Eurovision commentators reveal their memorable moments - including a presidential petition

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Presidential elections aren't the only votes Emmanuel Macron cares about

Last year, French broadcaster Stéphane Bern was commentating on the Eurovision Song Contest when he received an urgent text from Emmanuel Macron.

The votes were coming in, and France's Barbara Pravi was in second place - but allegations were circulating that Damiano David, lead singer of Italian frontrunners Måneskin, had snorted cocaine during the grand final.

"It was a big, big mess," Bern recalls. "I received so many messages on my mobile - even one from the French president - telling me Måneskin had to be disqualified, saying, 'You have to do something, please.'

"The French minister for European affairs, who was in Rotterdam for the contest, sent me also messages saying, 'What should we do? What should we do? Please do something.'

"But what could I have done? I wasn't hosting. I'm not the President of the Eurovision!"

It just so happens that the President of the EBU, which organises the contest, also hails from France. She advised everyone to remain calm.

"Delphine Ernotte said that if we win, we want to be the winners on merit, not because we have disqualified the first place act," says Bern. "So we didn't make any any buzz or protest around that."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Måneskin will return to the Eurovision this year in Turin

Måneskin's frontman later took a drug test, which proved to be negative... But Bern will never forget being asked to interrupt Eurovision at President Macron's behest.

"He's always watching Eurovision," laughs the presenter - a broadcasting legend, who also established France's version of the National Trust. "It's a very patriotic thing to do."

The president's office did not respond to a BBC request to comment on the story.

Bern has been narrating the contest since 2010, taking on the Graham Norton role for the show's five million French viewers.

Every country approaches the commentary in a different way, so ahead of this year's contest in Turin, we asked a few to share their "filosofia di Eurovision".

And while no-one else had been at the centre of a major diplomatic incident, they all had unique stories to share.

GERMANY - Peter Urban

Image source, Getty Images

How long have you been attending Eurovision?

I started my commentator's job for German TV in Dublin 1997, so it will be 25 years this year.

Can you describe what the commentary booths are like?

A sweaty wooden box with a front window and one or two side windows, if you're lucky. There's a table with the equipment and the screen and a hole in the ceiling for ventilation - that's it.

How do you deal with something like the stage invasion during Surie's performance in 2018?

I was surprised like everybody else, but I didn't talk over the song. Afterwards I described the scene and mentioned how incredibly cool the singer had handled the accident.

Is there any rivalry between presenters from different countries?

Not at all, to the contrary. Quite a few of us have known each other for years and there's great joy, when we meet up again. We help each other with jokes, news and information, there is always an extremely friendly atmosphere, no bitching at all. I am pretty close to Marty Whelan from Ireland, and to my German speaking colleagues Andy from Austria and Sven from Switzerland.

What's your worst Eurovision experience?

In 2014, the Danish organizers tried to be funny and played a practical joke on the commentators. Unannounced fireworks exploded directly in front of our windows, which shocked and scared me so much that I yelled live on air "F…. hell (in English), are they trying to kill us!"

Who do you think will win this year?

I think Sam Ryder should win for the UK. I also wish and hope that the brave Ukrainians will receive the biggest support and solidarity from all - hosts, audience, artists, commentators - both during the show and after to help their fight against the Russian aggression.

UKRAINE - Timur Miroshnychenko

Image source, UA: PBC

How long have you been going to Eurovision?

Seventeen years. It's more than a job, it's my religion, my life. I prepare for Eurovision all 365 days of the year.

That means you were presenting when Verka Serduchka and Ani Lorak came agonisingly close to winning. How do you react when your country is in the runners-up position?

Well that year, 2008, when Ani Lorak came second, I think that Russia bought their victory.

There are always accusations of political voting, of course. Does Ukraine get any help from its neighbours?

This year, or historically?

Well, this year everyone assumes you're going to win.

Even if I was singing?

I'd like to see that!

Well, maybe in 10 or 20 years!

It must feel strange to be thinking about this year's contest while your country is under attack.

A little strange. But in Kyiv it's relatively normal right now. Of course, you never know from when or from what side you will receive rockets.

Will you be able to go to Turin?

I'll be commentating from Lviv. It would normally be Kyiv but Russia shelled our TV station on the third or fourth day [of the war].

You experienced a Ukrainian win, with Jamala in 2016. When that happens, do you keep your composure or go crazy?

Oh, crazy. Of course you go crazy! I remember that in Stockholm that year, I screamed in the commentary booth. Very loud, very loud.

Seconds later, the door opened and someone from the EBU team said, 'Get ready. We have to go to stage', because it's a tradition of Eurovision that the commentator has the first interview with their winner. It took maybe three or four minutes to get to the stage from the commentary booth and during these three or four minutes, all my life flew through my head.

What's your commentary style otherwise?

I think you have to be the voice of the viewer. So I'm watching the show like a regular viewer, with expertise.

But the viewers at home have nicer seats, right?

Oh yes. The booths are small, maybe one metre by one metre. The exception was Serbia in 2007. That year in my booth I had a shower, a kitchen and room for someone else! Really, really good conditions.

FRANCE - Stéphane Bern

Image source, Getty Images

You've been commentating on Eurovision for a long time. Has it changed a lot?

Yes. The first time I went, I thought it was obsolete, a very old fashioned competition. And we discovered when we were in Vienna [in 2015], when Måns Zelmerlöw won, it had become something new, very pop. It was such a success on television that we decided to change our point of view.

I think the UK only made that realisation this year...

Yeah, yeah. I'm sure. Germany did the same. It's like we took it for granted and we didn't make any effort to win. But if you go to the Scandinavian countries, it really means a lot. They think of Eurovision as the best ambassador for the country.

What sort of style do you bring to the commentary?

First of all, we have a rule not to speak badly about an act before they perform. I think, who am I to judge or to mock the way they look? So, I give the information about the group or the singer and how they got here. We don't share our own opinions [until] during the votes.

Are there any other rules?

We can't speak about the politics of the countries - but I said a few things after the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia; and with what Russian are doing in Ukraine.

That will be hard to avoid this year.

You do your job with your heart, so it's difficult to avoid. But the rules are very strict.

Can you describe the commentary booth?

Oh, we are right at the top under the roof. Every country has little tiny, tiny cabins together. I'm always commenting with a female colleague and we can't even breathe, we have no space!

But we are so busy concentrating on the show that you don't need to eat, you don't need to drink, you don't need to go to the men's room. It's a miracle.

Mind over bladder!

Yes! Normally in life you always need to go to the toilet but not at that moment. I confess it's very uncomfortable.

SWEDEN - Edward Af Sillén

Image source, Getty Images

How many times have you commentated on Eurovision?

This will be my 11th time.

How do you prepare?

I try and visit every single rehearsal. The more info I have, the more relaxed I'll feel when it's time to go live. Apart from that, I bring a little fan. Those booths heat up!

What's your style?

Very respectful towards the event and the contest itself, and with lots of jokes. It's a long broadcast, often without comedy from the hosts (at least intentional comedy), so I think it's important for the commentator to entertain their country's viewers.

You've seen two Swedish acts win - were you able to remain professional?

Absolutely not. The first time I lost all control, but I imagine the Swedes did at home as well, so I feel like we celebrated together.

Do you bring any good luck charms into the studio?

Actually I do. I have a special pen I always use. How silly.

What is your best or worst Eurovision experience over the years?

My best experience was getting to write and direct when Sweden hosted Eurovision in 2016… We did an interval act called "Love Love Peace Peace" which jokingly parodied the contest. The audience reacting to it is my best memory. My worst? Don't feel like I have one. Eurovision experiences tend to be lots of fun.

Who do you think will win this year?

Too early to tell, I need to see more rehearsals. But yeah, I have the feeling that Ukraine will be impossible to beat.

CYPRUS - Melina Karageorgiou and Alexandros Taramountas

How many times have you commentated on Eurovision?

Melina: This will be my 10th time!

Alexandros: This will be my first time and I am super excited! Can't wait to live this unique experience.

How do you prepare for the broadcast?

Melina: Listening to the songs, reading artists' bios from different sources, letting songs and their ideas grow in my mind. I also have my weekly radio show called "Europhoria" on [Cypriot broadcaster] CYBC, so I'm in a Eurovision mood long before May.

Alexandros: Because we'll be doing the commentary from the CyBC studios in Nicosia, I'm planning to follow online all of the rehearsals and press conferences. This way, I'll be able to obtain backstage and behind-the-scenes information to share with the viewers throughout the show.

What's the secret to an entertaining commentary?

Melina: Loving Eurovision to the core, having done all the hard work before the contest, knowing everything about everything. Then you can just flow and enjoy on the night of the event - but always be alert!

Cyprus has never won - although you came close in 2018. How would you stay professional if Andromache won this year?

Melina: I would scream in a professional way!

Alexandros: This is the only time that may not sound so professional during the broadcast!

Do you bring any good luck charms into the studio?

Melina: Does dark chocolate count for good charms?

Alexandros: I'm not going to reveal my secret because I don't want to jinx it! What I can say is that I will have a Cyprus flag to keep myself in the mood.

Melina, what's your best Eurovision experience?

There were many unforgettable moments (mostly good ones!) but I must pick the moment Cyprus qualified for the final in 2010. It was my fourth time as a commentator and Cyprus had not qualified for years. So when the sixth envelope with the word "Cyprus" was revealed I was overwhelmed - if slightly calmer than those football commentators going crazy in the World Cup.

Plus, for a mysterious technical reason, my booth sound was disconnected for several minutes til the end of the results announcement, so people from Cyprus were texting and calling to ask if I'm OK and everything!

Who do you think will win this year? Or rather, who will come second after Ukraine...

Melina: I know this might sound diplomatic but it's really hard to guess before seeing the artists on stage. But I really like UK's astronaut this year (and this is not a diplomatic answer!)

Alexandros: Eurovision is unexpected! I have a favourite, but I believe that after all of the countries have had their rehearsals, it will be evident who will be the winner.

ICELAND - Gísli Marteinn Baldursson

Image source, RUV

How long have you been working at Eurovision?

This will be my 12th time. I started in 1999 in Jerusalem, but took a 10-year break after 2005 and started again in Stockholm 2016.

How do you prepare for the broadcast?

I try to find interesting information about the artists and even try to meet some of them if I have specific questions. Then I also prepare by knowing really well where the next toilet is located and how long it takes me to run there and back - because you usually need to drink lots of water to hydrate in the very hot and stuffy box you are broadcasting from. And Eurovision songs are three minutes max!

What is your commentary style?

I write a full script from start to finish, and time my lines according to what is happening in the postcards between the songs. I try to keep the information light-hearted and funny where possible. People in Iceland are very interested in Eurovision but they don't necessarily take it very seriously. So it is OK to make good-natured fun of the competition but it has to be done with a heart.

When Iceland does well - like it did last year- how does it change the job?

It mainly changes the job in the sense that we are among the competing nations on the Saturday show! If we do not qualify from the semi-final the atmosphere is of course different - although Icelanders still watch the show on Saturday even if we are not in it. But I'm the only one from the delegation that has to keep on working regardless if we make it to the final or not!

Who do you think will win this year?

I think that Ukraine, Sweden and Italy will be taking the top three spots. But I'm a terrible crystal gazer and I've been in this for long enough to know that anything can happen.

Watch the Eurovision Song Contest Final on BBC iPlayer and BBC One, at 20:00 BST on Saturday 14 May.

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