mon 15/07/2024

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

The Night Shift, BBC Four

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.

This was familiar comedic territory: a shabby self-contained kingdom, detached from the rest of the world

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Channel 4 did this in 1990 with "Nightingales", the US also showed interest & made a pilot that did not make it to a series.

I disagree with your reviewer. Our family all loved the Night Shift - the bleakness/blackness was part of the appeal. But then I couldn't stand the Office so I wouldn't expect to appreciate the same things as him. Perhaps if he gave some more of the series a chance he might change his mind. Please show more thanks

'Night Shift' was a slow burn. It took me two or three episodes to really get into it, but after I did I loved it. And I didn't like 'The Office' either.

This was the funniest thing I had seen for years. The reviewer knows nothing about comedy.

This Icelandic actor, who I believe is mayor of the capital city in Iceland, is a comic genius. muriana,sligove

Just came across this wondering why the BBC has not got around to showing the second series yet. And heres why, because they employ dim reviewers who have no understanding of comedy. This was the funniest comedy I'd seen in years and far better than 99% of the rubbish spewed out by our own local "talent". It makes be feel quite sad that I may never get to see even a repeat of this fine programme never mind the 2nd series. Critics and reviewers...pah, should be dunked in vats of their own spewtum.

I also don't agree with this review, best comedy show I've seen on British tv in a very long time, they definately should show the next series, also the film Bjarnfreidarsson is very funny, it is the same characters.

This reviewer is clearly comedically dead inside! This wonderfully crafted comedy was the best thing I've stumbled across in a long time...I'll have his job and then maybe we'll get to see the further series in this superbly written comedy.

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