talent show.
The star in the contestants’ midst was Waddingham, whose hosting of the semi-finals – exuding the excitement of a fan who is also a consummately professional broadcaster, despite the theatre and TV actor’s lack of presenting experience – had catapulted her immediately to the status of Eurovision camp cult heroine. Waddingham didn’t have much chance to bring her strutting, voguing, gurning charm to an international audience in the early stages, and Giedroyc unfortunately spoke over her unlikely catchphrase: “Attention! Vous ne pouvez pas voter pour votre propre pays! D’accord?” As the night wore on, however, Waddingham’s manic enthusiasm radiated.
The voting was a formality, with Sweden the clear winners after about five minutes – douze points from every other country’s jury vote – and an unfortunately poor Ukraine effort well behind, along with the UK’s bland, too overtly Eurovision-y song. Waddingham and Norton on camera, and an increasingly loose and funny Giedroyc on comms, did however ace it on our behalf.
Loreen, in her complex skintight taupe like an extra from The Mandalorian, tossed her hair and nail extensions one more time and celebrated victory. Peace, love and gloriously diverse chaos had won as well.