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Skam’s creators on the TV show’s explosive success: “Perhaps it will save Facebook”

The creators of Skam talk future remakes, the show’s global impact, and why it ended after just four seasons.

In the summer of 2014, the commissioner of NRK (Norway’s licence-fee funded public sector broadcaster, similar to the BBC) came up with a hard task for the organisations content developers. It was, simply: make something that will bring teenagers back to NRK. After dwindling viewing figures for youth demographics, the broadcaster would have to do something dramatic to make NRK cool to teenagers again. And that’s how Skam, or Shame, the teen web drama that became a global phenomenon, was born.

The show, which has now finished after four seasons, followed the lives of students at the prestigious Hartvig Nissen school in Oslo, with each season focusing in on a different protagonist. The web drama was released in short clips on the NRK website, published in real time – if a clip showed the characters at 8:30pm on a Friday, it aired on the site at 8:30pm on a Friday. It amassed an international following far beyond anything NRK could have expected. Fans across the globe invading sets, winning major American fan TV polls, and crashing the series’ webpage. It found a global audience thanks to the sheer dedication of its fans: Norwegian speakers create subtitled versions of new episodes in English or other languages, which were shared through a series of underground Google Drive networks. “There was a lot of piracy,” laughs Håkon Moslet, an executive producer on Skam, and the Head of TV for NRK P3 (NRK’s digital youth channel). “But we didn’t mind.”

It took a while to get there. NRK had been trying its hand at youth-focused web dramas for almost a decade, the result of fierce competition from The Disney Channel. The producers at publicly-funded NRK knew they wouldn’t have the budget to compete with glossy, glamorous fantasies like Hannah Montana. “But we could make something real,” Moslet explains during an event at City University in London. “Stories that were so close to the kids’ lives, they didn’t feel like fiction.”

Their first attempt was 2009’s Sara, a vlog-style web drama aimed at 10-12 year old girls, that at its peak was racking up 300 online comments from viewers a day. Then came 2010’s MIA, named after lead 12-year-old girls Marie, Iben and Alexandra, which ran for four seasons, and had video clips getting collective views of over 28 million. Jenter (Girls), written and directed by Skam creator Julie Andem, launched in 2013.

Skam would be pitched at a slightly older market: 16-year-old girls. It began, as all NRK shows do, with a mission statement. “I’m obsessed with mission statements,” Ole Hedemann, NRK’s Head of Formats and Content Developer, laughs. The one for Skam was simple, but ambitious: “Skam aims to help 16-year-old girls strengthen their self-esteem through dismantling taboos, making them aware of interpersonal mechanisms, and showing them the benefits of confronting their fears.”

“But to be able to do this, you have to do your research, and lots of research,” explains Skam’s producer and project manager Marianne Furevold. The team behind Skam conducted over 50 in-depth interviews with teenagers, spent time at schools and youth clubs, and immersed themselves in the online lives of young people, to try and understand the way Norwegian teenagers were communicating, what their insecurities were, and what their sense of humour was like. Would it have been possible at a commercial channel, one with less focus on the social impact of their programming? “No, I don’t think so.” Furevold insists. “We were given a lot of time to do so much research, and I think that’s a huge part of the success that we see today with Skam.”

She cites the character of Sana – the main character in Skam’s fourth season, and one of the show’s most popular figures, as proof. An outspoken, funny, sarcastic Muslim girl who often takes the lead amongst her friends, the concept for Sana came out of an in-depth interview with a 17-year-old Muslim girl outside of Oslo who felt that her peers viewed Muslim girls as victims of oppression – and only that. “She was desperate to find and see a cool smart, young Muslim girl was confident in her religion and part of youth culture.” Iman Meskini, who played Sana, would later become the first Norwegian woman in a hijab to appear on the cover of a Norwegian fashion magazine.

Sana’s season was Skam’s last – many fans were upset to see the show end just as its popularity had exploded across the world, and before the overarching plot of the four seasons could reach its most obvious logical conclusion. I ask why was it cut short.

“Because Julie [Andem], the mastermind behind Skam, said, ‘That’s enough,’” Moslet says simply. “It was kind of an extreme sport to make, this series, especially for her. It was her life, 24/7, for two and a half years. It was enough, I think. And she wanted to end on a high. So that’s the reason. I think it was the right thing.”

Now, Skam is being remade in seven countries around the world, including an American remake from Simon Fuller’s production company that will be broadcast on Facebook’s new video streaming service. It’s a deal the social media site was keen to strike as it struggles to hang on to its own teenage users. “Perhaps Skam will save Facebook,” Moslet laughs.

Andem is now working full-time on this American version – many fans found her decision to leave the Norwegian series just to take on another huge commitment with the American show disappointing. On Instagram earlier this month, Andem explained, “When Skam started my plan was to make three seasons and then hand it over to a new writer/director. But when season three was done, I couldn’t give it away. It didn’t feel right. So I made one last season. I know many of you are still sad it ended, but I am positive it was the right decision. I wanted Skam to be no less than amazing, and for several reasons I wouldn’t have been able to make a season five as good as it deserved to be.”

She emphasised that because Skam was made by NRK for license-fee payers, every choice in plot, character, and broadcast was made to serve Norwegian teenagers first. But, she writes, “it became impossible not to notice the need amongst teens everywhere. The need to open up and discuss topics like mental illness, sexual harassment and sexual orientation. This is why NRK sold the show for remakes.”

“I have decided to showrun and direct the American version of Skam,” she continues. “I didn’t want to give it to someone else. It will be a challenge to try to make it in a different culture, in a different language, to a much larger and diverse audience, but I promise that I will put all of my effort and heart in to it.”

How can the makers of Skam feel sure that the authenticity and the heart that made the original series so special? Ole Hedemann explains that they can’t promise the new show’s won’t be different – in fact, they’ll have to change to better reflect different global demographics. “But what we have done is created production guidelines that incorporate research, pre-production, production and publishing,” he says. “They cover the way we want Skam to be made. And if they follow them, it’s fine for us that they change the scripts for the local audience. From our experience, if you follow those guidelines, spend time on research, and really understand the youth culture, you just get it right. You get it authentic.”

“The most valuable thing we can bring onto the global table is the values at the heart of the series,” Moslet adds, referencing a piece from political editor of the conservative Norwegian daily Aftenposten Harald Stanghelle, who wrote this September: “In 2017, Sana, Isak, Noora, William Eva and all the others in the squad are the ultimate export of Norwegian values.”

Moslet hopes that Skam’s success will encourage others to create content that embraces diversity, and encourages society to reject us-and-them attitudes. “At a time of confusion and intolerance, it seems more important than ever.”

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

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist