Ta-dah! – ABBAWORLD!

13 01 2010

We have barely passed through the doors of Abbaworld, a new “multimedia experience” devoted to the Swedish group, when the PR showing me around has her first ta-dah! moment. “And this,” she says, brimming with pride, “is what we’re calling the Tunnel of Love.” We’re standing in the basement of the Earls Court conference halls, in a heart-shaped walkway that’s covered with blood-red Astroturf.

It’s an appropriately kitsch opening number that represents ABBA’s eureka moment, when four young Scandinavian musicians, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad , fell in love, coupled up and formed a band. Their romance, and their break-ups, would become the wellspring for some of the most enduring pop songs of the past century.

Love is a running theme throughout the exhibition, showcasing a band whose perfect pop is still adored by millions. In Britain, their greatest hits collection, ABBA Gold, is the fourth biggest-selling album , and the film of their musical, Mamma Mia!, has broken British box-office records. I mean, who doesn’t love ABBA?

That this expensively produced showcase is being premiered in London is testament to just how much the British public loves the band. Last year, Benny Andersson told me that “you Brits have always taken us to your heart; you forget that we’re not yours”. When the PR says that she has a dream of finding a couple who’ll want to get married in the Tunnel of Love, it’s possible that in Britain she just might.

Spread over some 30,000 sq ft, the interactive exhibition adopts the long, snaking route technique perfected by that other great Swedish export, Ikea. After an introductory film featuring new interviews with each member of the band, visitors are armed with an audio guide and talked through 25 “rooms” filled with original costumes, plasma screens playing rare band footage and memorabilia from each of the quartet’s attics.

But this is more than a riffle through the cupboards of a band that hung up its Spandex three decades ago. Larger rooms recreate key components of the Abba story. There’s a replica 1974 Eurovision Song Contest scoreboard; the band’s late manager Stig Andersson’s Seventies office; and a recreation of the band’s recording studio in Stockholm.

Then things get even more up close and personal. Björn’s summer cottage on Viggsö is recreated with a filmed backdrop of the view and kitted out with his mini-piano. The truly dreadful concert film ABBA: The Movie is screened on a loop in a mini cinema using seats salvaged from a Norwegian picturehouse that Frida frequented as a girl.

You can’t fault the ambition of the show’s producers. Fans will be able to climb inside a helicopter of the kind that featured on the cover of the 1976 album, Arrival. “The helicopter was inches away from not getting in,” says Mats Daleskog, creative director of Touring Exhibitions, the company behind Abbaworld. “We had to lose a propeller and slide it in down the stairs.”

Daleskog won’t be drawn on how much the show has cost. “It’s substantial” is all he will say.

Perhaps the show’s biggest attraction — especially for the younger generation brought up on SingStar and Guitar Hero — will be its interactive elements. In one section, you are charged with recreating the ABBA “sound” by playing with the mixing levels on a handful of tracks. Your score is then recorded on to your entry smartcard — as is your rating on the dance mats, where you are awarded points for strutting to ABBA tunes. There’s also the chance to perform alongside a holographic image of the foursome.

“It’s a family attraction,” says Daleskog. “We want it to be something you do together instead of, say, going to a cinema.” There’s certainly enough here for a memorable family afternoon out — and more than enough to infatuate those with a passion for the minutiae of the band. Hardcore fans will want to hang back in the corridors, which are plastered with tour posters, family album photographs and picture sleeves.

The idea for a touring show came from a smaller exhibition in Stockholm in 2000. When plans for a dedicated museum fizzled out, the concept was franchised to Live Nation, in whose hands it has become an interactive monster.

Does the world need an exhibition dedicated to a band whose songs aren’t exactly underexposed? Abbaworld is perhaps the answer to a question that only the music industry had been asking: how do you make money from an act that stopped recording almost 30 years ago? You send their belongings on tour. In the age of Avatar, that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

  • Abbaworld (0871 2200 260, www.abbaworld.com) is at Earls Court, London SW5, from Jan 27, booking to March 28.



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