Most people wouldn’t even recognise Magnús Scheving although he’s a very successful global entrepreneur and (possibly) the most famous person in Iceland (population 300,000). Scheving is modest and thinks the singer Björk is better known but my kids would not recognise Björk if she somersaulted over the wall and said hello.
Scheving, by contrast, has only to put on a blue spandex suit and silly moustache to become a superstar. Under-eights will recognise him as super-fit hero Sportacus, as do their parents and plenty of child-free adults who like Scheving’s unexpected international hit of a TV show, LazyTown.. The series was sold to 103 countries in the eight months after its launch.
Scheving’s alter ego Sportacus is a “slightly above average” hero who lives in a spaceship. He has come to LazyTown to help the children there make the right choices. There’s an “everygirl” character called Stephanie, who is new and a bit lost in town, and looks like a little orphan Annie for the 21st century (she has pink hair and wears very short dresses).
The show is surreal, mixing puppets with live action but there are jolly songs (the CD single “Bing Bang Time to Dance” stormed the Christmas charts) and very high production values. Last month it won a Bafta award for the best international children’s show.
The programme really does get kids to put their crisps down and get off the sofa to dance, leap and sing. It’s a bit like an educational aerobics-cum-healthy eating class. Scheving is a former European aerobics champion, among his many other exhausting achievements. “I wanted to play Sportacus because I believe you can make a difference,” he says.
His healthy lifestyle message is making a difference – fruit and vegetables are called “sport candy” on the show, and a recent LazyTown-linked healthy lifestyle campaign in Iceland got every small child in the country participating. Sales of fruit and veg went up by 22 per cent.
It’s not wildly surprising that Scheving won the part of Sportacus. He dreamt up the show, writes it, directs it and co-owns the LazyTown Entertainment brand that makes it, so he can do pretty much what he wants. This includes building the studio outside Reykjavik where, so far, 53 episodes have been shot. “Remember I told you I had built my house? And so I built a studio. It’s the most hi-tech studio in the world, I don’t know any other studios that do what we do.” Each episode costs $800,000 to make – four times the usual top whack of $200,000 a show given to kids’ programmes.
Scheving always wanted to be an architect but started work as a builder and carpenter – as he said, he built his own house from scratch – during the week and “at the weekends I was a public speaker and had my own talk show. I was like a motivational speaker. Perhaps 300 women would ask me to come and talk to them, or there were bankers who asked me how they should be focused. I worked a lot with the government. I went to every school in Iceland and gave motivational talks on how to stay off drugs etc.”
This improbable résumé continues at a jaw-dropping, motivational, speed. “When I was 22, 24 I made a bet with a friend that you could succeed at anything we wanted. At the time we were reading all these (self-help) books, how you could be a business millionaire in 14 days, whatever it was, and we said, does this really work?
“We made a bet, we had three years to succeed, and we picked a sport for one another. The rule was you are not allowed to know anything about the sport. He chose for me aerobics and I chose for him snooker. I became Nordic champion in the first year and European champion twice.” Scheving doesn’t say what happened to his snooker-playing mate.
After this interlude, Scheving travelled the world teaching fitness. This was 16 years ago, when the now hot topic of obesity wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. “I saw there was no role model for healthy kids. I saw there was a gap in the market.”
Scheving wanted to create a way of entertaining and educating kids about healthy living. He came up with the LazyTown idea and ran it in Iceland as a test market for 10 years before launching the television show. “I wrote a book called LazyTown and that was a bestseller, we did a musical which sold out for four years and half the country saw it.”
There are also not-for-profit parts of the business, including a savings-matching scheme with an Icelandic bank. A child puts a few pounds into their LazyTown savings account and gets an equivalent amount of “LazyTown dollars”. Shops carry LazyTown-branded healthy eating goods, or kids can spend the vouchers on sports lessons.
There’s even a 24-hour children’s LazyTown radio station in Iceland. Before I can interrupt to protest that it’s not healthy to encourage children to listen to music all night, Scheving explains that he made it 24 hours a day at doctors’ requests, for the benefit of children in hospital who can’t sleep. Oh. All this is depressingly prescient and clever, so it’s reassuring to see Scheving tucking into a toasted cheese and ham sandwich with chips while he goes through the motivational slide show on his laptop.
The subject of healthy eating for children is highly topical after the chef Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign in Britain and Scheving acknowledges the work Oliver has done. “ I totally respect what he does,” he says. “England is ready for it.”
The campaign he wants to bring to a country near you is the LazyTown healthy lifestyle programme that caused such an uplift in Iceland’s fruit sales and halted the rise in the country’s obesity for the first time in 10 years. While Oliver talks to parents, Scheving takes care of the kids, with stickers, certificates and promises of treats at the end of the month. It’s like Supernanny with bananas but it works.
Once the whole LazyTown concept had been refined on home ground, Scheving decided to make it into a television show. In a lesson to businesses everywhere not to underestimate unlikely people from small countries, they set out to find out what makes a successful children’s entertainment brand. “We had 400 meetings in many different countries and they were happy to see us because they never thought we would be a competitor. They thought we were small guys from Iceland and they gave us all the information.”
The result is the TV series now shown on several UK channels. It hasn’t hit prime time in the UK as it has in Iceland but its following is fanatical among children and plenty of adults. Some of them post admiring comments about Sportacus on their blogs, mothers discuss his hot physique in chatrooms and there’s a lively sub-group of enthusiasts writing “fan” fiction online (these tales deal with unlikely romances between TV characters, first popularised by stories that outed Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock as lovers). Worryingly, there are Stephanie/Sportacus offerings, although they have let Stephanie grow up first.
Back in the real world, Scheving’s partner also works in the LazyTown business and they have three children. So, does he ever let them go to McDonald’s? “Yes. You should never do anything too much. If you only eat healthy food, that is too much. Success is balance – a banker with no time with his kids, he’s not successful. If he doesn’t have time to walk his kids to school that is not success, that is a mistake.”
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