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The BBC On How To Stage A Junior Eurovision Song Written by on November 24, 2023

The BBC have brought the girl group STAND UNIQU3 to compete here at Junior Eurovision. They have also brought a whole team behind them to stage and produce their entry. Ben Robertson speaks to Lee Smithurst, Dan Shipton and Jorge Antonio about how they have styled, staged and selected STAND UNIQU3 to do the UK proud at Junior Eurovision. 

Watch this. It’s not often that there’s something on the Eurovision stage that elicits an audible wow from my first watch, but this is a 30 second clip does something I don’t think I’ve seen done as well before in anything Eurovision related.

We’re being taken to a completely different world.

This is a rehearsal clip of the United Kingdom’s act at Junior Eurovision 2023. In this clip we witness a stunningly effective use of augmented reality to create a cartoonish city-scape where the band seamlessly fit into the video effects. There’s plenty of long shots that show off the technical mastery, phased in with Käärijä-esque shadow play enhancing the movements and the styling of the band STAND UNIQU3 on stage. All of this is interwoven by snappy camera close-ups on each of Hayla, Maisie and Yazmin, ensuring they retain that vital connection with the camera.

This is expertly done. This is arguably the production values that the best of the best would love to have at the Eurovision Song Contest – and to think here we have twelve and thirteen year old girls commanding the show from centre stage.

With this piece we speak to the United Kingdom delegation at Junior Eurovision to talk about the styling, the staging and the selection of STAND UNIQU3 that comes together in an attempt to bring us three minutes of pop perfection.

It Started With The Song

Lee Smithurst, fresh from being Head of Show at the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest, is here in Nice as BBC Studios Executive Supervisor at Junior Eurovision. Along with Creative Director Dan Shipton, the two brought the United Kingdom back into Junior Eurovision last year, succeeding in bringing Freya Skye to the top of the public vote and a 5th place overall.

Lee described how the process of finding a song and act for Junior Eurovision differs from the Eurovision Song Contest.

With Junior Eurovision it is usually back to front compared to the adult contest. Mine and Dan’s job in the adult contest would start with an artist, with a label, and the song comes to you and you create around it. Whereas for Junior Eurovision because we are in control of the song choice Dan and I can start a conversation really early about which songs fit what we want to do.

“We heard the ‘Back to Life’ demo initially and we thought it was a great place to start with a strong creative vision. Because of the theme this year is Heroes we thought we could build a whole world around the song, about bringing people back to life, putting it in this Sin City/Batman world.”

This song, and this vision, was already in draft format before auditions began for Nice. That did not mean though that the final package was set in stone at this early stage. The original concept was that ‘Back to Life’ would be performed by a soloist, but the team invited some of the acts to sing together after auditions, with Lee describing that the trio that became STAND UNIQU3 were “boisterous”, with “real chemistry” and “everything you want from a girl group.”

The decision was then made that not only would they be “stronger together” but that they could create an even strong visual aesthetic with them combined into one girl group.

The Sin City of Junior Eurovision

For those of you concerned that this year’s British Junior Eurovision entry will be following Sin City dark, violent themes that meant the film was rated 18 in cinemas, that’s not the direction the team are going for. The Sin City references here refer to how augmented reality transforms the stage into another world high up on the rooftops in the midst of darkness. It creates a vastly different setting than just a stage, and doing so is a very intentional part of the Junior Eurovision creative strategy, as Dan Shipton explains.

“If you look at the way we approached Freya last year and the girls this year, it’s all about creating a world. When you are working with any artist you want a narrative to tag on to but particularly when working with unestablished kids groups or children actually placing them in a world and creating characters around them allows them to latch onto something that can be brought out in their performance.”

STAND UNIQU3 rehearsing on the Junior Eurovision stage (Photo: Corinne Cumming, EBU)

“So with Freya we were able to create this Queens of Hearts world, and these girls are in this superhero/Sin City world. This gives them this level of superhero-ness which means they can be larger than life and be really powerful, celebrate their individuality and bring that out.

“We actually have a full augmented reality in the space with the idea of literally taking the three girls into a world that they own and that they can control. They have superpowers and they are literally living in a cartoon world that looks very realistic, enhanced by this Sin City reference. It allows them to do things larger than life, bringing those three dancers back to life and have this big euphoric party ending.”

For Dan the key term in trying to create a performance is characterisation. Citing Loreen’s victory in Liverpool as an example, despite being an established artist in her own right she was also playing a character on stage, and has spoken before about how she came up with the staging concept on first hearing ‘Tattoo’. The creation of this characterisation, one that “feels truly pop-aesthetic” to Dan Shipton could then go further to create every detail onwards, from costume to choreography.

How To Style 12 and 13 Year Old Girls

The choreography for this number was created by Kieran Daley-Ward together with Jorge Antonio, the latter of which also followed the team through the audition process. Choreography was not planned at the audition stage, instead designed in the weeks after STAND UNIQU3 were selected so it would be “playing to their strengths”, explained Lee Smithurst. This choreography started with the poses that each has during the song. This is the starting point, Dan Shipton explained, because for most of the performance the acts are on top of a huge city-scape, they wanted the three girls to develop “strong, bold, statue-esque” moments that could translate to any shot, close up or zoomed right out.

Furthermore there is an intentional nod to the world of TikTok trends to appeal to the younger generation, with the whole second half of the chorus a repeatable dance section where the most choreo work went into. The aim was that this section wouldn’t just be really fun to watch but also “relatable, copyable and learnable”, in the quest for a visual hook to stick out and grab attention on and beyond the stage.

Dan Shipton championed the importance that final product featured “three different girls with three different styles”. They wanted to ensure that the number would showcase each of the three girls’ individuality. “Standing unique while being unified” – a motto that isn’t just present in the band’s name but also in their style.

Jorge Antonio is the stylist in charge of helping Kayla, Maisie and Yazmin find that style. He came in once those early creative visions were in place and was the driving force between the black and white costuming that STAND UNIQU3 have showcased throughout the build-up to their performance. When it came to styling the group, all three of the band members separately created their own mood boards which Jorge found “really interesting to see what the girls came with and what their personalities are.”

With this process, he pointed out that Maisie had a collection of pictures from both Beyoncé and Grease-era Olivia Newton John, whereas Hayla brought to the table a very cool “Billie Eilish style”. His role was then to marry the creative vision of the number to the girls’ own personal aesthetic. The end result was to fit Hayla’s style to have everything super oversized, full of deconstructed denim and chains, while Maisie’s character is a “little more sophisticated”, even featuring a little bow to dress her character up.

Hayla, Maisie and Yazmin on the Red Carpet at the Junior Eurovision Opening Ceremony (Photo: Corinne Cumming, EBU)

“I just try to make sure that first and foremost that they feel larger than life, that’s the most important part of it,” explained Jorge. Then of course this also means that Junior Eurovision making sure that the image is on point for the age group. “So if one of the girls wants to wear a dress,” Jorge continues, “we just make sure they have some tights under it. If they are performing we want them to be super comfortable, for example with Hayla’s oversized look.”

Dan Shipton chips in:

“Actually all we are doing is representing what kids are wearing and are doing these days. We are not playing to the outdated little kids thing that was ten years ago. We are playing to what kids are wearing and what is comfortable for our band to be wearing and what they want to wear. Everything is directed by them in that sense.

“We are taking their normal aesthetic and then supersizing it for camera and making it a part of our world. It is always an elevated version of themselves.”

A Modern Junior Eurovision Aesthetic

There is no mistaking that the package that the United Kingdom have brought to Junior Eurovision this year fits into modern music trends, the song, staging and styling is a marriage of the creative visions of the BBC team and the input from the three artists themselves. Junior Eurovision wasn’t always like this, with Dan Shipton describing this competition a decade ago as “sickly sweet” and “nothing I want to be involved in”.

However, Junior Eurovision today is a transformed show, with only half of the nations who took part in 2013 here in Nice, and now all five nations of the Big 5 are taking part, when ten years ago there were none.

The irony is that it [Junior Eurovision] is the complete opposite now,” explained Dan Shipton. He is motivated by Junior Eurovision today for a variety of factors, discovering new talent, testing out groundbreaking production ideas and getting input from the kids. Yes, there was a creative concept from day one, but lifting up the involvement of young people was vital to their motivation and engagement.

“What we as adults have to do is stop putting our version of what we think a kid is onto the kids, we need to allow them to educate us. Actually what you will find is that they are far more sophisticated, far more worldly and far more forward thinking than you would ever give credit to.”

Lee Smithurst continues.

“We always were on the same page. If we were going to do this we want to find the next generation of artists and give them the main creative input on the show. For me Junior Eurovision should be about discovering new talent and giving them a showcase for their talent.”

“We want as the BBC first and foremost is that these children have the most memorable lifetime experience that hopefully inspires them to go on to great things through having a really positive experience.”

Having the children give their input at every level of the creative process has been key to their work.

Lee Smithurst was Executive Producer and Head of Show at Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool (Photo: Corinne Cumming, EBU)

The United Kingdom’s Shift In Focus

This is the second year that the United Kingdom are taking part in Junior Eurovision under the BBC. That they are bringing people like Dan Shipton and Lee Smithurst to this competition is one level of the commitment the BBC has in Eurovision in 2023.

But it isn’t just that they are present. They are bringing their A game. Part of this is the involvement of the young people throughout the process, meaning that the characters Hayla, Maisie and Yazmin play on stage are the best version of themselves they possibly can be.

And that A game extends to the staging and creative concept, which is game changing for Junior Eurovision.

“It’s really important for us to do something credible and modern,” explains Dan Shipton, highlighting that at Junior Eurovision there is “more space to play, where we can test some new things out”. The end result is the something that “quite a few delegations” have taken interest here in Nice, with a view to taking their own augmented reality staging to Malmö next year.

“To be able to do it we have taken the whole contest team on a journey, a technical journey, and it has worked out and it is super exciting. When you see it you genuinely go somewhere else where no other country can go.”

Dan Shipton was lead creative director at Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool (Photo: Corinne Cumming, EBU)

The United Kingdom’s participation at Junior Eurovision is ground-breaking for its on stage production. It’s also ground-breaking for how they have crafted a concept around the artists they brought here to the Côte d’Azur. Both show that the BBC are now a delegation to watch at Eurovision and Junior Eurovision this year and beyond.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended 23 National Finals in the world of Eurovision. With that experience behind him he writes for ESC Insight with his analysis and opinions about anything and everything Eurovision Song Contest that is worth telling.

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