In Conversation: Talk Show Host Fredrik Skavlan

Skavlan’s temporary production room at the Sky Studios in London is the centre of a global operation. The show, broadcast across Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, is presented by a Norwegian cartoonist, has sets in three cities, and counts English-speakers as staples. After my tenth time in the audience – today watching interviews with Cherie Blair, Ant Middleton, Marian Keyes and Alex Schulman – I’m greeted upstairs by a glowing host. Fredrik Skavlan is disconcertingly unmade and dressed in casual clothes.

“I think it’s wonderful Britain and Scandinavia have so much in common,” he beams, taking a seat. “The Nordic countries are like the different corners of the UK. We’re part a of whole, but we have our own quirks.”

Inspired by the likes of Michael Parkinson and Dick Cavett, Skavlan started his career as journalist before, in 1998, becoming the presenter of Scandinavia’s biggest talk show, Først & sist (First and Last). When he moved to Stockholm, Skavlan was born, becoming Først & sist’s direct successor. Its first series aired in 2009 as a co-production with Sweden and Norway’s national broadcasters, and it’s now produced by Monkberry, broadcast every Friday to an audience of 50 per cent in Norway and 40 per cent in Sweden. With so many foreign guests, going abroad was essential – the show is based in Stockholm but travels to London thrice yearly ,and New York annually. This brings in big names, though Skavlan regrets its environmental impact.

“The crew and kit all travel, and we fly over Scandinavian guests when we’re away. So I feel slightly guilty interviewing people like Greta Thunberg!”

Welcoming an eclectic mix of entertainers, musicians, scientists and politicians – along with frequent live music – is Skavlan’s USP. Episodes begin with a Swedish guest, and Skavlan interviews them in Norwegian – the two languages being mutually intelligible. He then welcomes a Norwegian which, he says, brings out the national stereotypes. With the final guests coming from outside Scandinavia, everyone switches to English. This, Skavlan says, changes the dynamic completely, as the Scandinavians are suddenly united through a second language. Skavlan has welcomed French and German speakers in the past, though his reluctance to use an earpiece makes that difficult.

“I’m unsual in not wearing an earpiece,” he explains. “But I need both ears! Also, if I wore an earpiece, I worry I’d turn into a puppet for the editor.”

Rihanna on Skavlan in January 2010Rihanna on Skavlan in January 2010

Skavlan is a team player, but insists he must always be comfortable with the direction of travel. When he’s not on set, he’s just part of the team – booking guests and brainstorming – but the minute recording starts, he assumes responsibility, using bullet points and intuition to keep discussion alive and communication open.

“So many talk shows today are just chasing a laugh,” he tells me. “Mine isn’t like that. Yes, a good laugh is nice now and again, but I’m not someone who can pretend to talk about this and that, but really just build to the funny crescendo. I’m a journalist, not a comedian.” As a journalist, Skavlan’s research is important to him. Whenever possible, he arranges a ‘pre-interview’ over the phone, but with busier guests he relies on Google.

“I want the guests to think,” he explains, “so I always add a few questions I – or they – don’t know the answer to. If they’re not just appearing to plug a product, this will engage them and make the show more interesting to watch.”

I ask him if he’s had any horror stories.

“I have, but I never discuss them,” he replies with a chuckle. “It’s like blaming the guests and, OK, sometimes the guests are to blame. But, as host, it’s me who must accept responsibility. We can edit things if they’re truly awful, otherwise we keep them. It makes the show more human. My questions shouldn’t be like throwing darts. I’m not an actor, and I shouldn’t be reading lines. The show might be artificial to some degree, but we’re still humans having a chat. I need surprises.”

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