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Eldbjørg Vaage Melberg, Photos: NRK
A TV series about the beginnings of Norway’s oil industry has finally been seen in Norwegian homes after winning prizes and praise abroad. And Mette Bølstad, scriptwriter for Lykkeland – or State of Happiness – has material for several seasons more.
The production has been largely well-received in the Happy Country as well – even though Stavanger residents of the right age cannot recall that the pietistic chapel culture was so strong then.
They also note that upper-class people depicted in the series fail to speak in the local Stavanger dialect, the way they actually did in the late 1960s.
Its eight parts take the viewer from 1969, when Phillips Petroleum tried to evade its last committed well – which found Ekofisk – to 1972 when trial output from this huge North Sea field was in full swing.
An insight is provided into the way Stavanger politicians, under the leadership of mayor Arne Rettedal, and business leaders such as shipowner Torolf Smedvig, responded at record speed when they saw opportunities to attract a new industry.
The series records how the locally important canning business faced major problems – and how individuals seized the chance to participate in a fresh adventure.
But this is not a documentary – that has already been made. The story emerges here as a drama which follows developments through characters who engage the viewer.
“I like to delve into other people’s reality,” explains Bølstad. “This means I’ve had to become ‘fluent in oil’. That takes a long time.
“I’ve got to know enough to be able to carry on a conversation with those who’ve been involved in the story, and to ask the right questions.”
She has used many sources, including the digital archive at local daily Stavanger Aftenblad and Stig S Kvendseth, vice president communications and government relations at ConocoPhillips.
His book Giant Discovery. A History of Ekofisk Through the First 20 Years provides a good historical review of the early period.
“I’ve visited the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, talked with oil historian Kristin Øye Gjerde and read her books,” says Bølstad. “I’ve also been in contact with contemporary witnesses.
“These include a diver, ‘oil oracle’ Bjørn Vidar Lerøen [former oil journalist and long-serving communications staffer at Statoil] and the NPD.
“Among others are Piers Crocker, head of Stavanger’s Canning Museum. I’ve familiarised myself with the city – and been there a lot.”
This is the town with “no winter, no summer, no bars,” as one of the characters in the series says of Stavanger in the first episode.
“I had to decide where the various players were to work,” Bølstad explains. “Phillips got a lawyer – there wasn’t one among the company’s first three employees in Stavanger.
“I decided to use that twist in order to get to grips with the Norwegian regulations and to find a way to involve Arne Rettedal, the legendary local and national politician.”
A big experience for the scriptwriter was a visit to Ekofisk itself, and she describes flying out to the field as “fantastic. We flew low. It was 07.00. Into the cloud layer – the sun came up – seeing the first platforms was magical. I’d been involved with this for three years, had a strong relationship to it, and now saw the field.
“I was on an old platform – Charlie – where time has stood a little still. I also saw many of the new installations, which are pretty high-tech. “But it was the mechanical technology which kicked off our economic growth. Those working there were seafarers, men who knew how to run tractors, who knew a lot, had the muscle.”
Bølstad observes that operations on the field are so quiet today compared with the reality in 1969-72, when the work was really noisy.
“So it was lovely to come out to the Charlie installation, where some of the dirty, masculine noisiness still persists,” she affirms.
“I haven’t wanted to tell a behind-the-scenes story. This is based on fact. We haven’t compromised on the historical detail to get the drama to function.
“You use your characters to convey something important. The main thing is to tell a story which allows us to understand ourselves.”
“It’s also important to have a social perspective – to grasp where our prosperity comes from. Our aim was to present a region moving from poverty to riches.”
“We came up with the title a long time ago,” says project manager Tone Rønning at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), which made the series.
“The original proposal was Miracle in Stavanger. Oil is clearly indissolubly linked with our economic good fortune. There’s a lot we haven’t had to worry about because of it.
“We can naturally show this in documentary format. But a drama allows us to present the past through the people – we get inside their heads and hearts, which has many advantages.”
Since contemporary Norwegians can see the consequences of the petroleum industry, this is not the heart of the story, Rønning explains.
“Its core is about innovation, about seizing the new opportunities. This is about daring to believe that the fairy tale can come true tomorrow.”
The NRK spends a lot of money on drama, Rønning points out, so it is important that this output makes its mark. Drama has its justification when it sets the agenda.
She adds that that management expectations at the NRK are crystal clear: “Deliver a world-class product. Our audience doesn’t judge Norwegian drama against other home-grown products, but with the best it sees – and that comes from the whole world.”
Bølstad would be happy to produce more seasons of Lykkeland. But any decision to continue would be up to the NRK, and Rønning says that nothing has yet been fixed.
“We have many good projects and stories waiting to be realised. Tough and brutal priorities have to be set between these.”
Viewing figures are not the only consideration which guides what the NRK does, she emphasises. Its social mission must also be taken into account, and then its strategy.
“But it obviously helps that we reach those we want to reach, that they like what they see and that they feel they get value for their licence fee.
“We must have that much respect for the audience. But we can’t take decisions on the basis of viewer numbers. Our goal is to bring people together around shared experiences.
“We want to make them aware of our common history and – which I think is important – stand on history’s shoulders when we we’re going to leap into the future.”
Rønning says the NRK hopes that Lykkeland provides such a shared experience and an understanding of Norway’s history, which is a very important foundation for national prosperity.
“We started work on the series at a time when oil prices were on the way down, just as the fishing industry was in decline back in 1969.
“And we face the same dilemmas today – how far should we continue doing what we’re used to, or jump in at the deep end and seize the new chances. “That’s where I find Lykkeland a fine inspiration precisely for grasping the opportunities, and not simply sticking with the safe and familiar.
“We must be very grateful for the politicians we had back then. They were concerned with jobs for the whole country – and that oil should benefit the entire nation.”