Jørgen Opdahl: Celebrity Burglar
There are different laws for the famous.
Massie Road on a cold night in January. I’m sitting in a parked car with a man dressed in black. He’s pointing a gloved finger at a semi-detached house a few yards away.
“That’s first on my list tonight,” Jørgen says to me. “Owner’s on holiday and there’s no burglar alarm. Easy peasy.”
Jørgen Olaf Opdahl is not a name that roles off the tongue easily and indeed, it’s a name that carries few connotations in this country. In his native Norway, however, Jørgen has been a household name for many years. At the age of just nineteen he was cast as the loveable Espen Eggebraaten in Hotel Caesar, Norway’s most popular soap opera. “People still come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Espen, watch out for that tractor!’” he claims.
[private]Following his character’s death at the hands of the villainous farmer Björn Torkelson, work came in the form of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in the 2010 cult film Troll Hunter, and well as TV appearances on Norway’s Next Top Model and 2011’s Big Brother: Norge.
Then six months ago, not content with his modest success, Jørgen bought a one-way ticket to London and made forging a UK-based career his raison d’être. Tonight he’s invited me to witness a sneak preview of his new reality show: Celebrity Burglar.
“I’ve done it all,” Jørgen says in impeccable English, his soft Norwegian accent giving way to the occasional American twang. “I’ve been an actor, I’ve been a singer, I’ve been a reality star. And now I’ve got one more feather to my cap: I’m a burglar.”
Jørgen starts up his car and takes me for a drive around his new home town of Hackney, thanking me for taking the time to talk to him. Celebrity Burglar was his brainchild and, like many great ideas, it came from a time of personal upheaval.
“I was not in a good place when I committed my first burglary,” he admits. “I was in debt, I’d just fired my agent, the ex was ragging me over child support, blah, blah, blah. But then it hit me. All this breaking and entering would make fucking great television! In Big Brother, people saw me sit in a house. Why wouldn’t they want to see me burgle a house?”
We stop at St Thomas’s Square to pick up a fellow Norwegian called Mikkel, who Jørgen introduces as his brother. Mikkel climbs into the back seat and dumps two carrier bags. One bag contains cassettes and a camera, the other sandwiches and a flask. I ask Mikkel what his role on the project is. When it becomes clear he doesn’t speak English, Jørgen intervenes.
“Mikkel’s my number one guy. He’s my co-producer, my cameraman and my caterer. He makes my coffee but he never makes it hot enough! Ha ha!”
Jørgen’s previous reality shows boasted high production values. Celebrity Burglar, on the other hand, has a crew of only two people. Jørgen explains that he’s adopted this DIY approach out of necessity, having pitched Celebrity Burglar to various producers and found their response, much like his brother’s coffee, to be somewhat lukewarm.
“None of the networks give a flying shit,” he laments. “Channel 4, BBC, ITV – none of them want to know. Not even Sky 3, for fuck’s sake. Either my profile isn’t high enough in this country or they think it’s all a joke. Well, this show is as real as it gets. Tonight, you’ll bear witness to that.”
He starts laughing and slaps me on the back. He’s hoping my article will attract some much-needed publicity and he thanks me again for taking the time to talk to him.
Midnight descends, shrouding Hackney in darkness. Back on Massie Road, it’s time to get to work. Jørgen hands me a pair of leather gloves and a balaclava. Sensing my nervousness, he says, “Keep it light, friend. If you want to succeed at this, you’ve got to be just like this house… Semi-detached.”
We scale the fence and jump down into the back garden. Crowbar in hand, Jørgen smashes the door handle into splinters, kicks it until it gives way, and then we’re in. Mikkel grins behind his camera. Jørgen switches on a desk lamp and begins to rob.
My hands are trembling. Doesn’t Jørgen ever get scared doing this? Has he ever been caught?
“Sure, I’ve been caught,” he says, turning family photographs face-down as he burgles. “People can get pretty upset when they see you stealing valuable things from their home. But then I explain that I’m a celebrity and they see things differently. They see the camera, they realise it’s just TV, and they start to relax and have fun with it. I give them an autograph, sometimes I give them money, and then I leave.”
I’m still sceptical. Things never turn sour?
“Most people are cool with it, ninety-nine percent of the time. I’ve only had one motherfucker pull a knife on me. I don’t know why that guy was in his kitchen at three in the morning! Ha ha! I just said to him, ‘No harm meant, friend. I’ll show myself out.’ And that was that.”
Jørgen remains affable as he ransacks the house, stuffing ornaments, jewellery and a laptop computer into his bag. He is particularly pleased with a diamond necklace he’s found and holds it up for the camera to see. Soon it’s time to go. I feel a surge of illicit excitement as we bundle the goodies into the getaway car and speed away.
“You see?” he says, grinning. “You feel the adrenaline, don’t you? Yeah! If Mikkel can capture even a tenth of that on tape, we’re onto something!”
I then mention that Jørgen is placing a tremendous amount of trust in both Mikkel and myself by permitting us to record his criminal behaviour for posterity. Does he ever worry that his brother’s footage might fall into the wrong hands? Jørgen is philosophical.
“Prison could happen,” he says with a shrug. “Prison equals publicity, that’s the good side. But you know what? It all gets washed away. All this day-to-day stuff. It takes three generations for a person to be completely forgotten. You know? I don’t want to go to prison but I’ll deal with it. Being forgotten is something else. That scares the hell out of me, thinking no one’s going to remember…”
Jørgen wants to keep the momentum going, so we head directly to the next home on his list, a terraced house on Queen Anne Road. Once again our charismatic host kicks down the back door and we go inside.
“It looks like a dump,” he says to the camera. “But apparently this guy’s got a safe.”
Suddenly Jørgen freezes. He’s heard something. Mikkel and I hear it too.
A creak of the floorboards upstairs. Then a man’s voice, old and frail. “Hello?”
Jørgen’s a rabbit in the headlights. Mikkel whispers the word, “Kukost!”
Again from upstairs: “Hello?”
Jørgen composes himself. The show must go on. Cheerily, he shouts back up, “Hello!”
The old man sounds scared. “Who’s down there?”
“It’s me, Jørgen Opdahl!”
Quiet.. then, “Who?”
“It’s me, Jørgen Opdahl, winner of Norway’s 2011 Celebrity Big Brother!”
Quiet… then, “What are you doing in my house?”
Jørgen’s grin begins to fade. He seems discouraged by the old man’s line of questioning. He shakes his head and empties the contents of his swag-bag onto the carpet.
“I’m calling the police,” the old man shouts down.
“I’m on my way out,” Jørgen snaps. Sloping outside he mutters to himself, “I’m on my way out.”
Back in the car, Jørgen is pensive. He drives around aimlessly for a while before pulling up outside Ion Square Gardens, where we sit in silence.
“You know,” he eventually says. “People used to ask me interesting questions. How did you become an actor? How do you get your hair to shimmer? And now all anyone ever asks me is: what are you doing in my house?” He points backwards. “That old bastard didn’t even care that I was a celebrity. Am a celebrity. But fuck him, he’s not my target audience.”
This is an interesting point and I feel it begs the question of who exactly Jørgen’s target audience is. What kind of demographic is Celebrity Burglar trying to reach? On the subject of potential viewers, Jørgen is almost too candid.
“Listen, friend, the sad truth of the matter is that most people are stupid-heads who enjoy watching other stupid-heads doing stupid crap. I’m just being honest. Most people are fools. I went into Primark last Saturday and, Jesus, the sheer density of human waste on display was sickening. God forgive me for saying this but sometimes I think Adolf Hitler had the right idea.” He spits out the car window. His contempt is palpable. “But I digress,” he says. “There is an audience for this. Yes, there is.”
He yawns, stretches, puts the key in the ignition. Another burglary beckons. He asks if I want to come along but I decline. Thank you, Jørgen, I think I’ve got everything I need. He drops me off at a bus stop and thanks me a third time for speaking to him.
“I appreciate it,” he says. “You think this show’s got potential, right?”
The television critic in me is at pains me to admit it but, yes, I think I do. Anything’s possible in the wacky world of light entertainment. As long as the stupid-heads keep lapping it all up? Sure, Jørgen, why not?
As he and his brother drive away, it occurs to me that Jørgen has an unfeigned fragility about him, as well a stubborn refusal not to be beaten down by life. His programme offers shock value, certainly, but it’s his indefatigable spirit that I think viewers will really be compelled by. When he’s enthusiastic it’s downright infectious, and something in those wild eyes of his tells me it won’t be too long before Jørgen Opdahl steals not just the belongings but the hearts of the nation.[/private]