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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

NRK
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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.

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