mon 28/07/2014

The Night Shift, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews

The Night Shift, BBC Four

Feted Icelandic sitcom fails to warm the comedy cockles

Georg, Daniel and Olafur: dysfunctional petrol pumpers

Even taking into account Britain's currently insatiable appetite for the literary, cinematic and televisual output of our Nordic friends, the notion of an “award-winning Icelandic comedy” still sounds a little like one of those lame gags designed to play upon a nation's reputation for batting above average in the international suicide stakes. The pedigree of The Night Shift , however, is no joke. Sadly, it transpired last night that its contents were also no laughing matter.

A 12-part comedy show which earned numerous plaudits in Iceland when first shown in 2007, The Night Shift (Næturvaktin) is airing on BBC Four in twice-nightly bundles as part of the channel’s Wonders of Iceland series. It was recently bought by an American production company with a view to creating a US remake, and after watching last night's opening episode I could see why, without harbouring much enthusiasm to view the eventual results.

The premise was simple. We followed three men working the graveyard shift at Laugavegur petrol station in Reykjavik, a dubious oasis of overly bright strip-lit bleakness which sat like some alien visiting craft amidst a forest of suburban darkness. This, whichever language you speak, was familiar comedic terrain: a shabby, self-contained kingdom detached from the rest of the world, in which the numerous personality quirks of the trio were amplified by virtue of being viewed in both microcosm and isolation.

Some of the set pieces were entry-level examples of the comedy of embarrassment

At the sharp end of this dysfunctional triangle was Georg (pictured below), played with gusto by Jon Gnarr, a celebrated Icelandic actor and comic who since 2010 has been the somewhat controversial mayor of Reykjavik. A comedic archetype, Georg was the frustrated cog in the company machine, a man who felt his talents - and five degrees - deserved better and thus bristled at his lowly status while abusing what little authority he enjoyed. A tyrannical, watch-tapping Führer of the Forecourt who looked like a cross between Simon Pegg, Captain Mainwaring and Lenin, Georg was fond of quoting Lao Tse at customers and regarded the dispensing of petrol as the equivalent of being entrusted with chemical weaponry.

GnarrHis whipping boy was Olafur (Petur Johann Sigfusson), who looked a little like Jack Black and was one of those slightly dim but amiable slackers (“Look busy and always carry a can of something in your hand” was his work-avoiding mantra) with unrequited lust in his veins and a faraway look in his eyes.

The pair were joined in their misery by nervy, distant new boy Daniel (Jorundur Ragnarsson), who had arrived following the untimely death of his predecessor Gudjon, a calamity which apparently occured "near the car wash". There were hints of a darker subtext in Daniel’s decision to quit university and seek out a dead-end job, but this opening episode wasn’t about to tell us what they might be.

The acting was good and the atmosphere authentically unsettling. There were some nicely evocative moments which captured the weird, dislocating experience of being awake in the middle of the night, while I particularly enjoyed the deliciously creepy instruction manual and a description of some lacklustre mopping (“You’re just making the germs wet”).

However, unlike obvious influences such as The Office and Flight of the Conchords, genuine laughs were thin on the ground. Some of the set pieces were entry-level examples of the comedy of embarrassment. When a male non-customer nipped in to use the petrol station’s loo, Georg acted like a member of the Taleban had forced his way into the Oval Office, and there followed a wearily unfunny farce which ended with him bursting in on a woman sitting on the toilet. Even less winning was the climactic scene in which he mistook for a drunk driver a man who was (very obviously) recovering from a stroke.

Georg had none of the flashes of likeability and vulnerability which a villain needs to sustain humour, although they may emerge in subsequent episodes. And without wishing to perpetuate lazy national stereotypes, the whole thing was infused with a genuine, almost glacial bleakness which, while exerting its own strange charm, made it difficult to contemplate another 30-minute shift in the petrol station with anything resembling relish.