Norwegians tune in to their oil history

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Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians have been hunkering down in front of their televisions, or clicking in online, this fall to watch a dramatic account of their homeland’s oil history unfold on state broadcaster NRK. Called Lykkeland (State of Happiness), NRK’s new TV series features vintage clothing and cars, culture clashes and a nostalgic look back on Norway when it was an even smaller nation with a struggling post-war economy.

The shipowning Nyman family plays a central role in NRK’s new drama series on the oil industry, Lykkeland (State of Happiness). From left: Ingrid Nyman (played by Pia Tjelta), Fredrik (Per Kjerstad) og Christian Nyman (Amund Harboe). PHOTO: Provinsen/NRK/Maipo Film Norway

Lykkeland,  which premiered in Cannes last spring, is this fall’s major dramatic production on NRK. It’s billed as a family-friendly show about how Norway went from being a relatively poor nation to one of the world’s wealthiest, just over the past 50 years.

Ratings have been good, with 629,000 tuning in when the series debuted last Sunday and the number rising all the time as folks watch at their convenience online. Reviews have been good, too, with critics noting a careful balance between fact and fiction after the first two episodes.

They portrayed the initially disappointing results of oil exploration in the North Sea, and how major international oil companies like Shell announced they were giving up and pulling out. Officials at Phillips Petroleum Co in Bartlesville, Oklahoma were also ready to write off oil and gas prospects on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, but gave in to the pleas to keep trying from their men (they were all men at the time) on the job both onshore and offshore in Norway. The company allowed one last drilling phase and the rest is history: Phillips struck oil on the Ekofisk prospect that it had named itself, and formally announced in June 1970 that it was indeed a “giant oil field.”

Artistic license
Producers at Maipo Film of Norway and NRK, along with director Petter Næss (of Elling film fame) and screenwriter Mette Bolstad allow themselves plenty of artistic license. The second episode of the series, aired Sunday night, shows oil gushing onto the platform of Phillips’ Ocean Viking drilling rig, and the first flare being lit on what Norwegians call Lille julaften (Little Christmas Eve), on December 23, 1969 with the classic Norwegian Christmas song Deilig er jorden (literally, “The world is  beautiful”) playing in the background. NRK’s fact-checkers were quick to report on Monday that the oil was actually discovered on October 25, 1969 and it did not gush onto the platform (that would have amounted to a dangerous uncontrolled blow-out). The Christmas discovery is a fable that’s made the rounds over the years, and was just too good to pass up.

The wealth that oil and gas were to eventually bring to Norway was enormous and very real indeed, however. It changed most Norwegians’ lives forever, especially those of young people in Stavanger who faced high unemployment at the time and a local canning- and fish-processing industry in crisis. The series tracks the lives of several young characters, also those literally caught in the local ultra-conservative Christian community at the time that is portrayed as anything but tolerant and forgiving.

A young American oil man, played by actor Bart Edwards, finds himself in the old and economically struggling west coast town of Stavanger in 1969, and plays a big role in changing its fortunes forever. PHOTO: NRK/Maipo Film Norway/Marius Vervik

Lykkeland is full of the class and cultural differences of the 1960s and ’70s, when families still eked out a living on small farms with houses that lacked indoor plumbing. There were strong generational clashes, but perhaps the greatest were between the brash and relatively affluent Americans who arrived without even knowing how to pronounce the city where they’d be living, and which they decried for lacking a decent summer, a decent winter, bars or good restaurants.

Local officials, however, fight off any condescending attitudes as they try to prepare their citizens to move from old traditional businesses to new possibilities in a new oil age. One shipowning family is especially featured as its members learn to move from a hard-pressed fishing fleet at the time to oil service- and supply vessels, to save the family’s fortunes. The former real-life mayor of Stavanger, Arne Rettedal, is portrayed as the clever, pragmatic combination of entrepreneur and politician who wins the respect of the oil companies. He  helps them get things done while also keeping Norwegian authorities in charge of the country’s new income source.

One reviewer, in newspaper Aftenposten, stressed how Norwegian authorities managed to keep the vast majority of the country’s new-found oil revenues under their control and in the state treasury for the common good. “As a Norwegian viewer, it warms your heart to see how the Norwegian mentality, feelings of fairness and being down-to-earth won over the American capitalists’ power,” wrote critic Cecilie Asker in Aftenposten. “It makes you extra-glad in social democracy.”

Background for the modern Norway
Another Norwegian critic, in newspapaer Dagsavisen, wrote that it was “high time that the first chapter in Norway’s oil drama be told,” calling it “an exciting piece of Norwegian history.” Producer Synnøve Hørsdal at Maipo Film told Aftenposten that the idea “sprang out of a desire to say something about the modern Norway and the background for the society we have today. Nothing can tell that story better than the enormous upheaval oil caused in the country, for folks locally in Stavanger but also nationally.”

There have been tragedies, such as the capsizing of the Alexander Kielland platform in 1980, with the loss of 123 lives, and a blowout on the Bravo platform in 1977. North Sea divers risked their lives and health for the business, and it took years of struggling to get any government response. The accidents will be addressed in Season Two, which runs from 1977 to 1980, while the first eight-episode season deals takes place in the years 1969 to 1972. Hørsdal hopes NRK will give the go-ahead to a total of five seasons, bringing the oil drama up to the present day. Critics and thousands of viewers are hoping for the same.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund