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Abba's Björn Ulvaeus: I had no idea 1970s Britain was so gloomy

Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus: I had no idea 1970s Britain was so gloomy

There were endless strikes, power cuts, three-day weeks, TV programmes that finished at 10.30pm and Noel Edmonds. “You get very close to the reality of Britain in the 70s,” said Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus. “I had no idea it was so gloomy.”

Ulvaeus was speaking at the first preview of a new immersive Abba show at the Southbank Centre, which aims to tell the sensational success story of the band, as well as put it in the social and political context of 1970s Britain.

Groups of no more than 16 will be taken through nine rooms recreating important moments from the band’s history. Narrated by Jarvis Cocker, the show contains more than 120 archive objects as well as, of course, loads of music.

“It is the opposite of all those huge technically advanced virtual reality exhibitions that most of those pop groups have,” said Ulvaeus. “This is much more intimate, it’s warm, it’s full of a sense of humour.”

Abba burst on to the scene when they won the Eurovision song contest in Brighton in 1974 with Waterloo, beating Olivia Newton John’s UK entry. “The Abba”, as the TV commentator called them, were a much needed light in dark, difficult times.

Ulvaeus said the exhibition, a collaboration with the Abba Museum in Stockholm, made him realise how “impossibly gloomy” Britain was. “We were here for one or two days, now and then, so we didn’t quite know about this.”

It was particularly interesting to see news footage of the debate around whether to go into Europe, he said. “It was striking … how the Brits were hesitant about Europe back then, in the very same way as they are now, which is really sad I think.

“It was spooky. It’s the same thing again for some reason, trying to stay away from Europe. It’s like losing, not losing a friend because you’re still there, but somehow you don’t want to be in the team and I think that’s sad.”

For some visitors the London exhibition will be nostalgic. There is a recreation of a chilly 70s front room with depressing news reports on the telly, candles for when the lights go out, a copy of Look-In, and a Peters and Lee record that someone hasn’t put back in its sleeve.

An unnecessarily rancid nightclub toilet is lovingly reproduced with puerile graffiti on the cubicle walls, cigarette ends, unspooled toilet roll and vomit stains.

The show’s producer, Paul Denton, said the nightclub was there because it was where so many people enjoyed the music. “Abba only toured for three months in 10 years, which is unheard of for a band today.”

Other rooms in the show include the Brighton hotel suite – the Napoleon Suite – where Abba celebrated the Eurovision song contest win, a bottle of Cinzano on the dressing room table.

There is the Polar music recording studio where Abba made records from 1978 and where visitors can now demonstrate how brilliantly they too can sing Dancing Queen.

For diehard Abba fans, room eight may be particularly hard to bear: the split. Denton and his team have created a Swedish apartment full of half-unpacked boxes, just like the opening scene in Abba’s melancholic One of Us.

On the TV is the band’s last performance in the UK with a toe-curlingly awkward interview with Noel Edmonds on the Late Late Breakfast Show.

The Southbank Centre show is the finale of its year-long celebration of Nordic arts and culture. “It has been a fascinating journey,” said the artistic director, Jude Kelly. “It would have been impossible to celebrate Nordic culture without thinking about Abba.”

Ulvaeus said he never imagined Abba – who split up 35 years ago – would last like it has. “It is kind of weird, but you get used to it.”

He said he was exposed to his younger self in some form every day, which meant he seemed to him to be that “other guy, from way back then. But I’m proud of what he did, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for him.”