Presidents take his calls and children in 128 countries hang on his every word. But Magnus Scheving, creator of the TV show ‘LazyTown’, is also a reluctant national icon (to be blunt, he thinks he may have outgrown his small nation).
Displayed in the LazyTown boardroom is a letter from Iceland’s president, Ólafur Grímsson, lauding Magnus Scheving for his contribution toward the health of the country’s children; he’s evidently proud of his achievements.
“In Iceland, we’re halfway between the US and the UK, and we tend to get their bad cultural influences along with the good,” he says. “For instance, we have more drive-thru food outlets here than anywhere except the US. So I wanted to create a kind of motivational tool to help parents broach issues of health that didn’t preach, but that just made being healthy look fun.”
At 44, Scheving resembles a digitally enhanced Danny Kaye; a compact five-foot-seven, he’s never smoked or “tasted beer”. He was born in Borgarnes, a small town north-west of Reykjavik. “People didn’t have phones there,” he says, “and by the age of five I was running from house to house, delivering telegrams; I was probably doing about 18km a day even then.”
He studied to be an architect, but has since worked as a talk show host, actor, carpenter (he built a house just outside Reykjavik, which he shares with his partner, LazyTown’s finance officer, and their three children), comedian and aerobics competitor (the latter was the result of a bet with a friend; within three years, Scheving was Nordic and European champion).
Today Magnus Scheving is one of Iceland’s biggest cultural exports. “It’s true,” he grins. “There was Björk, then Sigur Rós. And now there’s me.”
That may be, but Sigur Rós have never been known to do the splits in mid-air, while Björk, for all her singularity, has yet to accept a British BAFTA award while walking across the stage on her hands. As Sportacus, the hyperactive, health-promoting hero he embodies in the international children’s TV phenomenon LazyTown, Scheving never walks into a room when he can do a back-flip through the window.
He brings all these skills to LazyTown, which began life 15 years ago as a book (Go, Go, LazyTown!), then one of Iceland’s most popular stage musicals, which Scheving wrote and starred in as Sports Elf, a Sportacus precursor in a mustard-yellow cloak; today, the character is a blue lycra-clad, Dali-moustachioed, ski-hatted superhero.
The show’s impassioned cause – getting couch-potato kids to exercise and eat more fruit and vegetables – has created a collective sugar-rush in its target market of seven-and-unders. It’s now watched in 128 countries, from Norway to New Guinea, and Scheving, the creator and chief executive of LazyTown Entertainment, the licensing and merchandising company behind the behemoth, has become one of the most celebrated figures in Iceland.
“I invented Sportacus because I saw a child obesity problem developing around the world, but it was huge here, in Iceland,” he says, showing us around the LazyTown studios, a primary-coloured fantasia concealed amid a prosaic industrial estate in the suburbs of Reykjavik. When the show organised a promotion in which children could exchange LazyTown “stamps” for healthy food, sales of fruit and vegetables (or “sports candy”, in the show’s vernacular) surged 22 per cent in a month.
But if the show’s mix of puppetry, live action, and CGI has conquered the globe – at $1m (€700,000) per episode, it’s the most expensive kids’ TV show ever produced – Scheving thinks it’s reached “critical mass” at home. “When we held a kids’ marathon here recently, virtually every child in the relevant age group in the whole country showed up,” he says.
LazyTown Entertainment has offices in London and New York and an eventual move out of Reykjavik is envisaged (the company’s accounts were held outside the country before the financial meltdown, so they escaped the worst of the fallout). “There was no infrastructure here for a show like this when we started out. But we may have begun to outgrow it. There is talent in Iceland, but it’s a pond rather than a pool.” Scheving is also considering his own sell-by date. “I think I could play Sportacus for maybe three more years,” he says.
With Iceland’s current centre-left-green coalition government struggling in the wake of the crash, and politicians regarded with leery mistrust at best, a clue to his prospects might be found in the in-house paper, Lazy Times, where Scheving swaps his bodysuit for pinstripes while discussing health initiatives with presidents and prime ministers. In his country’s darkest hour, might Sportacus step up to the plate, offering sports candy for its soul? The answer is perhaps inevitable from a man who habitually does 100 push-ups before bed. “I don’t know,” he says. “Politics would probably move a little too slowly for me.”