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Peter Urban: “U.K. still suffers from Wogan comments” [INTERVIEW]

I was incredibly lucky to sit down with the hugely popular German commentator and ask about Eurovision, his long career in music, the Unser Lied national final, and U.K. commentary.

Peter, you’re the voice of Eurovision in Germany. You’ve been the commentator since 1997 so have seen many Eurovisions. Firstly, what are your thoughts on Tel Aviv as a contest, as well as a host city?

Well, organisation here can sometimes be a bit loose, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s very nice in the small hall. I don’t like it in big stadiums. And so you’re in the bubble, you see the artists, and you’re really close to everything. Tel Aviv as a host city is brilliant. I mean, a city on the Mediterranean with lots of beaches, clubs, and a vibrant scene in the evenings is very good for Eurovision. Although as a commentator you don’t see too much of that. You are in the hotel writing texts, or you’re in the hall watching rehearsals, or doing the shows. But still, I love it here. I love being in a warm climate and not in some city in Eastern or Northern Europe where it’s freezing. So I enjoy it here.

What was your favourite year of Eurovision and why?

That’s a very very difficult question. Of course, in 2010 when Germany won in Oslo. That contest in Oslo was very nice – it’s a brilliant city. I always like Stockholm as a host city. So, in 2000 when the Olsen Brothers won and also in 2016. I love the Globen [Ericsson Globe], that very nice building where we had great commentary boxes. You could just go up in an elevator and walk through to a lobby and you were in the boxes. It was very handy. Those were two years that were good. I also liked Vienna in 2015. It was a lovely city and a small venue which was very exciting. And I also loved when Turkey won in 2003 because it was such a surprise. “Everyway That I Can” was not liked back in Turkey. It was in English and it was about the role of women. In Turkey, at that time, it was a subject that wasn’t welcomed. So after they won, the jubilation was really huge. Sertab and her backing vocalists were celebrating and dancing and screaming. I liked that very much. A lot of emotion and I thought it was great.

Yeah, it’s great to witness that. So, you have had a wider career in music, even before Eurovision. I know you’ve interviewed some incredible stars such as David Bowie and Keith Richards. And you’re a musician yourself, of course!

Well I consider Eurovision as a side job. Something I do once a year. After being a student, I started doing radio shows and I’ve now been doing that for 44 years. I still do my regular weekly show and that’s the thing I really love. I like to bring good music, not neccesarily Eurovision music, to people on the radio – new releases with lots of styles and genres. That’s my occupation. I was also a producer and editor at NDR radio in Hamburg until my retirement six years ago. So music has been my life, really. I started as a student at school. It was in the 1960s (around 1965 or 1966) when I was listening to British radio from London and the pirate stations. I would use a little radio and an earphone, listening while eating dinner, so my parents didn’t notice. It was like the kids today, only with little radios instead. I wanted to listen to BBC Radio 1 when it first started – when John Peel went over from the Radio London off-shore boat to work for the BBC. I followed all that. I got the New Musical Express (NME) magazine sent from London to my little town in northern Germany. So I was informed and I always felt like I lived in England. I studied English and I went two or three times a year. I saw a lot of very interesting things there.

I think it was a very good time for music in the U.K. during that period.

And I then I spent a lot of time in Wallingford in Oxfordshire as an assistant teacher. I would go to London on the weekends and see lots of concerts. It was very funny with some interesting stuff.

You mention NDR [Norddeutscher Rundfunk]. You’ve got your radio shows that you still host. So you’re very much linked to the music industry in Germany. I’m interested in hearing about how the German music industry views the Eurovision Song Contest.

Well for a long time they neglected it. In the time of Ralph Siegel it was more the schlager music that was more the German language popular music. It has nothing to do with modern pop or rock music. That has changed also through Guildo Horn, Stefan Raab, and these people. A lot of these influences didn’t come from record companies. I sometimes had the impression that record companies treated the Eurovision and the German pre-selection as a showcase for ‘B’ artists or 3rd row artists where they could get an easy television appearance. But they didn’t really care about a good entry for Germany. Famous singers would never go and take part in the pre-selection because they didn’t want to lose. Of course, that’s the same thing that happens in the U.K. You don’t get the right people. The U.K. is such a talented country when it comes to pop music. Look at the entries in the past 10 years or so. There is rarely something really good. So, the same happened in Germany, apart from a few exceptions, but that wasn’t the merit of the record companies. That was personalities like Stefan Raab or Lena which also came through a pre-selection – which started with Stefan Raab and others. So the better entries weren’t the ones that came from record companies.

Guildo Horn and Stefan Raab

Yes you’re right, it’s the same in the U.K, and I wondered what similarities there would be between two multi-billion pound record industries. So there has been that evolution for Germany, but what about the evolution of Eurovision as a contest?

I think it’s improved because when it started there was lots of traditional music. But then in that year, 1997, Katrina and the Waves won. So, for me, that was the start of some other music flowing into Eurovision and it’s grown bigger and bigger with more countries – all from eastern and southern Europe – and more journalists. It really is a bigger event which I think is good. And also for the German delegation. We were 2 people in 1997 and we now have 40, if you inclue online and radio, so it’s a much bigger event. And also musically. There was a time when a song like Salvador Sobral’s (“Amar Pelos Dois”, Portugal 2017) couldn’t have won. The variety of music styles has really grown which I’m all for. And I love! I sometimes think with something mainstream, average pop music stuff, you can’t win here. You have to have something special that goes to the heart, the stomach, the legs of the people. And it’s not the performance, apart from a few exceptions like Conchita that was also this magnificent performance combined with her ability to sing, but there has to be something that touches people all over Europe. It doesn’t help when you’re just good in northern or southern Europe. You have to get points from everywhere and that is a winner. That is the difficult part, to get such a song.

It does seem like it’s not so much about the genre of song, even. There is no one type of song that does well. It’s about the narrative and the story on stage. It is very much visual storytelling now at Eurovision.

Yes, we had Michael Schulte last year for Germany. That was very good staging – the story was told very well, so that was one of the reasons for that song’s success. It was a good song anyway so that’s an important thing to do, yeah. The last time just a song won was probably the Olsen Brothers in 2000. They were singing like two teachers, just standing there.

Wasn’t it a surpise that they won that year?

Yes, it was surprise because it wasn’t flashy at all.

So, let’s go back to the German national final, Unser Lied. Do you think the format works? National finals are always under scrutiny, especially when a song it selects doesn’t do very well at that year’s Eurovision. What are your thoughts on this year’s Unser Lied?

This year was sort of a difficult year because there were six songs that came through the songwriting camp. And there were singers selected and there were songs with various composers. One song was already taken from the Swiss pool [of songs] and that won. They were searching for two singers, they found two singers. They sang the song well and they won, which is not really the principle of what this pre-selection should have been. Last year, Michael Schulte was selected as a singer then he wrote his song. He wrote it together with other composers and that was it. So, I don’t know if this type of pre-selection will go on next year as well. I don’t know because we still don’t know how we’ll fare this year. I mean, it’s difficult to say. To me, none of the candidates were edgy enough or interesting enough. To me, it was good but is wasn’t exceptional. That was the drawback for this year, but maybe it’s also luck. It never works when you try to put something into a machine and out comes a great song. It doesn’t work like this. Like the U.K. this year when looking for a song. Michael Rice is a great singer but the song (“Bigger Than Us“) maybe isn’t good enough. And so again it’s the same question.

As a commentator you get the last word before a song is performed on stage. Do you think you have a lot of power or influence over the voting, maybe?

I never say something about the quality of the song before it has been performed. I wait until people have heard it and then I have about 10 seconds to say something. Sometimes it’s a funny comment, sometimes it’s a comment about the good quality of the song, or sometimes it’s about the singer if the singer has sung wrong or off-key. But I really doubt if it influences people. I think the influence isn’t as big as people think. Maybe one should research that: compare my comments to the success of the song with the German vote.

That would be some interesting data!

It would be, yes. But the other way, I have to say something. I can’t be boring. I have to give some opinion. Every commentator should be like this.

In the U.K. for many years we had Terry Wogan. We talk a lot about how his commentary influenced maybe not the voting, but certainly how the people back at home viewed Eurovision.

Well that was a different case. It definitely influenced the development of the Eurovision Song Contest being treated as comedy. I think the U.K. still suffers from that because nothing was taken seriously. What I never really liked was this generalisation. Like this national prejudices that were uttered by Terry. I mean, a German entry could never do well because he was putting them down from the beginning. That’s what I just don’t like. And taking the mickey out of a song from the Balkans. They come from there, fine, but you don’t have to make fun. It has to be respectful. I think Graham Norton is a little different from that.

Yes, Graham is a bit more tempered with his comments, I think. So you have also commentated on the Eurovision Dance Contest. Is that right?

I did it once in 2007 and had no clue, no idea about dancing. I had a so called expert next to me. It was a terrible experience [laughs]

So you had to kind of make it up as you went along?

I had to say something and he, the expert, said things about the dance moves. And I thought what a strange thing. Yeah, that was weird.

I have one final question for you. What is your favourite Eurovision moment specifically from the commentary booth?

Only one moment?

Well, if you have a few then why not?

I always like the moment when it’s “10…9…8…” and it starts with the Eurovision fanfare. I think it’s such a great feeling when you know there are millions of people listening. And of course, Lena’s victory in 2010 was a great moment, although I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it. Afterwards, people said “you weren’t triumphant enough!”. Well yeah maybe, but I was so shocked, I couldn’t believe it. There are so many moments but these are the ones I really enjoyed.

That’s brilliant. Thanks for taking time out to speak to me, Peter. Enjoy Saturday night’s Grand Final.

What do you think about Peter’s comments? Let us know in the comments section or via our socials, @ESCXTRA.

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