From Eurovision to Christmas advert queen: How 2023 became the year of Hannah Waddingham

Hannah Waddingham’s appearances in multiple Christmas adverts this festive season have already cemented her as the breakout star of 2023.

The multi-talented British performer and Ted Lasso actor is currently giving Mariah Carey a run for her self-appointed title of “Queen of Christmas”.

Not only can she be seen in ads for festive tipple Baileys (and Marks & Spencer’s controversial offering) but Waddingham is releasing her own musical extravaganza filmed at the London Coliseum, Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas, arriving on Apple TV+ later this month.

It’s a fitting end to a sparkling year for Waddingham. The 49-year-old has hosted the most glamorous events of 2023, from the Olivier Awards to Eurovision.

And now, adding to her already impressive year, she was pictured with Prince William as host of the Earthshot prize, just as she entered the bookies’ race to replace Holly Willoughby on This Morning.

But while Waddingham’s career surge has been branded “an empowering mid-life success story”, the actor spent decades working in London’s theatre scene before she entered the mainstream.

Hannah Waddingham pictured with the Prince of Wales (PA)
Hannah Waddingham pictured with the Prince of Wales (PA)

With her mother a member of the English National Opera, Waddingham grew up around the theatre, and she made her West End debut in 2000 aged 26. She would go on to perform across the UK and on Broadway in New York, some of her most notable roles coming as the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot (a part she also reprised on Broadway), Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, and Kate in Kiss Me, Kate. She was nominated for the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical for all three, although was pipped to the post each time.

Along the way, Waddingham made sporadic appearances on screen. There were roles in Brookside, Hollyoaks and Doctors – those most reliable employers of British working actors in the 2000s – and small parts in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables film.

On stage in Ben Elton and Rod Stewart’s 2003 musical ‘Tonight’s The Night' (Getty Images)
On stage in Ben Elton and Rod Stewart’s 2003 musical ‘Tonight’s The Night' (Getty Images)

To non-thesps, however, she was best known as Game of Thrones’s Septa Unella, AKA the bell-ringer and “shame”-shouter from Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) walk of atonement. Despite only appearing in eight episodes in the HBO drama’s later seasons, her character went through a lot, and Waddingham kept the “shame bell” after the show ended.

Further TV roles came in the late 2010s, when Waddingham picked up a recurring role as one of Jackson’s (Kedar Williams-Stirling) mums in Netflix’s Sex Education. But it was Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s feel-good football comedy that ran for three seasons from 2020 to earlier this year, that catapulted Waddingham into the spotlight.

Playing Rebecca Welton, the owner of football club AFC Richmond, she gained international praise and an Emmy in 2021. In her acceptance speech, she told the entertainment industry not to discount stage stars: “West End musical theatre performers need to be on screen more. Please give them a chance because we won’t let you down.”

With Jason Sudeikis in ‘Ted Lasso’ (Apple)
With Jason Sudeikis in ‘Ted Lasso’ (Apple)

With Rebecca occasionally belting out a tune on Ted Lasso, fans soon became aware of Waddingham’s theatrical background, and she popped up as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK for the musical-themed episode.

Then in February, came the news that she would be one of the hosts of Eurovision’s Liverpool homecoming, alongside singer Alesha Dixon, Ukrainian musician Julia Sanina and commentator Graham Norton. If her name came as surprise to Eurovision diehards, Waddingham was “shocked” to be asked too, “because I’m not a presenter by any means and I don’t pertain to be”.

One month before the final, Waddingham was given a test run hosting the Olivier Awards, the annual celebration of London’s theatre scene, at the Royal Albert Hall in April. The trial proved successful. She won over the audience with her brand of fiery, flirty and fun presenting, joking in her opening speech that she’d “happily be mauled to death” by Jodie Comer before speaking to Rose Ayling-Ellis in British Sign Language. The audience, and viewers at home, were smitten.

Hosting Eurovision with Graham Norton (Getty Images)
Hosting Eurovision with Graham Norton (Getty Images)

The charm mission continued across the Eurovision semi-finals and grand final in May. Waddingham steered that chaotic ship Eurovision, showing her personality as she sung and spoke in French and Ukrainian along the way.

Writing in The Independent, Jessie Thompson declared Waddingham’s choice for Eurovision “stroke of genius”.  “After Eurovision, it would be a joy to see her pivot to more gigs that are pure Waddingham,” she wrote. “Or, even better: to see her back performing on stage.”

Fortunately, for fans, there’s More to come. Next year, she’ll appear in a stacked cast opposite Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson for action comedy The Fall Guy, as well as providing a voice for The Garfield Movie starring Chris Pratt. Then in 2025, she’ll enter the Cruise-iverse with a currently undisclosed role in the eighth Mission: Impossible film. This is Waddingham’s world; we’re all just living in it.