I’ve been putting on blue eyeshadow and blonde wigs since Mamma Mia hit No.1 in 1975. The only time I’d seen the group was as distant, pre-giant-video-screen miniatures onstage during their 1977 Australian tour. And now Benny (the One with the Beard) and Bjorn (the Frog-Faced One) were premiering their new musical, Kristina Fran Duvemala, in a Swedish country town, Malmo. I was hoping for a glimpse of my idols, but all the tickets had been booked out six months earlier.
Friday: Left Stockholm and did the seven-hour train trip to Malmo with another Aussie fan, Sandra. We loitered outside the theatre and asked about tickets. A glacial blonde told us Benny and Bjorn would not be making a grand entrance.
Saturday: Went back to the theatre at 3:30pm. The show was due to start at 6pm. There were about 50 European fans there and also TV reporters, who interviewed us. A feather-boa-draped Swedish journalist hauled us over to the press desk and outlined our dilemma. We were given two tickets to the premiere.
The evening’s highlight was when the rarely-seen Agnetha arrived at 5:30pm. I asked for her autograph, but she brushed me away. I ran after her, but the media pack encircled, squealing, and I was trampled. Sandra was sobbing in a corner somewhere. Frida never turned up – she was in Washington gallivanting with Queen Silvia of Sweden.
The show was sung in Swedish, so I can’t tell you what happened, but there were hundreds of peasants, marriages, deaths, births, and Kristina often looking concerned and clutching a quilt. Anyway, we were mainly trying to look at Bjorn and Benny’s reactions. Agnetha was sitting upstairs in an ivory tower.
During the interval, Bjorn and Benny vanished. On a whim, I walked back into the theatre alone, and bumped into Agnetha. I asked for her autograph, but she said, “I can’t – I have to go to the loo!” I was stunned. After 20 years of adoration, listening to her obscure Swedish solo albums. And that was it. “I have to go to the loo.” Just before she walked away (surrounded by several women friends), she turned and paused so I could take a photo.
When the show finished, after the standing ovation, Sandra and I rushed to the backstage doors, but we missed Bjorn and Benny’s departure. After a quick meal at McDonald’s, we went to the after-show party, but Bjorn had left.
We could see Benny playing Swedish folk music on an accordion. A couple of the show’s stars performed songs from the musical. Then endless Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra hits were played. Bundles of early-edition newspapers headlined “Agnetha steals the show” arrived, but remained unopened.
I chatted to Benny as he was leaving and signing autographs at 1:15am. Then the other fans left, but Sandra and I stayed, numb and frozen. Sandra wanted to leave, as it was raining, but I reminded her we’d waited backstage in Australia until 3am for Bjorn Again! At 2:45am, Benny returned. “Hey, the girls from Perth and Sydney,” he said, correctly remembering our details. As Sandra took photos, she asked: “Do you think we’re crazy?” He smiled but wouldn’t be drawn. It was 3am and we were freezing in a remote town in the middle of nowhere and we’d travelled so far just for that night, without tickets. I realised that out of the 150,000 fans who’d seen ABBA perform at the Perth Entertainment Centre in 1977, I was the only one who’d tracked them down that night in Malmo.
Sandra asked again, nervously: “Do you think we’re mad?” He paused. “No,” he said, shaking his head, and as he headed for the performers’ mini-bus, he called out: “Have a safe trip home!”
Tom Oliver – plays Lou Carpenter in Neighbours and Jack in Number 96.
Served ham, cheese and strawberry sandwiches with a delicious homemade mango jelly during this interview I did at his home in 1994.
Has a gorgeous dog named Louie.
HOW DID YOU GET THE PART IN ABBA – THE MOVIE?
I got a phone call from my agent asking me if I knew of a pop group called ABBA and I did because my 10-year-old daughter was a great fan. She knew everything about them. When they started they won the Eurovision contest in, whenever it was . I played it by ear from there. My daughter has several albums and I gave her a copy ABBA had autographed.
The agent told me ABBA were coming to Australia and Grundy Productions were doing a feature film of the tour. The fun thing was that there was no script. They were just going to film the tour and there was a scenario that we could ad-lib and when they’d taken all the footage back to Sweden they’d decide what to do with it.
And I said, “Well, it sounds fun, I’ll be in that.” The thing that attracted me most was that I had to play four different parts and I looked upon it rather like Peter Sellers when he had to do numerous parts. I was a great fan of Sellers.
I was originally employed to play their bodyguard and then the film had sequences when Robert Hughes kept falling asleep and would dream of ABBA. One sequence featured him as a poor man’s Clint Eastwood in the wild west and he was playing poker with Benny and Bjorn. Frida and Anna were sitting on his knee and pouring him drinks and I was playing a very drunk barman.
Then there was another sequence where they dreamt he’d invited them to dinner and I played the butler. Just for a laugh I played it very gay and I had a beauty spot on my cheek, and there was some footage cut out of it which I’d love to see. One of the reasons I played this part as gay was because it was so different to the usual drunk wild west saloon barman stereotype. Lasse decided to do a close up of me when I poured five drinks and I had my fingers stuck in each glass and I was licking them – it was very gross.
He decided to do a cutaway of me watching ABBA and they had supplied me with a live chicken — there was also a donkey and goat tied up outside — and they decided to play a prank on me by doing a close-up and never saying “Cut”, just to see how far I would go. I kept going and they had to say “Cut” because Jock the cameraman fell off his crane laughing.
I had the chicken and was leaning on the bar, swigging out of a bottle of water or gravy essence, and I was force-feeding this chicken water and I had him on my shoulder, on my head, down the front of my shirt — he was like my only friend, as it were. And I kept passing out behind the bar and coming back up again — well, they couldn’t use that in the movie!
I was the golf caddy in a dream sequence to the tune of The Name of The Game and a butler in the dinner party footage. A lot of this wasn’t used, such as when I had one of those little crumb dustpan and brushes and I finished off brushing Robert Hughes down with it and then I disappeared under the table as well. We really sort of let ourselves loose.
I was also the Aussie taxi-driver during scenes shot in Stockholm. I had arrived at 3pm the previous afternoon and the next day they put me in this old New York yellow cab, left hand drive, took the back seat out, took my seat out and replaced it with an apple cart, put the Mitchell camera in the back with Jock and Lasse, and put me in the Stockholm rush hour!
I had to ad-lib everything. Lasse said to cover topics such as the fact that everyone from five-year-olds to grandmothers loved ABBA and also that Agnetha had just been voted as having the most beautiful bottom in Europe.
So there was I motoring through the streets of Stockholm during the rush hour as a taxi driver with a false moustache stuck up my nose, screaming “Get out of here you raw prawn!” at Swedish drivers who didn’t have a clue what was happening. I could see all sorts of car crashes coming up. I don’t know who was more terrified — me or Jock the cameraman in the back.
Lasse Hallström, the director, had almost given me a free rein. It was such fun to do and we all came up with crazy ideas.
ABBA didn’t know who I was when they came off the aircraft in Sydney — and I put myself in front of their real bodyguards and said “It’s part of the film” out of the corner of my mouth, and started clearing people out of the way.
Then we went to the Sebel Townhouse where they had a press conference and I was standing up behind them as bodyguards do and I knew many of the journalists and one, Matt White, who wrote for The Mirror, an old reprobate, was there and he had a quizzical look on his face. I had sunglasses on and was wearing one of those shirts they’d made for me which had very “Hamlet” sort of sleeves, it opened down to the waist and there were big gold medallions hanging around my neck — very ’70s. Very tight waist and hipsters which flared. So I could see this look on Matt’s face thinking “No, that can’t be Tom”, and then he realised it was. I saw him after the press conference and I went across to have a beer with him and he said: “Things must be real bad if you have to moonlight as a bodyguard.” I said, “No mate, that camera over on the right is a movie camera — we’re making a movie about ABBA!”
HOW DID YOU GET ON WITH THE OTHER ACTORS?
Robert Hughes and I clicked straight away; we had the same sense of humour. When I was the bodyguard I’d curl my lip up at him and he’d just crack up and then I’d crack up.
The prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, brought his kids to see ABBA in Melbourne at the Music Bowl and we were in the subterranean dressing rooms and Robert was hanging on some piping to see ABBA and I said “Why don’t you do that and thwack your head on the piping?” and he did and it worked beautifully — very Buster Keaton. Those little suggestions we could say to each other — we clicked.
DID YOU DO ANY ACTING PREPARATION?
Good heavens no! I mean, if I play a rapist I don’t go out and practise raping anybody, do I? I say the lines and don’t bump into the furniture. That’s been my philosophy for 30 years.
For more serious roles I would. But there was no script for this. The whole movie was a big ad-lib.
That feature film with ABBA was the last I’ve ever done. Maybe I was that bad no-one’s ever offered me one since! Most of my work has been in the theatre and television.
WHERE DID YOU FIRST MEET ABBA?
At the Sebel Townhouse press conference. They were absolutely bloody marvellous. I cannot speak more highly of those four people. They were the most open, refreshing company to be with. No airs and graces. We’ve all seen pop groups and actors that get lots of publicity and it goes straight to their head and they start believing it.
ABBA weren’t like that at all. They were just the nicest bunch of down-to-earth, hard-working people I’ve ever met who were very good at what they did. I’d love to see them again, I really would.
What was refreshing was that I’ve been to hotels in Melbourne and Sydney when there’ve been other international and local pop groups who’ve wrecked their rooms and chucked TVs out the window and yet ABBA were blasted for being so nice, so clean and so friendly. Well, give me that any day, instead of hairy-arsed idiot scum.
WHAT WAS STIG LIKE?
Nice guy. You could see how well they were managed.
WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF LASSE HALLSTRÖM?
He was a hot shot up-and-coming director — he later won an Oscar for My Life As A Dog. He’s a funny guy too, and so’s his crazy wife, Malou — God she was funny. She discovered the word “shit” and she wouldn’t stop using it, no matter where we were.
ROBERT HUGHES MENTIONED DINING WITH ABBA IN SWEDEN. WHAT HAPPENED?
When we were flown to Sweden, Robert and I went out with Jock the cameraman and Lasse for dinner to a subterranean restaurant in Old Stockholm, across the canal, and lo and behold Frida and Benny were there with some friends. It was very crowded and this voice on the other side of the room cried out “Hello” and there was Frida and she stood up and ran through the tables and embraced Robert and I and said “You must come and sit at our table”. And we had a wonderful evening, it was great. ABBA don’t get hassled in Sweden, they never did — in fact, quite a few Swedes resent them.
WERE BJORN AND AGNETHA THERE?
No, just Frida and Benny having dinner with some friends. It was totally unplanned — it was just a coincidence they were there.
WHAT WAS ABBA-MANIA LIKE?
It was unbelievable. You’d fly interstate with them on the same plane and there were cameras waiting at the airport just to get footage of them coming off the plane. There was thousands of screaming kids and you could hardly hear yourself think. There were occasions when I did have to act as their bodyguard after we’d finished filming and we’d have to get from A to B and I’d try to get the youngsters out of the way as gently as possible.
ABBA went out quite a bit during their stay in Australia – usually by invitation.
WHAT ABOUT THE URBAN MYTH ABOUT SELLING OFF AGNETHA’S DUMP AFTER A BOAT TRIP ON THE SWAN RIVER, W.A.?
I saw them that evening because we were staying at the same hotel, the Parmelia, and asked them about their day and they made no mention of the fact that the toilet was bung on the boat or anything like that. Somebody might have pooed in a bucket and auctioned it off to raise some cash. God, you could come ashore with three tonnes of it, couldn’t you, if there was enough crew!
DID YOU SEE ALICE COOPER AT THE PARMELIA WHEN ABBA STAYED THERE?
Yes, I didn’t see him with ABBA, though.
WHAT WAS FRIDA LIKE?
I liked Frida – she was spicy. I thought she had a better bottom than Agnetha. Frida really enjoyed singing – she’d been doing it all her life. I used to catch her before a concert going through an aria to warm up.
Bob Jones was the real bodyguard and on the roof of the Sebel Townhouse every morning Bob would be up there with Agnetha and Frida working out for at least an hour and a half to keep them in top condition because they expended an awful amount of energy on stage.
WHAT ABOUT THE BOMB HOAX?
I didn’t take much notice of it because it was only a couple of years after I’d come out of Number 96 and we used to get quite a few bomb hoaxes. After the first three or four you don’t take any notice of them, you keep rehearsing while the police search.
IN THE MOVIE AGNETHA PUT HER THUMB OVER THE WORD “DULL” IN A HEADLINE SAYING “AGNETHA’S BOTTOM TOPS DULL SHOW”.
Good on her. What do you expect her to do? Point to it?
DID YOU VISIT ABBA ON THEIR ISLAND IN SWEDEN?
No, I had to leave straight after filming because my mother was very ill.
WHAT WAS FRIDA’S SON HANS LIKE?
Frida’s son was huge for a 12-year-old kid. He was like a front-row forward.
WAS AGNETHA PREGNANT DURING THE TOUR?
Agnetha said to me they conceived their son when they were touring Australia and it was planned that way.
WERE THERE ANY AMUSING INCIDENTS?
When we were in the Parmelia Hotel [Perth], Lasse had the camera near the lift and ABBA and I had to start walking up through a corridor, but we decided to have a bit of fun. When we did the rehearsal we did it correctly, but when it was a take Anna squeezed up close behind me — you could put a cigarette paper between us — Bjorn behind her, and Frida and Benny at the back. We were very close together and we all set off on the left foot and marched off. Lasse yelled “Cut”. The second time we all did a side step, waving our hands and later we did it about six different ways before we walked how Lasse wanted us to.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE MOVIE PREMIERE?
It was a real Hollywood-style opening at the Regent, Sydney. There were searchlights, barricades and police everywhere. We had to walk on the red carpet and arrived in limos. There was lots of screaming and hysteria all through the movie as well! It was the same in England — in my home town there were two cinemas, the Embassy and Savoy — and there were queues a mile long to see the movie there.
WHAT ABOUT THE FILM REVIEWS?
It was an hour and a half of pure entertainment. The critics weren’t interested. They seemed to knock everything that came out of Australia then.
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP YOUR EXPERIENCE OF WORKING ON THE MOVIE?
After 31 years in the business, I’d have to say it was one of the most enjoyable working experiences I’ve ever had, and I was sorry when it ended.
[Screengrab used with permission from Sara Russell, ABBAonTV.com]