June 3, 2023

When Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest last year, it won the right to host this year’s event. And despite Russia’s invasion, it insisted it would.

Ukraine’s public broadcaster has issued plans to stage the spectacle in the west of the country, out of range of Russian missiles, while politicians, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the nation would make it work.

Even some foreign leaders supported the cause. Last summer, Britain’s then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told reporters that Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest “fair and fair”, so it should be the host country regardless of the war.

“It’s a year away,” Johnson said. “It’ll be fine.”

But Ukraine’s dream of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest this year has not come true. On Saturday night, the final of the glitzy match – expected to attract a television audience of around 160 million – will take place 2,500 kilometers from Kiev, in Liverpool, England.

Last summer, after months of discussions, the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the contest, agreed with the Ukrainian authorities to the change of venue. With Great Britain finishing second in last year’s contest, it was an obvious choice. The public broadcaster, the BBC, agreed to host the event.

This is Britain’s ninth time hosting the competition since its inception in 1956, but the BBC team knew this year would be different. Broadcasters hosting Eurovision normally use the competition to advertise their country and its culture to a worldwide television audience. This time Britain should take a back seat.

Martin Osterdahl, executive supervisor for Eurovision at the European Broadcasting Union, said in an interview that this year’s event would be “the celebration of Ukraine”. Britain happened to host it, he added, echoing a British pop act sentiment.

Shortly after the switch was announced, the BBC introduced a competition to select a city to host the final, eventually choosing Liverpool over six other contenders. In October, the BBC hired Martin Green, an events producer who oversaw the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, to oversee the event.

In a recent video interview, the 51-year-old Green said he immediately flew to Warsaw and met Ukrainian broadcasters.

Those officials said they wanted a song contest that was a huge “celebration of the great Ukrainian culture — past, present and future,” Green recalled. They also wanted the reality of the Russian invasion to be shown on screen – something with the potential to strike a somber tone for the traditionally campy, gaudy spectacle. But they insisted the game still had to be fun, Green said.

“It was very important to have that blessing — that permission — about the nature and style of the show,” Green said.

Back in Britain, Green had just eight months to host the competition. He assembled a team – including outside agencies – to work on the event. (More than 1,000 people contributed, he said.) Each week, his associates held video calls with Ukrainian colleagues to discuss and agree on aspects of the contest. These included the slogan of this edition, “United by Music”; the set design; and the special performances that take place on stage during competition breaks.

Green said the Ukrainian side sometimes had to postpone scheduled calls at the last minute “because an air raid siren had gone off”, or cancel meetings entirely due to power cuts.

“Those were incredibly sobering moments,” Green said. “Ukrainians have such an enormous willpower to keep going, that sometimes you could easily forget it.”

Germany’s Nenov, creative director at Ukraine’s public broadcaster, was an essential sounding board for the British team, Green said. In a recent interview, Nenov said it was sometimes “surreal” discussing sparkly outfits and dance performances as Russian bombs fell on Ukraine. “The past six months have probably been the most emotional of my life,” he said. “But thanks to the Eurovision song contest I was able to stay strong. It gave me the opportunity to continue.”

Nenov, 33, oversees several special performances by Ukrainian musicians who will play during the competition breaks. In doing so, he said, he wanted to change viewers’ perception of his country. When Ukraine hosted Eurovision in 2005 and 2017, he added, those broadcasts included clichés of traditional life, including embroidered outfits and dancing girls with flowers in their hair. “That’s not Ukraine,” Nenov said; this time he would show a more modern vision of the country.

Both Nenov and Green declined to give details about Saturday’s grand finale, claiming it should come as a surprise to television viewers, but both said the show featured Ukrainian and British pop stars. The war would be mentioned, Green said, but in an elegant way that was appropriate for “a really big singing contest.”

Osterdahl, the official of the European Broadcasting Union, said this year’s collaboration between two countries to host the Eurovision Song Contest was “unprecedented”. But if Ukraine wins again on Saturday, he will need another country to host Ukraine’s next party. One day, he said, he hoped the war would end and Ukraine itself could host it.