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Eurovision 2023: BBC producer teases Ukraine references: ‘Be prepared to be surprised’

Exclusive: Andrew Cartmell, the Executive Producer of the Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC, speaks to Attitude about incorporating Ukrainian influences in this year's live shows.

By Alastair James

The Eurovision Song Contest stage
The Eurovision Song Contest stage (Image: BBC)

Andrew Cartmell believes he has “the best job in television” right now. That might be a fair assessment. But as the Executive Producer of the Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC, there’s a lot riding on his shoulders.

A big Eurovision fan from a young age, “it was always a dream,” to work on Eurovision once he got into TV. As the BBC’s Head of Delegation last year Andrew was a crucial part of the team that cracked the code and saw Sam Ryder rocket to the number two spot below Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra.

With the ongoing war, it was not much of a surprise when it was announced at the end of July 2022 that the UK, as runners-up, would host the 2023 contest on behalf of Ukraine. Around that time Andrew was working on the closing ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games when the BBC approached him about whether he’d like to produce the 2023 Contest.

He was of course delighted to. “I was like, of course! It’s a dream come true. It’s the icing on the cake for someone who loves Eurovision and who works in entertainment TV.” With just a day off after the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony in August, Andrew was back to work as part of the team at BBC Studios. For him, it’s a real vindication of the team’s work with Sam Ryder last year. And even with a wealth of experience in live TV including Children in Need, Sport Relief, and Strictly Come Dancing, Andrew admits there’s a “huge pressure” going into this week. This is, after all, Eurovision.

“Everything’s going really well”

Thankfully, so far, preparations “are going incredibly well.” Contestants, interval acts, and presenters have all had a chance to walk through things ahead of this week. “Everything’s going really well,” Andrew affirms with a sense of cautious relief.

Andrew is here to talk Attitude through how Eurovision this year will pay homage and tribute to Ukraine, the 2022 winners.

The process, he explains, was all about striking a balance. At the BBC’s official Eurovision launch in Liverpool in April, Eurovision presenter and Ted Lasso star, Hannah Waddingham, spoke of the need to balance the “love, and joy, and music,” of Eurovision with the reality of the ongoing conflict. That’s something Andrew and his team have absolutely not shied away from he confirms.

The Eurovision branding in Liverpool
The Eurovision branding in Liverpool (Image: BBC)

One example Andrew points to as evidence of this is the already announced performance in Semi Final 1 by Ukraine’s 2010 Eurovision contestant, Alyosha, and Liverpool’s Rebecca Ferguson. The pair will perform a new arrangement of Duran Duran’s ‘Ordinary World’ which will tell the story of many like Alyosha who had to flee Ukraine at the onset of the war leaving many of their loved ones behind.

“It’s a beautiful performance,” Andrew promises. It’s also been created in collaboration with the Ukrainian production crew, Freckled Sky, as well as the creative director from the Ukrainian broadcaster, UA: PBC. “It’s a very beautiful multimedia performance, which I think people will hopefully be really impressed by,” Andrew continues.

Additionally, the team has also worked to pay tribute to the UK, and its musical heritage with particular emphasis on Liverpool, considered the birthplace of pop.

“We can sense check things all the time”

Other Ukrainian influences, both historic and modern, are being incorporated into interval performances, the flag parade in the grand final, the choice of presenters, the opening films, and more. Ukrainian creatives have also been included at every level, from producers to lighting and sound technicians, camera crews, and floor managers. “We’ve got at all levels Ukrainians throughout the production. So, we can sense check things all the time, we can be sure that what we’re doing tonally is correct,” says Andrew.

Having that level of incorporation has meant the UK team members have heard powerful testimonies of people’s experiences. “I think even more so you feel a responsibility because you get to know people on an individual basis. And actually, probably the most important thing is you understand how important what we’re doing is for Ukraine, for Ukrainians. That has really become apparent to me,” says Andrew.

The Eurovision Song Contest 2023 trophy
The Eurovision Song Contest 2023 trophy (Image: Corinne Cumming/EBU)

At the same time, Andrew says he’s felt the pride of the Ukrainian team members. “They feel they’re genuinely doing something for their country by reminding people what’s happening. I can’t lie I do feel a huge responsibility. The whole process has been quite emotional.”

It’s also personal for Andrew. One of his good Eurovision friends is Ukrainian. They met in 2009/2010 and have been in constant contact since the war began in 2022. “So, it means something more, there is something really important at the heart of it. As well as being a huge Eurovision fan, that element also feels really important. If the Ukrainian public is proud of the shows, that will feel like a really important job that we’ve done.”

“It was a big job, but I think we’ve managed it”

Other Ukrainian influences include a celebration of Ukraine’s success at Eurovision – they’re the only country to have won three times since 2000. Other performances see Eurovision made contemporary with rapper OTOY. He will join Ukraine’s 2014 entry Mariya Yaremchuk in a performance called ‘Music Unites Generations’. 14-year-old Ukrainian Junior Eurovision representative Zlata Dziunka will also join them.

And of course, the 2022 Eurovision winners, Kalush Orchestra, will open the grand final. Singer-songwriter, Julia Sanina, will also be presenting alongside Waddingham and Alesha Dixon. Sanina and her band, The Hardkiss, will also be performing in Semi-Final 1.

Julia Sanina, Eurovision
Julia Sanina is one of the hosts of Eurovision semi-finals and the grand final (Image: BBC)

The BBC has also utilised Ukrainian production crews for filming in Ukraine which audiences will see during the live shows. Logistically it’s not been the simplest, Andrew explains, with visas having to be sorted out in Poland. “It was a big job, but I think we’ve managed it.”

The Ukrainian influences extend beyond the Liverpool Arena. The colours of the Ukrainian flag are displayed all around the city as is artwork from Ukraine. Cultural events offer a chance to explore Ukrainian culture as well.

“Be prepared to be surprised when you watch the shows”

There are things we have yet to hear about and won’t do until the live shows. Even what has been announced on paper, “I don’t think they quite capture what I think we’re going to show. I think what you get from the shows, hopefully, is emotion, humour, and warmth. Something uniquely British, but also on behalf of Ukraine.”

Andrew is understandably tight-lipped, wanting to keep surprises for the audience. His advice: “Be prepared to be surprised when you watch the shows and definitely watch the semi-finals. Do not just think of Eurovision as the Grand Final. There are some real treats in store right from the first couple of minutes of semi-final one.”

The two Semi-Finals are on Tuesday 9 May and Thursday 11 May. The Grand Final will then take place on Saturday 13 May.