As an ABBA superfan, I met Robert Hughes one afternoon in 1991 to make a historical record of his recollections of working with ABBA.
In 1977 Hughes was chosen as a 29-year-old unknown who had performed a couple of small comedy roles in the Paul Hogan and Dick Emery shows. “Getting the part in the ABBA movie was a knockout. When it turned out to be the lead role in an international film I was flabbergasted,” he said. He pointed out that the film’s Swedish director Lasse Hallström went on to acclaimed success with the movie My Life As A Dog and Australian scriptwriter Robert Caswell wrote the screenplay for The Doctor starring William Hurt.
During the filming of ABBA – The Movie, Hughes spent four weeks in Sweden with ABBA, including a weekend on their private island where they composed their music.
WHERE DID YOU FIRST SEE THE AUDITION NOTICE FOR ABBA THE MOVIE?
It originally came from my agent. They wanted an actor to portray the part of a radio announcer/DJ. We were told it was only going to be a 16mm documentary showing ABBA on tour and relaxing in between shows and the radio announcer would be a linking device. I went to the screen test, which was shot on video, and met the director, Lasse Hallström. We were in a room and there were some pencils in a jar on a desk and he said: “I want you to do some clumsy acting.” He liked my clumsy acting.
HAD YOU DONE YEARS OF IMPROVISATION ACTING?
No, I hadn’t done any improv training. Then it turned out they were going to do some tests in 35mm Panavision and it was March, which is traditionally the rainy season in Sydney and it was pouring. We went to North Sydney and in the rain I walked across the flyover of the approach to Sydney Harbour Bridge on the north side and they shot it. It looked fabulous and the decision was made to shoot in Panavision and that it would be a major film.
The walking scene was not actually a screen test; I’d already got the job, but they wanted to see what the footage would look like in 35mm, and it escalated from there.
WERE YOU NERVOUS WHEN YOU AUDITIONED? DID YOU READ UP ABOUT ABBA BEFORE YOU WENT ALONG?
I didn’t read up about the group. I don’t get nervous for screen tests because nerves get in the way and they block you and you can’t perform properly, it was something I’d developed over the years.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU GOT THE PART?
29. It was February or March.
The first concert was in Sydney and that’s when we were having talks about what the script was going to be like with Robert Caswell. It was crazy we just sort of went out with cameras and did things. There’s a sequence with the purple car and that was something we had to pick up later when we were in Perth — they wanted to do some more traffic jam scenes, which were supposed to be in Sydney – the close ups were filmed in Perth, so they had to go around and find the same colour purple car to match. We jammed a whole stack of cars together, shot it really tight and mocked up a traffic jam.
In Sydney, we went to department stores and bought all the cushions and merchandise — I think we shot at the Grace Bros in Chatswood —
BUT IT LOOKED LIKE A NEWSAGENCY?
No, there was another sequence which was shot at a newsagency in Stockholm and the film crew took a lot of merchandise back to Stockholm.
Lasse didn’t tell ABBA that I was an actor playing a part so I didn’t get to talk to them until the end of the last concert in Perth.
In Sydney, when there was all that rain on stage, there was a sequence when they came offstage and I was trying to get an interview with them and the bodyguards thought I was really a journo and they literally picked me up and bundled me out. Lasse got it all on film. He didn’t want to say to them, “you have to act now” because, as non-actors, that’s very difficult. All their reactions towards me on the Sydney Opera House steps and at one of the Sydney concerts were completely natural.
TOM OLIVER IS EXCELLENT AS THE TAXI DRIVER IN THE LAST SCENES IN AUSTRALIA …
The taxi interiors were shot in Sweden and the exterior shots of the taxi driving along were shot in Melbourne. But the taxi was a Swedish left-hand drive model. I said: “The shots aren’t going to match, as we don’t have left-hand drive cars in Australia” so I suggested they reverse the film. So they did. You can’t tell. All those clocks you see we’re driving past and me editing the tape in the back seat were all shot in Sweden. Tom wasn’t sitting up high enough so they took the seat out of the taxi and he was driving round and round and round a left-hand drive through the streets of Stockholm sitting on an apple box and he improvised all his dialogue.
Tom went out — with the camera in the back seat — for a couple of hours and then they put the camera in the front seat and I went out for a couple of hours and they intercut between the back and front scenes.
THIS WAS YOUR FIRST FILM ROLE. DID YOU THINK IT COULD BE YOUR BIG BREAK?
No. The Press was saying I was set for international stardom and was Australia’s answer to Woody Allen! I never believe hype or build my hopes up.
It was released mid-January 1978. The film was very successful. A friend came back from a hiking tour in Nepal and saw it in a stone theatre there. But it only made it to cable TV in America.
The only time I’ve been aware of the ABBA film getting me work was for my role as Reg Harvey in Squizzy Taylor (Simpson Le Mesurier Films).
I wrote a stack of letters to producers and directors in Australia asking them to look at the film and I got a letter back from a director saying, “I saw the film and contrary to popular belief about ABBA being terrible, I thought it was a good film and I thought you did a good job.” That was nice, getting a positive response.
But the reviews were highly critical — here I am 15 years later and I’m probably better known for my role in Hey Dad.
DID YOU DO ANY ACTING PREPARATION FOR THE FILM?
No, because there was no script. Nothing had been written down — there was just a basic idea. The many film units wanted to know that at 7am they had to drive to Point B and set up their lights. But Lasse was saying, “No, I want to shoot it like a documentary. Follow ABBA and shoot what you can.”
It had an unlimited budget. Some say a million bucks, nobody knows.
DID YOU GET TO SEE ANY OF THAT MONEY?
No, I won’t mention how much I got, but I didn’t get paid a lot of money. I haven’t got any residuals from any overseas sales. I just got a fee for each week of work. There’s a bone of contention over the contract, which nobody can seem to find. My agents have rung Grundys (Reg Grundy had the merchandising rights and co-produced the film in Australia) and they said they have no plans to re-release the film and that was when the big resurgence happened two years ago. The movie has been playing at the Encore Cinema, Sydney, about a year ago.
I stayed in a nice hotel in Sweden, But in Perth (Western Australia) when the others were staying at the luxurious Parmelia Hilton, I got stuck with some of the crew at the Travelodge a couple of miles away. So I rang up and said, “This is ridiculous, I’ve got to be moved, I have to be with the director to discuss the shoot.”
HOW WAS THE MOVIE’S PREMIERE IN SYDNEY?
It was strange because my wife Robyn was pregnant at the time with our daughter Jessica and they wanted to send a limo so we’d make a grand entrance. But the pre-premiere drinks were held in a building directly opposite the Regent Theatre.
I said, “This is ridiculous, don’t worry about the cars, we can just walk across the street, and they said “No, no, no, you must have a limo”. So we were driven down George Street, did a U-turn, and made our entrance.
When the film finished everyone went berserk.
I was worried because they were pushing Robyn around, who was in the later stages of pregnancy. There we were on George Street with all these teenagers tearing, ripping our clothes and the limos were gone! They were supposed to be waiting for us, but Mrs Grundy had taken the car. She must have waltzed out, got in the car and driven off. I was really angry. There weren’t any bodyguards and we were really getting pushed around. We jumped into Tom’s [Oliver] limo to make a getaway.
WHAT WERE THE CROWDS LIKE?
It would have been very wearying for ABBA in Australia because the mad crowds meant they were restricted to hotel rooms.
There was a sequence when we left in a car from the Old Melbourne where ABBA was staying and there were barriers and security people everywhere and hordes of kids on bikes trying to catch up to the car. That was happening everywhere. It was fascinating being in the inner circle looking at that phenomenon. When I was a kid it was Beatlemania and I was a fan on the outside.
When we were in Perth we went on a private cruise to Rottnest Island and it was chilly and I was wearing an orange sweatshirt with ABBA emblazoned across it and Frida said: “If you wear that, could you wear it inside out because I don’t want anybody going past in boats knowing that it’s us.”
I’ve got quite a few slides I took of ABBA on the boat, including one of Benny pouring a glass of champagne into his ear.
Before we left the dock everyone was on board and there were high cyclone wire gates and there was one girl, about 15, going off her brain, she’d really lost it and was hysterical, and she’d climbed over the wire and landed on the dock and started running towards the boat.
ABBA had a doctor travelling with them who grabbed her and put her across his knee and gave her three good hard whacks on the bum which snapped her out of it and he bundled her back to the security people.
WHAT HAPPENED BEHIND THE SCENES DURING THE BOMB HOAX AT THE PERTH CONCERT ON MARCH 10, 1977?
I was offstage in the corridor at the Perth Entertainment Centre and I knew something was wrong because Michael Chugg, the Paul Dainty tour manager, looked really worried and he was talking hurriedly to people and I heard him say, “Just get your people out as quickly and quietly as possible”. He told me not to worry, there was a bomb scare but we couldn’t take any chances. It was when Benny was playing Intermezzo No. 1 and everyone else quietly went offstage.
AND WHEN BENNY STOPPED HE WAS PUZZLED BECAUSE NO ONE CAME BACK ONSTAGE AND HE SAID “BJORN WILL BE BACK IN A MOMENT”. THERE WAS AN AWKWARD SILENCE WHEN NOONE RETURNED, AND HE STARTED CALLING OUT TENTATIVELY “BJORN?”, BJORN? HE’LL BE BACK SOON”. AN ANNOUNCEMENT WAS MADE FOR EVERYONE TO LEAVE FOR 20 MINUTES, BUT IT WAS NOT AN INTERVAL. WE WERE AT THE BACK OF THE CENTRE AND MY MUM SAW MEN LOOKING UNDER THE SEATS AT THE FRONT AND SHE SAID LOUDLY “IT’S A BOMB SCARE”. NOONE PANICKED. BOMB HOAXES WERE COMMON DURING THIS PERIOD IN THE 70s.
I was with the camera operator, John Swaffield, and everyone left the building. The musos stayed outside the back door and they started playing Swedish folk songs to keep themselves up and the feel of the concert going and I said to John: “This may be a hoax, but I don’t want to be close if a bomb’s going to go off.” We walked into the car park and stood a few hundred yards away from the building and then a limo came screaming out of the car park and Agnetha wound down the window, waved her hand and screamed out “Get in your car and drive away”. I don’t know who else was in the car. ABBA weren’t taking any chances either.
BENNY’S SON WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN IN THE AUDIENCE AND BENNY WAS CONCERNED FOR HIS WELL-BEING. I’M SURPRISED ABBA DROVE OFF, BECAUSE THE REST OF US WERE JUST STANDING NEAR THE SNACK BAR IN THE FOYER.
A lot of the experience was like a dream for me because I was getting to bed extremely late and getting up early. It was like I was on the outside of myself and just looking in because it was continual work and I didn’t know exactly what I was going to be doing. I was incredibly tired but I had to keep coming up with the energy to just go out and do it — it was just one of those things as far as performances are concerned — you don’t let it get to you. You might think about it but you try to push it aside.
I got along very well with Lasse and we had a strong relationship and I trusted him very quickly and said, “OK, if that’s what you want, we’ll just do it”. He used to sit as close to the camera as he could — often underneath the lens or right beside it and we’d do close dialogue sequences and with the camera rolling he’d say, “OK, give me a reaction here,” or “Do that bit again” and he was editing it in his mind. It’s a really good way of working because normally in a film you have shoot a scene, perform, discuss it with the director and do the next scene in a formal way. With Lasse, the style of shooting was a luxury, it was so informal and rapid.
WERE THERE ANY DRUGS TAKEN ON THE SET?
No, I don’t think they were into drugs.
WHAT ABOUT CIGARETTES?
I have a vague memory that maybe Benny was a smoker. I don’t think Agnetha was smoking because she was pregnant.
I was continually running all the time, shooting shooting, shooting. For example, we got the late “red eye” flight from Perth and arrived in Melbourne at 4am for the Moomba festival and Peter Appleton, the production manager, said “Go and get some sleep”, so I got about two hours’ sleep. Then they woke me up saying “We have to shoot at Moomba”, so all those festival shots I was running on two hour’s sleep and it was awful.
The thing that really bugged me was that when I started I had a pair of boots and I was doing all this running and because the boots had become a part of the film, I had to take them to Sweden, and did many running scenes and they were extremely uncomfortable. I also had three identical sets of the jeans and top I wore; that became the uniform for the film so they didn’t have to worry about wardrobe changes. I was always wearing the same thing.
WHAT ABOUT THE SCRIPT?
Bob Carswell was supposed to write the script and he was upset because everything was moving too fast and he didn’t have time to write anything.
Lasse directed with ideas. We’d ask, “What’s happening here?” and he’d discuss it with us. The stuff with Bruce Barry, the radio station manager, and myself was all ad lib. We’d discuss it and say “What do you want to talk about … ?, come up with a character idea, kicked it around and then shot it.
HOW LONG DID THE FILMING TAKE?
The entire time they were in Australia [March 3-13] plus about four weeks in Stockholm.
The footage was all taken back and Lasse’s wife Malou did the editing. They ran through reams of footage, thousands of feet of film. When they were shooting at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, they had every Panavision camera that was available in Australia. They had six cameras and isolated cameras mounted for static shots and people hidden all over the stage. There were many people with buzzers and lights to help sync the film and sound. A lot of the close-ups of stage footage were shot at different shows.
ABBA wore the same outfits and the scenes were intercut.
There were some complaints about the cameramen getting in the way.
I’ve got a terrific shot of cinematographer Paul Onorato on his knees in front of the girls and he’s got a huge Panavision camera doing a close-up onstage and a lot of people complained about that and I can understand why.
THEY WERE SUCH A SPECK IN THE DISTANCE FOR ME, I COULDN’T TELL WHO WAS WHO. THERE’S FOOTAGE OF ALICE COOPER MEETING ABBA IN THE FOYER OF THE PARMELIA HILTON IN PERTH WHERE HE WAS ALSO A GUEST.
Really? I don’t remember it.
We went and visited Lasse Hallström on their island, and his father said they were related to Sir Edward Hallström who was very famous and had a refrigerator business here in Sydney and set up a private zoo in his home. [He was chairman of Taronga Zoo.]
WHAT SHOTS DID YOU SUGGEST?
The one in Perth at sunset. We were driving along and I saw a line of seagulls hanging in the breeze so I suggested putting a long lens on the camera and I would walk towards it through the seagulls and I was pleased Lasse used it during The Name of the Game.
Another was a quick shot of the ABBA flag with the full moon behind it, and the sequence at the end of the film when they’re in the studio. Lasse said “What can we do, we’ve shot everything,” and I said “But you haven’t shot them in the studio”. At one stage they were going to use — as part of the dream sequence — me in the studio with them playing and singing but that didn’t eventuate so he used the idea while they sang Thank You For The Music at Polar Music, which is a nice studio.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH THE OTHER ACTORS?
There weren’t many other actors. Tom Oliver had a lot of work to do. He’s a lovely guy and we had a great time together — we were always joking. Harry Lawrence had a couple of hours’ work as a ticket scalper. There’s a lot of sequences where I was interviewing people that became really boring because I had to keep asking “And what do you think of ABBA?”. All that stuff was live and I was operating the tape recorder, doing the sound, at the same time. A lot of that was used.
WHERE WERE THE CHILDREN FROM?
We went to Currambena Pre-School at Lane Cove.
THE LIP SYNCING IN THE PRESS CONFERENCE IS SHOCKING. AT THE TIME IT WAS AN ISSUE THAT THE JOURNALISTS WEREN’T MEMBERS OF ACTORS’ EQUITY SO THE QUESTIONS HAD TO BE VOICED OVER BY ACTORS.
I can’t remember it.
The sequence where I’ve overslept for an interview with ABBA was shot in two separate locations — one is in the hotel (maybe in Adelaide) and the second scene when I cross the room and look out the window and see the Moomba Festival was shot from the window of the first floor of a bank.
DID LASSE SPECIFY THAT YOU HAD TO WEAR ONLY YOUR UNDIES FOR THAT SHOT?
Well, I wouldn’t have been wearing pyjamas and I wasn’t going to do the shot naked, so it was the only way around it.
WHO DID YOU TAKE OVERSEAS FOR THE SHOOT?
Robyn and I went over in June during the summer solstice. Tom left earlier to visit his family in England and we all met up in Stockholm. We spent 13 days driving around England and it was wonderful because it was the Queen’s Jubilee year.
WAS YOUR WIFE PREGNANT?
No, we discovered she was pregnant in Stockholm. Robyn saw a doctor and got a certificate which was written in Swedish and we couldn’t translate it. She stopped someone in the street and said: “Do you know what this means?” and the person said, “Oh, yes, this means you have paid your bill”! I rang Lasse and read it out in my worst Swedish accent and he said “Oh, oh, that means Robyn has gravidity — you are going to be a father, congratulations!”
While I was filming Robyn was having morning sickness.
AT THE SAME TIME AS AGNETHA?
I think they knew she was pregnant by the time they’d left Australia.
SO THERE WAS A BREAK — ABBA LEFT AUSTRALIA IN MARCH AND SHOT MORE SCENES IN JUNE?
Yes, there’s a sequence when they’re getting on the jumbo and leaving which was shot at their last stop in Perth and Benny turns around and says “This is a crazy thing leaving like this” because it was a mad rush, rush, rush, finish the show, get on the plane and go! He thought it was crazy to have formed all these relationships and then just suddenly leaving, never to come back again!
Before Lasse left he said we’d definitely have to go to Sweden to finish the film and Robyn and I thought “No way will that happen”, but then I got a call a few months later. We spent a month in Sweden.
The last sequence of the film was shot from a helicopter as a big pull-out shot of the island where they write and Lasse only had enough fuel in the chopper to do one more sequence and he wanted to get a shot of me on their large cruiser driving the boat with them on deck, being friendly. We took off, going full bore, and unfortunately the shot wasn’t very good and Lasse told me the cinematographer wouldn’t start the camera when he was told to — Lasse had said “Shoot shoot, I’ll fix the shot up later,” but because of the lay of the land and the speed of the boat, we had to turn the boat in a particular direction which wasn’t at the right angle to get a shot from the helicopter, so we passed underneath the helicopter and because the camera mount was on the opposite side they couldn’t get the shot so the 10 seconds was never used.
BJORN WAS TEASING YOU?
On another day, during the dream sequence on another cruiser when the journalists were running alongside the banks of the river, Bjorn was sending me up because I was amazed at the light, I’d never been to the northern hemisphere before and I’d spoken to Bjorn about how the light was softer and the greenery was vastly different and he spent the whole day sending me up about soft trees.
We’d gone to ABBA’s island to watch the shooting of that last helicopter sequence. We were hiding behind the cabin in the shot — you can’t see us.
There’s a normal sized three bedroom timber home with a deck where they live elsewhere on the island — the little cabin is on a high rocky knoll and the view is fabulous — looking down through the trees and on to the water. It’s a terrific place to sing, play and write music. We spent most of the day waiting for the chopper to arrive and watching tennis on the TV — Bjorn Borg was playing. In the last scene, Agnetha has a yellow flower and she moved it in a particular way so the sync could be matched up.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THEIR ISLAND?
It was fabulous. It’s a huge archipelago and there are lots of Swedes with similar houses. During mid-summer they all spend their summer holidays there.
ABBA was having a sewerage problem in the main house and they were most apologetic about it, because there was a bit of a stench.
On the mid-summer day we went to Benny and Annifrid’s separate island and they had a wonderful procession led by Benny, playing the piano accordion, with all the kids and guitars and they had flowers in their hair and were dancing in a grassy clearing. It’s a traditional festival, There were at least 40 people — their extended family. There were other houses on the island as well — it wasn’t tiny.
DID YOU MEET FRIDA’S SON, HANS?
He was quite a large boy. I didn’t speak to him — he came on the tour to Australia. (Frida’s son and daughter – who later died in a car crash — from her first marriage and Benny’s son, 12, came along).
Agnetha was very quiet, maybe because she was pregnant. She gave me a lift back to town once and I asked her if she had any music and she said: “In the glove box”. There were some old cassettes of her earlier solo work and I wanted to listen to it, but she was most reluctant for me to hear any of them so I didn’t push it. She seemed as though she hadn’t realised they were in the glove box, or if she did, she didn’t want me to play them.
It was quite funny that she was a little bit embarrassed — obviously they were vastly different to her ABBA stuff.
They all spoke English very well. They were all very nice people. Bjorn was an astute businessman — they all had good senses of humour. I didn’t really get to know them and we didn’t become friends and I’ll probably never see them again.
I should have asked them for their autographs but I didn’t go through with it.
DID THEY GET ON WELL?
They got on like ordinary couples. Nothing unusual.
WHAT ABOUT STIG?
Didn’t speak to him at all.
WHAT ABBA RECORDS DO YOU OWN?
ABBA – The Album and a single, the live recording of Thank You For The Music.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING KISSED BY FRIDA AND BEING IN A TORRID LOVE SCENE WITH FRIDA AND AGNETHA AS REPORTED BY PEOPLE MAGAZINE AT THE TIME?
[Top-of-page screengrab used with permission from Sara Russell at ABBAonTV.com]
UPDATE: 11 SEPTEMBER 2021: Was interviewed by SMH journalist Andrew Hornery for this mention.