German TV Wetten Dass

Report by Dara O'Kearney

On Saturday, February 22nd, at 20.15, Bowie appeared on the German TV show, "Wetten dass". I'm told this is one of the most popular shows in Germany, and is broadcast live throughout the German-speaking world (that is, Austria and Switzerland also). It is presented by one Thomas Gottschalk, easily the most impressive German broadcaster I've seen (actually one of the most impressive I've seen anywhere). Gottschalk is a blonde giant Adonis of a man, who if anything is an even better preserved 50-year-old than Bowie, and seems to have about 10 different shows on different German TV channels.

"Wetten dass" is a monthly show, filmed in front a truly massive live audience (as in over a thousand people seated). The central idea of the show is a mix of celebrity guests and ordinary people who write in with ideas for 'wagers'. The celebrity guesses whether or not the ordinary person or people will be successful in what they are wagering they can do (and these wagers can get really surreal as you'll see if you read on), and if they guess wrong, they have to do something for charity.

Gottschalk was wearing a typically madcap ensemble, consisting of a white shirt, a stylish tie, a long dress coat and ............. what I can only describe as a stripey pajamas bottom. Just before Bowie's segment, the Bee Gees were on performing their new hit single, "Alone". I found this rather bizarre, as they still sound exactly like they did 20 years ago, so it made a contrast with Bowie and his modern sound. As the Bee Gees were leaving (they gave just a short stand-up interview after performing and didn't take part in a wager), Gottschalk said "The three big B's of pop music - the Bee Gees, the Beatles and Bowie", and Bowie strode in, looking as magnificent as ever.

Okay, let's get the important questions out of the way first: who really cares about the music or what he actually said in the interview? How did he look and what was he wearing? He looked a little ragged and tired (perfectly understandable, considering he was at the end of a mad week dashing around different European countries to promote Earthling), and was dressed in his usual recent costume (this is a cop-out showing that I don't really know how to describe it). The long coat, the red brushed-up hair, the beard, you know what I mean.

Bowie went over to the couch, shook hands with the previous guests (a German actor and actress), and sat between the young actress and Gottschalk. Gottschalk started by saying it was good to see another 50-year-old not afraid to wear a long coat.

There is nothing earth-shattering of the shortish interview to report. One thing is clear that if Bowie ever understood German that well, he has now forgotten it. Gottschalk spoke in German, Bowie had a wire in his ear that was providing an instant translation, and he replied in English, with some guy talking over him in German providing the German viewers with an instant German translation. This seems to be the standard practice here, presumably because most Germans don't understand spoken English as well as some other Europeans (like the Dutch and the Scandinavians). When German TV broadcasts English language material, it is invariably dubbed or talked over rather than sub-titled (as is the norm, for example, in Sweden). Anyway, this made it almost impossible to hear what Bowie was actually saying.

Despite the language difficulties, Bowie seemed to get a good rapport going with the crowd. Early in the piece when Gottschalk was talking, Bowie could be seen surveying the crowd (maybe he was taken aback by the size of it, or the fact that it was a much older audience than he would be used to). He did what seems to be his standard schtick now for German TV audiences, which was to talk about the origins of techno and name-check all the German bands who were influential in it. On this occasion, he name-checked Kraftwerk, Harmonia and Neu. He got a nice piece of audience participation going by asking all the Kraftwerk fans in the audience to clap (a few did), then the Harmonia fans (less did) and finally Neu (only one person did).

Anyway, the time for the wager arrived, and Bowie was faced with a wager that was weirdly appropriate, reminiscent as it was of the ending of the Linguini Incident. A small German guy dressed in long swimming trunks arrived clutching a trumpet, which he claimed he could play under water for 1 minute. Bowie thought about it for a long time, saying that staying under water for a minute was not difficult so long as you weren't blowing into a trumpet, and that if the guy had any sense, he wouldn't (actually blow into the trumpet).

Gottschalk and the endearingly enthusiastic little German guy clambered up on top of the water tank, and the underwater trumpeter gave the crowd a blast of the melody he intended to play under water. It was a typically oompa loompa piece which the crowd seemed to enjoy (they started clapping along with it), but not Gottschalk, who commented that it was the sort of melody that should only be played under water.

It was then time for Bowie to decide whether the guy could manage it or not (he gave the thumbs down, literally), and for Gottschalk to explain what Bowie had agreed to do if he got it wrong, which was donate a signed copy of the poster he did for the 1995 Montreux Jazz Festival to a local charity. Bowie unrolled the poster, but disappointingly the cameras didn't show us a close-up of it: in fact, we could only sort of half-see the poster as Bowie was holding it towards a camera in front of him, whereas the camera that was operational at the time was side on.

Anyway, the underwater trumpeter descended bravely into the tank via a ladder, and started playing. Bowie seemed to derive enormous enjoyment from the spectacle, as every time the camera switched back to him he was laughing violently. As it happened, the guy came up short, rising to the top of the tank all blue and bug-eyed three seconds shy of the one minute mark, but Bowie of course, good sport that he is, donated the poster to charity anyway.

Then it was time for Bowie and the band to perform Little Wonder, and they turned in an absolute top notch performance, much better than the recent Leno performance, IMO. I don't think anything will ever top that stunning first performance of Little Wonder at the VH-1 Fashion Awards, but this one was almost at that level. The producers had also shown considerable more imagination than the Leno crew in their choice of studio decor. Behind Bowie and the band was a very striking backdrop of dolmens, obelisks, crop circles and the like. The sound seemed a little ropey at first (but quickly sorted itself out), and Bowie seemed a little short of breath (presumably from laughing at the antics of the underwater trumpeter), but quickly found his voice. He gave a pretty animated performance, and the band were in top form. The lighting was also very imaginative, but most innovative of all was the camerawork. During the parts where Bowie wasn't singing, the camera zoomed past him, did a little sprint around the crop circles, before speeding back to Bowie and turning around to face him again.

The camera dwelt on Gail Ann quite a lot (and why not?), and she seemed to be in great form too, and looked as pretty as ever in a spangly jacket and multi-coloured trousers. Towards the end of the performance, Bowie sang for a bit with one arm around her. There was very obvious chemistry between the pair of them, and I found it difficult to believe that this was the same person who seemed like a shy frightened little mouse in a long (as in ankle-length) plain white dress the first time I saw her just over a year ago.

The crowd reacted extremely enthusiastically (by German norms) at the end, and Bowie milked and whipped up the applause a little in similar manner to the way he did at the Fashion Awards. Gottschalk commented : "Finally some listenable music", a comment presumably directed at the underwater trumpeter rather than the Bee Gees! Then Gottschalk explained that Bowie and his crew were dashing to catch a flight back to the States, so they wouldn't be hanging around for the rest of the show, and they were gone.

Overall, I thought it was a consummate performance from start to finish by Bowie. I remember someone commented on the newsgroup on the Leno performance that they wished Bowie would acknowledge the audience more and not play to the camera all the time, and it does seem that Dave sometimes doesn't know how to take TV audiences, especially US ones. Strangely (given the language difficulties and the fact that he effectively lives in the US these days), it seems to me that he is more sure-footed when faced with European audiences. I thought he might have a hard time with the "Wetten dass" audience, given its size and the fact that there seemed to be few people younger than 50 in attendance, but actually he seemed to achieve a remarkable rapport with the audience. At different times in the interview, he rose to his feet and played to the audience, eliciting a response each time. In conclusion, it was the sort of performance that made me wish Bowie would do more of these kind of things.

 

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This document last updated Tuesday, 15-Sep-1998 21:50:46 EDT
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