The Norwegian Sesame Street

On November 10th 1969, the children’s series Sesame Street premiered on PBS in the United States.

It became incredibly popular, and soon it’s influence started to reach beyond America’s borders. Over the years a large number of international co-productions of Sesame Street was produced.

This article will focus on just one such co-production, the Norwegian Sesam Stasjon.


The Conception of Sesam Stasjon

In 1987, the head of programming for the Norwegian broadcasting corporation NRK at the time, Ada Haug, approached the production company for Sesame Street, the Children’s Television Workshop, about the possibility of making a Norwegian version of Sesame Street. By 1989, an agreement had been made.

Ada Haug appointed producers Grete Høien and Hermann Gran to head the series, along with writer Eyvind Skeie, and told them to make the show as Norwegian as possible.


Making Sesame Street Norwegian

The Norwegian Sesame Street

Unlike most other international versions of Sesame Street, it was decided that the Norwegian show would not be set in a city street, but rather a small train station near an unnamed Norwegian town. This could be mostly to keep the name similar to Sesame Street. The Norwegian word “gate” would not fit as well in the title as “stasjon”, the Norwegian word for station.

But the change also served to be more inclusive to a larger number of Norwegian children. Norway is quite large geographically, but with a relatively small population scattered over the entire country. So whereas a lot of American kids that could recognise their own neighbourhood in Sesame Street, most Norwegian kids’ neighbourhoods looked entirely different. I myself grew up in Norway’s second largest city, and I never lived anywhere even slightly similar to Sesame Street.


The Importance of the Norwegian Railway

The Norwegian Sesame Street

So what could all these Norwegian children recognize? Well, Norway is a very mountainous country. With small communities popping up in valleys and fjords all over the country. There’s roads of course, and transport by air and sea. But Norway’s extensive railway system, with its 696 tunnels and its 2,760 bridges, is an important part of the country’s infrastructure. Most communities, even the smaller ones, had a train station.

So the idea of Sesam Stasjon was conceived, a train station run by both humans and muppets. Both NRK and the NSB railway company was funded by the Norwegian government. So NSB provided Lørenskog Station in Akershus as the outdoor set for the show’s train station, as well as two modified EL.10 train engines. The station and train engines were re-painted in bright cheerful colors, and a small clocktower was erected on the side of the station, serving as a lookout post for one of the characters.

NSB also painted two of their running passenger trains in the Sesam Stasjon colors, to the delight of children who spotted them all over the country.


Learning From Sesame Street

At one point the whole Sesam Stasjon production crew had to visit New York, to observe the production of Sesame Street itself. This to adhere to the CTW’s guidelines that the sets and costumes had to fit in with the styles of the original programme.

CTW also produced three original muppets for Sesam Stasjon. These would have to be shipped back to New York whenever they needed to be rinsed, because the mechanism used to operate them was confidential.


The Norwegian Muppet Characters

The Norwegian Sesame Street

The three original muppets were; Alfa who runs the station kiosk, Bjarne Betjent who runs the ticket booth, and Max Mekker the train station mechanic.

Alfa was the only female Muppet out of the three, and was played by Hanne Dahle. She liked to read and write, both books and letters to and from her many pen pals from around the globe. She was also very inquisitive, continually asking both concrete and philosophical questions.

Bjarne Betjent was a pink and rather human-looking hand puppet, played by Åsmund Huser. Bjarne was more pessimistic than the other Sesam Stasjon Muppets, and had some irrational fears and worries. But was still a well-liked member of the station staff, and got along with everyone. He loved letters and numbers. One of his favorite activities was to count things, even if they didn’t need counting. But he worried that he might lose a number one day, which would make him unable to finish counting something.

Max Mekker was the biggest of the characters, being the only walk-around Muppet among the cast, and was played by Geir Børresen. Max was naturally good at fixing things. But his size also made him the muscle of the station, leaving him in charge of loading and unloading luggage and cargo. He was friendly and cheerful, often talking in rhyme and addressing himself in third person.


The Human Characters

The Norwegian Sesame Street

Rounding out the cast were two human characters. Station Master O. Tidemann and Leonora Dorothea Dahl.

Station Master O. Tidemann was the most recent of a long list of Tidemann Station Masters, ranging from A. to O. He’s an older grandpa-like character, and was played by Sverre Holm. Sverre Holm was a famous Norwegian comedic actor. Most known for his 14-film stint as bank robber Benny Fransen in the Norwegian Olsenbanden series between 1969 and 1999.

Leonora Dorothea Dahl, played by Sidsel Ryen, was formerly a world-famous singer. But now she’s settled down at Sesam Stasjon as Tidemann’s second in command. She still loves to sing, and often initiates musical numbers with the other characters.


Launching Sesam Stasjon

Before production could start on the first series of Sesam Stasjon, the Children’s Television Workshop sent puppeteer and puppet maker Kermit Love to Norway in June of 1990, to teach the Norwegian puppeteers. Then, finally, production began in September of 1990.

The show premiered on NRK on the 25th of February of 1991, to massive critical success, and a large audience.

In 1991 Ada Haug, the programme director who initiated the creation of Sesam Stasjon in 1987, also changed position to be in charge of programming for young children, in conjunction with the premiere of Sesam Stasjon. She would stay in that position until she retired in 1998.


Dubbed Sesame Street Segments

Alongside the original Norwegian train station segments, the show also featured dubbed clips from Sesame Street. The episodes lasted about 30 minutes, with 15 to 20 minutes taking place on Sesam Stasjon. The remaining 10 to 15 minutes was taken up by the dubbed segments. Voice actor Harald Mæle was responsible for dubbing most of the Norwegian voices for the American characters.

Some of the most popular recurring Sesame Street characters were Earnie & Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Kermit the Frog. But the animated Pinball Number Count segments also featured regularely.


Becoming Popular

The show was so popular that in August of 1991, Lørenskog Train Station was modified once again. This time, changes were made so that visiting kids could walk around inside the station. Kindergarten classes could take train trips to Sesam Stasjon from Oslo, and sometimes they would be met by actors from the show, Max Mekker, or even full-body walk-around versions of the hand-puppet characters.

NRK’s original plan was to produce 77 episodes of Sesam Stasjon. But the programme proved so successful that they entered into a new contract with CTW that would allow and require them to produce the show until 2001. However, the original writer of the show, Eyvind Skeie, only had a contract for the first 77 episodes, and decided to leave the show after his contract ran out.

There would be many different writers to fill his shoes over the course of the next few years. Some of them famous Norwegian authors like Unni Lindell and Anne B. Ragde.


Declining Ratings

The Norwegian Sesame Street

Over the course of the show viewership eventually declined, although never becoming outright unpopular. In an attempt to engage a new batch of young viewers, the show introduced a new original Muppet to the cast. She hatched from an egg that had been left on a train, and took the name Py.

Py looked like a red version of Alfa, but was also reminiscent of Elmo, in that she was toddler Muppet. Py’s introduction would attract some new younger viewers, but also deter some of the older children still watching the show.


Cancellation

The Norwegian Sesame Street

In 1998 it was decided that Sesam Stasjon had run it’s course at NRK, and would be retired.

NRK was under contract with the CTW to produce the series until 2001. But they decided to buy their way out of the contract instead of fulfilling it.

The exact amount that had to be paid is unknown. But it was stated in an interview that NRK spent more on getting out of the contract than they saved on not having to produce the remaining episodes.

The last new episode aired in the year 2000, but the show continued to air as reruns until 2004, after which NRK lost all remaining rights to show the footage.


Unavailable Episodes

The Norwegian Sesame Street

NRK would later negotiated a deal with Sesame Workshop in 2016, making four episodes available on their webtv platform. But most of the other 239 episodes of the show is completely unavailable, with only a few having been released on VHS in the nineties.

The show has never been made available as a full DVD boxset, despite the potentially large amount of money NRK and Sesame Workshop could make if they were able to come to a reasonable agreement with each other about such a product.

Nostalgia is easy to sell to people. There are many Norwegians who grew up with Sesam Stasjon in the nineties. Many who would now jump at the opportunity to introduce the show to their own children.

But even if just for archival purposes, I think the full run of this show should be made more available. Sesam Stasjon is an important part of Norway’s pop-cultural history, and it is baffling that such a small part of it is available to us.




Related article: Discovering ‘Doctor Who’

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