Friday 24 May 2019

ABBA: The Mamma Mia Story

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

With the film version of Mamma Mia! due to open at your nearest cineplex next week, the public focus will yet again turn to the songs of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. And just in case you doubted the pair's peerless genius, consider this -- not only have they sold more than 370 million albums worldwide and counting (they continue to shift around three million a year), but the West End show inspired by their songs has now been seen by an estimated 30 million people worldwide, and has netted a tidy stg£1.5 billion at the theatrical box office. And all of this a good 25 years after they stopped recording and touring with Anna-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog as ABBA.

This hour-long South Bank Show special explores the continuing appeal of Mamma Mia! and the extraordinary pop music behind it.

Ulvaeus and Andersson, it is now commonly agreed, have the kind of songwriting talent that could, for instance, be compared with that of Lennon and McCartney. The thing is, though, that not a lot of people noticed it at the time.

In 1977, when ABBA were at their height having just released the album Arrival, it was not really considered OK for grown-ups to like them. Their music was deemed the preserve of little girls; vapid stuff that should be dismissed out of hand by anyone desiring to be taken seriously. Even little boys weren't supposed to like it. We liked the girls who sang it -- we liked them a lot -- but that was another matter entirely.

These people were European, for God's sake! And they'd won the bloody Eurovision -- a source then, as now, of entirely appropriate shame. So they were laughed off by people in the know, who preferred to listen to prog rock and terminally tone-deaf punk bands. It was tough to pretend that the likes of Dancing Queen weren't absolutely brilliant, but coolness required sacrifice and so one trained one's foot not to tap.

ABBA's journey towards critical respectability began after they'd called it a day. In the late Eighties, the Australian tribute band Björn Again helped revive their songs, and when a new compilation, ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, was released in 1992, it went on to sell 26 million copies worldwide and six million copies in the US alone. More to the point, it became more than OK to like them. ABBA's music was used to memorable effect in the wonderful Australian comedy Muriel's Wedding in 1994, and through the Nineties bands as diverse as The Lemonheads and Boyzone rushed to record versions of their songs.

Not that Bjorn and Benny have been resting on their laurels. The two have continued to write and record together, co-creating the acclaimed musical Chess as well as operas, folk music and hit songs for other artists. They are interviewed here regarding the success of Mamma Mia!, which they've been involved in developing from the start.

And the South Bank team will also talk to Mamma Mia!'s writer, Catherine Johnson, and the stars of the film version, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Julie Walters.

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