NRK
Show Hide image

Skam: how a cult teen drama has fans invading sets, stalking characters’ Instagrams and learning Norwegian

Norwegian TV show Skam has had unprecedented international success. We spoke to fans across the globe to find out why Skam’s popularity is snowballing – and why it might be the best thing on TV.

Camilla is 40 years old. Originally from rural Norway, she now lives in a town on the country’s west coast with her husband and two children. She works as a psychologist, and when she’s not at work, she likes spending time with her friends and family, watching films, listening to music, painting and reading. 

Oh, and she’s completely obsessed with a TV show about teenagers.

It might just be the most popular programme you’ve never heard of. It’s been considered too risqué for European television, and Simon Fuller has already bought the rights to the American remake. Its characters are topping mainstream polls like E!’s TV’s Top Couple tournament, fans are being reprimanded for invading the set (a fully-functioning school), and the stars are receiving worldwide attention. One lead actor is performing in a play which sold out due to an influx of Korean fans snapping up tickets, despite the 5,000 mile journey.

Skam, which means shame, is a Norwegian drama following teenagers at Harvig Nissen School in Oslo, broadcast on NRK (Norway’s BBC). It’s revolutionary for reasons other than its unprecedented popularity. It has an unusual format, with episodes released scene-by-scene throughout the week as though live, and an immersive online presence. It has a killer soundtrack featuring Robyn and Lorde, and a striking realism and relatability that has seen its popularity snowball over the last three years.

“I have got involved in a fandom for the first time in my life,” Camilla tells me. “I needed someone to talk to about this fantastic show. Now I participate in several Facebook fan groups and have a blog on Tumblr. I am also in a group chat with other amazing grown-ups that love Skam. I am mostly chatting, writing texts and sharing images and fan fiction – and I have just started to write a fanfic of my own that I want to share.”

“I ended up watching all of the first two seasons in a span of about two weeks!” says Manuella, who lives in Florida, and was one of the first people to introduce me to the show when she emailed in to my podcast to recommend it for discussion. She discovered Skam like many other viewers: on Tumblr. Images from the show filled her dashboard, and the hype was so big she decided to check it out.

“I was immediately hooked.”

You might be wondering how a cult Norwegian teen programme, which currently airs in no English-speaking countries, makes its way to sunny Florida. Skam’s global success is at least partly a result of the generosity of its fans – who faithfully and immediately translate the show for non-Norwegian speakers who want a taste of the excitement. They share links and clips through an underground Google Drive network, have blogs dedicated to quickly translating additional material, and even offer language courses on the nuances of different slang terms.

Thanks to these translators, after binging on the first two seasons, Manuella watched Season Three in real time. “I would see that a new clip had been posted early in the day,” she recalls. “Within a few hours it would be translated into English and uploaded.”

Sarah, who is originally from France, first started watching subtitled versions, but soon caught up and began watching live. Fan-translated transcripts were usually the first thing to make their way online, before fully subtitled episodes, so Sarah would watch the show whilst reading the full transcripts, simultaneously reading a page on the left and watching the clip on the right of the computer screen. These kind of mental gymnastics are common - Carol, a Skam fan based in New York, would watch in the same way. “Transcripts are usually posted within hours of the episode,” she explains.

So, too, did Allyson, another New York-based fan. “The effect that had was really interesting,” she tells me “because watching Skam could inherently never be a solitary experience, like binge-watching on Netflix. It relied on a crowdsourced translation, an international fan community that would share and spread new clips.”

Why do the Norwegian-speaking fans translate the show so diligently? For Michelle, who lives in Poland and runs a popular translating blog on Tumblr, the answer is simple. “I would appreciate if someone did that for me, if I were in their shoes,” she writes, and quotes the slogan “Alt Er Love”, which roughly translates as Love Is Everything, and is featured in the third season, which follows a gay relationship. “In my opinion, sharing is caring. I’m just sharing the love, man.”

Lise, 20, from Norway, expresses a similar sentiment. “Translation between Norwegian and English is actually part of what I’m studying, so in that way this isn’t entirely selfless for me. But I love translating, and helping make this show accessible to so many people, both current fans and potential new ones, is incredibly exciting.

“I just want to share the love.”

Part of what makes Skam unique is its unusual release schedule. Part web series, part mainstream televised show, each episode is compiled of scenes that are first released throughout the week on its website, before being aired as a full episode on the TV channel on Friday evenings. Each scene begins with a timestamp that corresponds with when it is first released online – if you’re watching a scene that begins MANDAG 12:12, that’s when the clip was first aired. Each clip is filmed only two or three weeks before airing – this, combined with the timing of clip releases – gives the viewer the impression that they’re being given a live insight into the character’s lives.

That, plus the communal atmosphere of the fandom, means fans are extremely keen to consume new material immediately, while the unpredictable release schedule intentionally obscures when new material is coming. So fans sit refreshing the show’s webpage, create bots that alert them every time it is updated, and sneak watching sessions into their everyday routines – even at school.

Lise, the Norwegian translator, is part of a team that will be translating Season Four as it starts airing, and says it’s the format that makes Skam truly unique. “It makes it utterly addictive, and makes following the show and experience like no other. The fact that when a highly anticipated clip drops, tens of thousands of people all across the world are all simultaneously freaking out, really makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.”

Allyson, too, was gripped by the way the story unfolded in real time each week. “I kept telling my roommates I wasn’t really that into the show, but the next thing I knew I was refreshing NRK’s website on Fridays, and obsessing over clips in Norwegian until someone on Twitter would post the translations.”

But it’s not just new clips that are released each week. The producers also dripfeed windows into the character’s technological lives: screenshots of text conversations, Facebook group messages, and Instagrams. It might just be a cute couple’s pic, or it might have plot significance: a thread discussing weekend party plans would let us know what to expect from the next clip.

These aren’t all simply Photoshops – every fictional character has a real Instagram account that fans can follow for updates about their lives (these are actually run by producer Mari Magnus). Actors might post in-character pictures or videos of their in-character co-stars, or images that are revealing in other ways: memes that reflect the character’s sense of humour, or updates showing what films they watch on the weekends. The level of detail is utterly immersive.

16-year-old Fatema, who lives in a Toronto suburb, follows every character’s Instagram account religiously. She tells me, “I constantly refresh the website for the extra materials.”

Carol, the New York fan, sees the transmedia as essential to the unique experience of watching Skam: “They’re not mandatory to the plot, but they offer a wealth of extra details. Besides the fact that they enhance the sense of reality, they shade the characters, and give you a further glimpse into their everyday lives.”

“You can follow the show without them,” French fan Sarah adds, “but they’re more than just bonus material. They’re an intricate part of the whole experience and what makes Skam so great: once you’re hooked, you need to follow the extra material because you need more of these characters. You need to know how they are doing.

“They feel like friends.”

All this means that watching the show is a more continuous activity than your usual isolated hour a week – and even more hours of translating, at unpredictable moments, are required for the show to reach its global audience. But for some, even a few hours is too agonising a wait for translations. Natalie, who is from California and runs one of the most popular Skam blogs, skam-online, first found the show after seeing clips used in a Vine, and her interest soon became an obsession. “When I had to wait hours for a subtitled version to release,” she tells me, “I would just translate the show myself using the Norwegian subtitles they provided and Google Translate.”

“Yes, I needed subtitles,” a 15-year-old student from Belgium, Febe, tells me, before casually adding, “but I learned Norwegian.” When I follow her up on this, she explains that she enrolled in a free, four-week online course in order to aid her understanding of the show. 

This isn’t as unusual as it sounds. Scroll through translation Tumblrs and you’ll find hundreds of viewers asking questions about Norwegian as they begin learning the language themselves, both to have immediate access to new updates, and to feel closer to the characters they love so much. Skam has sparked a notable interest in Norwegian language and culture amongst the young people of Denmark.

The show has even won a prize for making Nordic languages cool. “Few have made our neighbour languages as fun, relevant and cool amongst young Scandinavians than this year’s winner,” the jury wrote. I write this with one part of my brain worrying about maintaining my seven-day streak of learning Norwegian on Duolingo, a hobby I took up after watching the final episode of Skam Season Three and feeling oddly bereft.

So what is it about the show itself that has captured so many imaginations? “Beautiful teens dealing with ludicrously high stakes problems are my jam,” Manuella, the Florida fan, admits. But Skam, “while still full of well-dressed, attractive teens”, felt different. “It’s possibly the most authentic scripted portrayal of teenagers since. . . probably My So-Called Life? The problems are never life or death, but they still resonate because they are relatable and realistic.”

Each season follows a specific character’s perspective, in the same way that Skins chose a particular character to follow through each episode.

Season One follows Eva, a lonely first-year at Hartvig Nissen trying to make new friends following a recent friendship break-up, and her relationship with her boyfriend, Jonas, and his best friend, Isak.

She finds a group of best friends: the principled and poised Noora, earnest social climber Vilde, the unpretentious and uninhibited Chris, and the shrewd and dependable Sana, a Muslim student who pierces the ignorance of those around her with witty dialogue.


From left to right: Noora, Sana, Eva, Vilde and Chris

Season Two follows Noora as she embarks on a relationship with a cool, older boy, and Season Three follows Isak as he comes to terms with his sexuality (while fan speculation suggests that the next series, due to arrive any day now, will see Sana as the “main”).

Isak’s plotline in particular, as he struggles to come out, and begins his first relationship with a man, has catapulted the show into the mainstream. Most of the fans I spoke to discovered the show after his storyline spread like wildfire among LGBT-friendly parts of the internet like Tumblr.

“Loads of queer people on Twitter kept raving about it, so that’s what I went in thinking it would be,” says Nadia, who is from Sweden and currently lives in Glasgow. “I was a bit annoyed when I realised I had to wait until Season THREE for some actual gay content.” For gay teenagers desperate for well-written on-screen representation, the show is a lifeline.  

Conor, 18, who is in his final year of school in Ireland, tells me he is gay, but not yet out. “One of the main things that attracted me to Skam was the ‘realness’ of it,” he tells me. “Not only because of the extra material; the lives of the characters themselves just seemed more real than shows like Skins. I thought all the characters were very universal, but for me it was Isak that I associated most with.”

“As I watched more episodes, I became passionate about it,” says Sarah, the French fan, “because it portrayed queer people and someone with bipolar realistically and respectfully. Being queer and bipolar myself, this was everything I’ve ever wanted from a TV show.”

Other characters also resonate. Fatema, the Canadian fan, emphasises that Sana is important to her as a character that is both “a person of colour and very outspoken about xenophobia and negative stereotypes surrounding Muslims and Islam.”

The drama is certainly remarkable for its realism. A shaky camera follows each main through their daily lives, from their perspective. The show casts real teenagers – spots and all – in the lead roles, and while there are hedonistic parties, sex scenes and relationship dramas, each season spends a great deal of time alone with each main character – we see them redrafting texts, Googling their insecurities, struggling to write homework, and binge-watching movies. 

Skam’s creator Julie Andem has explained that she spent six months interviewing real Norwegian teenagers to try and both reflect their realities and create a show they’d be excited about watching. She highlights how important this information was, and remains, in creating the show: “Now we know who they are, the culture they grew up in, what they watched on television when they were children, where they go on holiday and what they eat for dinner. We know all about Norwegian culture.”

The team also found that most Norwegian teenagers watch a lot of TV online, not on terrestrial Norwegian channels like NRK, but big international shows from Netflix and HBO. “We knew we had to make something that would catch their attention quickly and something that they thought of as true,” she adds. “It had to have truth and honesty about their own culture, something they hadn’t seen anywhere before and couldn’t get anywhere else. They had to relate to it and identify with it more than any other series.

“So that’s what we tried to do.”

It worked. More than any other word, Skam fans I spoke to from Norway and elsewhere used the word “real” to describe the show. Lise, the translator, told me, “The first thing that struck me was the realism of the show, within pretty much ten minutes of the first episode. It was unsettling. Secondly, how (understandably) Norwegian it was. That engaged and amused me more than anything else at first. I found it utterly delightful, and my nostalgia definitely kicked into play.”

Maha, who is from Oslo, says, “It started out as a very personal show, but here in Norway it quickly became a show that mothers watched with their daughters to get some insight into the generation.”

“The show encapsulates what being human is all about.”

“I just like that it’s real life,” says Madison, a student in New York. “Nothing outrageous is really happening, and they actually cast people of the correct age.”

“It’s so real,” says 18-year-old Aria, who lives in Portland, Oregon. “It’s probably the most accurate TV show I’ve ever seen about high school. Obviously, we have our flaws both physical and personality wise, and I think Skam really encompasses this. We have pimples! We make mistakes!”

“It proves that you don’t need outlandish plots to engage with young people,” says Alim from London, “but deep, well-developed and likeable characters experiencing real life things that are relatable to the audience. I do think a lot of it is down to how real it all feels.”

As its title suggests, the show has an emotional honesty rarely seen on screen in its handling of the things in our life that can bring us shame: be it our sexualities, our bodies, our religions, our experiences of sexual assault, our betrayals of friends, or something smaller: an embarrassing text, an overly drunken night out. In its three short seasons, Skam has explored date rape, coming out, mental health issues from anorexia to bipolar disorder, stereotypical perceptions of Islam, and teen pregnancy without ever feeling issue-based: instead, it approaches all these things through universal emotions like loneliness, or feeling misunderstood.    

“The first season deals with loneliness in a really honest way, and it also deals with making friends,” says Candy, from South London. “‘Making friends’ sounds really twee, but one of my favourite things to watch or read about is the formation of friendships, particularly friendships between women. We often get stories where friendships form the tapestry of the main character’s life, not something they have to actively pursue, but this was a nice change.”

Nadia, the Glasgow-based fan, agrees. “One of my favourite things is definitely the focus on friendship in the show, especially female friendship in the first two seasons.“

Of course, the snowballing of Skam’s popularity has not pleased everyone – on translation Tumblrs, you’ll find arguments between Norwegian fans. “It’s annoying that Skam is so popular,” one anonymously writes in Norwegian. “Stop translating for others,” another insists. “Skam is Norwegian!”

But most are delighted by its success. “I can’t speak on behalf of all the people in Norway, of course, but I do think most of us are pretty happy about it,” Michelle writes. “To be honest I’m really excited about it, and proud, and I think it’s so wonderful that little Norway managed to produce a piece of TV gold that reaches out across borders, with stories that young people (and older!) can relate to in a way, or feel represented by, or just be super excited about. It’s amazing.

“I’ve heard from people from all over the world during these last three months and I’m just so happy about it.”

“It has had some downsides,” admits translator Lise of Skam’s international appeal. “Mostly with respect to foreign celebrity culture and expectations being placed on young actors who didn’t ask for it, and certainly didn’t expect it.

“But I’m mostly thrilled that Skam is gaining an international audience. It blows me away a little, as I’m sure it does almost every Norwegian (even the ones who don’t watch Skam), and it’s just. . . really cool.

“Norwegians already tend to get excited at just a reference to Norway in foreign (and especially American) media, so the phenomenon of Skam, how it’s spread beyond Norway, and even beyond Scandinavia, is incredible.”

Skam-online’s Natalie adds, “When I first got the blog around fall 2016, I only had about a hundred followers. It just grew and grew – now I have over 8,000! I am pleased at how much popularity it’s getting because it deserves it so much.”

The strength of Skam’s ever-growing fandom means anyone who wants to stop its global success will inevitably be disappointed. “The show lends itself to fandom much more naturally than any other media fandom I’ve been part of,” says Allyson in New York, “because so much of the viewing experience was wrapped up in the online community of it.”

“It appeals to people young and old,” says Camilla, the 40-year-old Norwegian fan. “It aims to reduce shame, and it uses humour to show that we all are human, we all make mistakes. And that’s OK.”

“I truly do think Skam is just an incredibly important show, with so much good in it, both in terms of representation and in the way it tackles the very important issues it raises,” Lise adds, “and I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

“It’s made me happy, made my life richer, helped me find validation. The more people who can experience that, the better.”

 

Some names have been changed.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.