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Hannah Waddingham as Eurovision host was a stroke of genius

It was no mean feat to get our grumpy nation excited, but Waddingham achieved it with her brilliant Eurovision hosting this week. Jessie Thompson explores how the ‘Game of Thrones’ star’s moment to shine finally arrived

Saturday 13 May 2023 12:12 BST
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‘Ted Lasso’ star Hannah Waddingham hosts this weekend’s Eurovision final
‘Ted Lasso’ star Hannah Waddingham hosts this weekend’s Eurovision final (Getty)

I thought it couldn’t be done, but Hannah Waddingham has done it. After the washout coronation weekend, the Ted Lasso star has managed to revive the enthusiasm of this grumpy, cynical, perpetually disappointed nation. Hosting the Eurovision semi-finals, a warm-up to tonight’s grand final which she will also present, Waddingham warbled, shimmied, grinned, gurned and even spoke French. Alesha Dixon, a co-host, could only look on in fearsome awe. The impassioned tweets rolled in: “Whoever hired Hannah Waddingham for Eurovision should probably be made director general of the BBC,” said one. “Hannah Waddingham speaking French has made me bisexual,” said another. Someone simply posted a video of King Charles declaring “I come not to be served, but to serve” at his coronation but with the caption, “Hannah Waddingham presenting Eurovision yesterday”.

Even if we don’t take home the trophy (it might happen! OK, it won’t), we can at least say that Waddingham has made the UK look quite good on the global stage. Which is ironic, given that the musical theatre star turned Emmy Award-winning actor once admitted that “I had to go to America to be taken seriously”.

Now 48, Waddingham is an empowering mid-life success story, but she had been putting in the man hours on the London stage long before her rise to fame. Her mother and maternal grandparents were opera singers, and she certainly inherited the pipes: she has a four-octave vocal range, her mellifluous voice capable of rocketing up to earthquake-causing levels that leave us all wondering when she breathes. After training at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (which closed abruptly last year), she landed her first major stage role in 2000 in The Beautiful Game, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s now mostly forgotten football musical. Later, she starred in Monty Python musical Spamalot in the West End and on Broadway, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, and received Olivier nominations for all three. Each time, she went away – surprisingly – empty-handed, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered her: she hosted this year’s Olivier Awards, saying it felt “like I’ve come back to my tribe”. (She was miffed, however, that Spamalot didn’t win best musical after receiving seven nods, telling the Evening Standard at the time she was “totally pissed off… I’m actually angry”.)

Despite the fact she shone on stage, for a long time Waddingham only seemed to land bit parts on screen, something she put down to casting directors’ refusal to attend musicals. It’s a snub she remembered; after winning Best Supporting Actress for Ted Lasso at the 2021 Emmys, she said fiercely in her speech: “West End musical theatre performers need to be on screen more. Please give them a chance because we won’t let you down.”

Mel Giedroyc churns butter behind Hannah Waddington at Eurovision

After a lead role in the sixth season of Benidorm, Waddingham’s next breakthrough came a year later in Game of Thrones. As stern-looking nun Septa Unella, she appeared in one of the show’s most notorious scenes, shouting “Shame!” at Cersei as she walked naked down the city steps. Later, her character was waterboarded, something that Waddingham described as “other than childbirth… the worst day of my life”.

It would be wrong, though, to call Waddingham’s rise a Cinderella story. Her years of slogging may be relatable, but better to think of her as a diva in waiting: camp, regal, commanding

Her most game-changing job yet – Ted Lasso – is something she credits to the practice of “manifesting”, but it sounds like it came more from a place of desperation. While Waddingham was away on a shoot in Belfast, her daughter became very unwell (she has the autoimmune condition Henoch-Schonlein purpura) and the actor flew home in a panic, henceforth promising to put her daughter first. But nor did she want to lose the career momentum she was building. Two months later, she won the role of Richmond FC chairwoman Rebecca Welton in Jason Sudeikis’s corny but lovable football coach sitcom on Apple TV+, with filming taking place 30 minutes from her house.

First introduced to audiences as she fired the team’s sexist dinosaur of a coach, the tenacious but battle-scared Rebecca became an immediate fan favourite. On YouTube, you’ll find a compilation simply called “Rebecca Welton eating biscuits for a minute straight”. She, like Waddingham, is a mix of both the silly and the serious, seeming to dare you to underestimate her. And, like Waddingham, she has a formidable pair of lungs – when Rebecca sangLet It Go” at a Richmond FC karaoke sesh (definitely something all Premier League football teams do), audiences without knowledge of her background were astonished.

From L-R: Eurovision hosts Alesha Dixon, Julia Sanina and Waddingham (PA)

It would be wrong, though, to call Waddingham’s rise a Cinderella story. Her years of slogging may be relatable, but better to think of her as a diva-in-waiting: camp, regal, commanding. At 5ft 11in, she towered over the King when she met him for a Eurovision event. And with her unusually animated face, all expressive up-and-down eyebrows and toothy grins, she always seems to be going 10 per cent harder than anyone else. Look at her this week: she cheered on a Bucks Fizz cameo like she’d just seen Kevin de Bruyne equalise for Man City (or should that be Jamie Tartt for Richmond FC). You really never can tell if she’s about to burst into an 11 o’clock number or give you a hug.

Her newfound fame goes against what she knows. In 2021, she told The Times that, “I’ve been a grafter all my career”. But she’s not bitter that it came late, saying, “I think it’s reassuring that, here I am, a single parent, at the age of 47, with the greatest success of my career”, adding that, “I’m actually quite glad … in terms of suddenly your career going into warp speed, I can see why younger people lose their s***”.

The screen roles now come in – Waddingham is currently starring in ITV’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and has a forthcoming role in the latest Mission Impossible film. But after Eurovision, it would be a joy to see her pivot to more gigs that are pure Waddingham. Or, even better: to see her back performing on stage.

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