Mamma Mia! The ABBA musical is now a film! To find out more, we sent Sandi Toksvig in search of Benny and Björn…
According to legend, back in April 1970 two couples, Agnetha Fältskog (destined to be known as “the blonde one”) and her boyfriend, Björn Ulvaeus went on holiday to Cyprus with Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad (“the dark one”) and her chap, Benny Andersson.
They were all musicians and they enjoyed singing on the beach. Now we’ve all been on those holidays where a little local liquor makes us believe we’re entertaining, but it doesn’t usually translate into global fame.
This particular group, however, worked together more and more over the next couple of years, and their manager, Stig Andersson, began referring to them as ABBA. This was partly based on the initial of each person’s name but, more entertainingly, it also passes as a Scandinavian joke because Abba is the name of a well-known Swedish fish-canning company.
In 1974 the group won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, ensuring Sweden and the bold wearing of lycra a place in pop history. Since then they’ve sold more than 370 million records worldwide – not bad for a can of herring.
I was nearly 16 when ABBA won Eurovision and I must have had my finger on the pulse because I wanted UK entry Olivia Newton-John to win. Now I have teenagers who are ABBA fans, thanks to the musical Mamma Mia!, which opened in London in 1999. They rarely pay any attention to what I’m doing, but when I say I’m flying to Sweden to meet Björn Ulvaeus, there’s something akin to interest.
The film of the musical, starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Julie Walters, opens on 10 July and here’s a chance to speak to the Bs of ABBA, Björn and Benny who are both interviewed in this week’s ABBA: the Mamma Mia! Story, which explores the appeal of the global smash hit.
A ten-minute clip of the film is sent to my home by Universal Pictures. I’ve never dealt with the paranoia of a big film company before. To forestall any ideas of piracy I might have, a courier stands in my sitting room while I watch. To further deter any criminal intent, my name has been burnt onto the image all the way through. This has the delightful effect of giving me top billing when the credits roll.
From what I can see, the film looks fun. Once you get over a slight sense of embarrassment at watching Meryl Streep in dungarees singing to Pierce Brosnan, it looks like a jolly good romp.
Despite being an object of deep suspicion to the publicists, I’m still due to meet Björn (Benny is to come later). I leave home at 4.30am, fly through Nordic darkness and secure a taxi-driver in the Swedish capital whose familiarity with the road layout would be second to none had we been in his home town, Kabul. Sadly, Stockholm is a mystery.
“I’m trying to find the home of Björn from ABBA,” I try in Swedish, Danish and English and finally a smattering of Arabic. I thought that perhaps the residence of such a famous Swedish export might be widely known. My Afghan friend shrugs. Just my luck to find the one man on the planet who was left cold by Dancing Queen.
At last a pretty bay. A long causeway leads out to a private island where a single house stands behind electronic gates. It’s freezing cold. Kabul Kabs departs and I wander over to press the bell.
A man’s voice answers. “Hello,” I say as cheerily as I can muster after seven hours’ travel, “I’m Sandi Toksvig.” I’m exactly on time. There’s a long pause and the unmistakable voice of Björn answers, saying, “I forgot you were coming.”
Over a crackling intercom he tells me to come back later. With no car, no coat and no idea where I am, I’m beginning to regret the whole enterprise. Only my familiarity with the local tongue allows me to blag a coffee from what looks like an old people’s home serving lunch to the bewildered.
Once I get inside Björn’s house a while later, I’m a tad tired. It’s a nice family place. Not grand, but simple in the Scandinavian style. Björn and Agnetha divorced in 1980 and he’s now married to a music journalist called Lena. She isn’t home, but there’s a child’s highchair in the kitchen (the men of ABBA are grandfathers now) and the remnants of breakfast.
There are no awards, no pictures of ABBA, no posters, nothing to connect him with worldwide fame. Nothing screams money apart from the fact, of course, that we’re on a private island.
We sit in a conservatory just large enough for two armchairs and a wall of books. I have to remind myself that here’s a man that thousands of women have screamed for – even if, personally, I’d rather have met Agnetha.
He’s affable, but in control. The chances of getting to know him are slight. I ask him about the 30 million people who have seen the musical and, like my kids, perhaps know nothing about the music’s origins.
He nods and says, “Funnily enough, sometimes when I hear those songs I see them as half Mamma Mia! and half ABBA.” He tells me that he and Benny started thinking about musical theatre, which if you listen carefully to the last couple of albums, you can hear – we were going that way in a sense of the style of music and of storytelling.”
Through the door, I can see a study with a computer. Björn is the words man of the songwriting duo, but he also co-owns a company providing music notation and digital sheet music. So does he write by computer? He shakes his head. “When Benny and I used to write songs, we had just a piano and a guitar. To get a kick out of that, the melody has to be really good. When people write now, they’re surrounded by beautiful sounds and everything sounds wonderful from the beginning. Maybe that makes them less ambitious to find that wonderful melody.”
The Mamma Mia! film has been two years in the making and Björn seems boyish in his excitement about new projects. “I just want to work because I can and because I have some experience and hopefully some talent and I’m a pretty good craftsman by now. I’m itching to do it. I can’t stop doing it. Isn’t that wonderful?” he beams.“An artist can go on for ever.”
I ask if the A parts of the band Agnetha and Anni-Frid – will be present at what he calls his “first red carpet”, the opening night of the movie. His answer is an emphatic no.
I ask if ABBA might ever re-form, but I already know the answer. “No,” he declares. He tells me he had lunch the day before with the promoter for Led Zeppelin. “He told me they won’t tour. He had a very good expression – he said they would be a cover band.” I laugh. “You could be your own tribute band.”
Björn nods. “Mamma Mia! has placed the past in a wonderful place for everyone. I think that’s where it should remain. You shouldn’t shatter that.
Björn is clearly a busy man and I suspect Benny will be, too. Indeed, we only manage five minutes on the phone, as he’s in New York, mixing the movie soundtrack. But he’s full of praise for Streep, saying her singing is “unnecessarily” good. “The world doesn’t know that Meryl Streep sings like a goddess. It’s going to come as a revelation.”
Perhaps because he’s working flat out, Benny seems more fired up that Björn. “What was wonderful was that after 30 years I wasn’t bored,” he tells me. “We recorded in the same studio in Stockholm, the same band, the same guys as first time around.”
But now he, too, wants to move on. I tell him I like his less well know musical, 1995s Kristina från Duvemåla. I can almost hear him smile. “You liked Kristina? I am so glad. THAT is great.” He sounds like a lad who’s proud you’ve noticed a fine but overlooked loco in his train set.
Nice guys, fun movie, great songs.
I would have had longer on the phone with Benny on the phone, but I had something of a Björn moment. I’m embarrassed to tell you that the first time we were meant to speak, I completely forgot.