Des Mangan: Australia’s first commentator at Eurovision
Two decades after Australians first started watching the Eurovision Song Contest on the Australian public broadcaster, SBS, they were given a taste of Eurovision commentary with an Aussie flavour.
In 2003, Aussie household film guru, Des Mangan, travelled to Riga to become Australia’s first onsite Eurovision commentator for SBS.
The start of Australian Eurovision commentary on the ground
For those not familiar with SBS, is well known for showing foreign films and documentaries. As SBS' popularity grew they broadcast the ‘Cult Movie’ show which was presented by Des Mangan. Des introduced Australian audiences to very different foreign films not previously broadcast on Australian screens.
Des started working at SBS in the 1990s. After around a decade he pushed for Eurovision to have its own identity in Australia. SBS had been broadcasting the BBC’s Eurovision shows where Aussies got a taste of Terry Wogan. In an interview with Aussievision, Des stated:
“I was saying, when we show Eurovision, shouldn’t we have a commentator for it? Because I mean, if you show the World Cup soccer, you use Aussie commentators to do that, they don't use the [British] ones.”
The heads at SBS agreed, and they offered the position of commentating the Contest to Des and so he was sent to Riga, Latvia, with a crew for Eurovision 2003.
It was an important time for Eurovision in Australia, as love for the Contest grew over the two decades Down Under, it seemed like the perfect time for Australia to experiment with the way the Contest was broadcast and to distance itself from Wogan’s heavy British references and sometimes controversial comments, finally giving the Contest its own identity in Australia.
Des makes it to Riga
Initially there was talk about Des doing commentary from Australia while watching the live feed. But it was later decided it would be better if Des headed over to Riga to watch the rehearsals and see the entries before the live show.
A very small contingent flew to Latvia for the 2003 Contest from SBS along with Des.
Des shared an interesting story about their arrival at the Contest, as people didn’t expect to see Australia there:
“So I went up to the press accreditation office, said to them, we need to collect our lanyards with our access all area passes. And they said, Where are you from? I said, Australia. They went away, and they came back. They had about 70 of these lanyards, hanging up their arms… I went, whoa, hold on. I don't think we need that many. And she said, You're from Austria. I said, no no no no, Australia, and she went, oh, oh. So she went away. 10 minutes later she came back and she handed me two. She was very surprised that Australia was there in 2003.”
A week before the Contest was broadcast, SBS filmed five 30 minute special preview shows with Australian celebrities, reviewing the songs and talking about Eurovision. Footage of Des on the ground speaking to many of the contestants was used in promos as well. They were broadcast daily in the lead up to the Contest.
Initially, the special preview shows didn’t rate well as they replaced a sporting program that was shown in the 7pm time slot. Des told us that back then people would say that SBS stood for "Soccer, Bloody, Soccer”.
“And so all we got was not people ringing up to say, “Wow, [what a] great job you're doing”, all we got was people ringing up and complaining and saying where's the sports? So SBS never did that again. Which is a pity.” Des said.
It goes to show that even though Aussies loved Eurovision, not everyone was ready for a more deep dive experience of the Contest back then. Regardless of this, Des had a ball in Riga and loved commentating the Contest.
"[Sertab], I think you're gonna win this”
Unfortunately, Des got himself into a little bit of trouble for predicting Sertab as the winner with her banging entry for Turkey ‘Everyway That I Can’.
“I got in trouble for that…. Oh, boy.” Des said. “When they had the big party for all the contestants before Eurovision, they had it at that palace on the river. They have this huge palace. And it was actually all of us, you know, hundreds and hundreds of these people. And I wasn't drunk, but I was very happy to be there. And it was just absolutely stunning. But with Sertab I had met her at this party, right, and was talking and all that sort of thing.”
“And the next day, I think I saw rehearsals for it. And I saw her again. And I said to her look just between you me and the gate post. I think you're gonna win this. And she's like no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Des revealed.
When it came to the commentary Des recorded it live as he watched it play out in the European evening, but it wouldn’t be played to Australian audiences until primetime on SBS. Usually the winner would be announced on other channels in Australia during the day ahead of the SBS telecast.
But, Des made a prediction that upset some keen watchers of the Contest:
“I was doing [the commentary] live, I said, introducing Sertab’s song. I said, Look, I'm not supposed to say this. But as far as I'm concerned, I think this one's gonna win. Right? So I said that live. They repeated it [in the evening on SBS]. They showed it at 8.30 that night, when I said that line, fair enough. Then at the end of the show when she did win hundreds of people rang up saying bloody Des ruined it for us. He told us she was going to win. I said no it didn't tell you, I just said who I thought was going to win.”
Australia Returns and Terry Wogan
Des returned the following year to commentate Eurovision for SBS. In the lead up to the live shows Des was invited as a guest on the BBC’s ‘ESC2004 preview show’, which was hosted by Lorraine Kelly and Paddy O’Connell, accompanied by Eurovision 1992 winner Linda Martin and Eurovision 1992 artist for Sweden Christer Bjorkman.
In the show, which you can watch below, Paddy summed it up best, describing Mangan as “Australia’s Terry Wogan” showing Australia definitely had a presence at the Contest then.
It was a big step for the BBC to show an Aussie voice on the Contest on British television. Des told us he was invited because other commentators and delegations couldn’t believe an Australian broadcaster was at Eurovision.
“The reason that came about is they couldn't believe that Australia was at Eurovision. They just couldn’t. They heard that there was an Australian [commentator], and they just couldn't believe it. They thought [of it] as an oddity, We've got to have the Australian guy on, you know, explaining why Australia is here. So we did that. And that got such a good reaction from the people.”
Des’ appearance on ‘ESC2004 preview show’ got the attention of Sir Terry Wogan. When he found out that some guy flew all the way from Australia to commentate Eurovision he asked to meet him.
Des shared his experience meeting the British Eurovision commentary juggernaut:
“I met Terry Wogan, may he rest in peace. I met Terry. And I said to him, Look, I've got to ask you something Terry. I mean, because Terry used to send up all the other contestants. But as soon as he got to the British one, no matter how bad or good it was, he’s like here is the great British one. But I remember saying to Terry, that everyone used to say that Terry did the show drunk. Which I thought was a bit hard to believe. But I said to him, Look, all of these rumours I heard, look we're both Irish, so I can ask him. I said to him, do you have a tipple during the course of the show? And he said many years ago Des I had discussion with my producer. I said I wanted to start drinking [from] the first [song] he said no, we've got to leave it, Terry we might leave it till halfway till about the 12th song. And he said we came to an agreement at the ninth song. So when Terry is doing it for the first few songs he's perfectly fine but after about the ninth song. That's when he started getting that's when we started getting really funny and having a great old time because that's when he was started drinking.”
Des thought the Contest in Istanbul was absolutely fantastic, and held in a very beautiful city.
‘This is Sweden Calling’
In 2004, Mangan ended up publishing a history book about Eurovision called ‘This is Sweden Calling’. It’s rather insightful and a must have for any Eurovision nerd. We asked Des about his book release:
“Well, the book came about after the first time I did Eurovision because they were sending Aussies over there to do it actually and got quite a lot of press. So I was going on TV shows and saying, Yes, I'm hosting. Yes, I'm commentating on Eurovision. So it raised its profile a hell of a lot with commercial stations, as well as being on SBS. So it rated pretty well.” Des said.
“A [book publisher] came along and said, you're doing Eurovision again next year? Why don't you write a book? So I thought, yeah, why not? I'll write a book. But I said, Look, I'm not going to call it a history of Eurovision or anything like that. I said, it's got to be something that people who watch Eurovision would know. And also the fact that it's not going to be totally serious. I wouldn't call my book as being authorised by Eurovision to have a bit of fun but it still explains how it all works and how Eurovision was started back in the 50s. And all that sort of thing, because there are some people who came from it knew who believe it or not, didn't know a lot about it.”
The importance of Australian commentary at Eurovision
As much as the broadcaster’s second attempt at having an Australian commentator received good reviews, the Australian audience still hadn’t quite moved on from Wogan. It was understandable, Australians had become accustomed with Wogan on the Australian television screen. Des wasn’t sent to Eurovision 2005.
The BBC Eurovision commentary would make its return for a second time on SBS in 2005 up until Wogan’s retirement in 2008.
Despite this Des believes it was extremely important that Australia had a presence at the Contest given the decades of dedication from Australian audiences.
Des believed it is important to have Australians commentating Eurovision for Australians.
“I think there's something about the way Aussies look at things, which might be a little different to say, that Norwegian entry there's a different tone from an Australian commentator, and when you're watching something, read any international sports thing from the Olympics to anything like that. You want to hear an Aussie you want to hear an Aussie making references to something. The British commentator isn't going to make those comments. So I think I think that's just the thing of, if someone's talking to you, you want to hear someone talking to you and in your language. Yeah, which is an Aussie accent.”
Australia’s presence at Eurovision in 2003 and 2004 didn’t also get the attention of delegations and commentators at the Contest. The Australian main stream media started to give greater attention to Eurovision when SBS ramped up their coverage of the Contest and it was rating really well.
Des told us what his and SBS’ efforts made on Eurovision in Australia:
“There was also an interesting thing at the time. If you look at Eurovision before 2003 and 2004. If you watched any of the news shows, like the morning shows on a Sunday morning like you know, Sunrise or the Today show. Very rarely did they talk about Eurovision? Very rarely? They only did if it was an oddity that won would they mention it. When I started going there. All of a sudden, they started having segments on Eurovision in the mornings, who do you think is going to win etc. So I think we introduced [Eurovision to a whole new] bunch of people who may not have watched it before. The diehards will watch it no matter what. But I think I introduced a whole bunch of people who've never watched it people into watching it. So if I've got any epitaph that's it.”
Aussievision would like to thank Des Mangan for his time to talk about his Eurovision commentary experience.
Read all about Australia’s commentary of the Eurovision Song Contest here.
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