Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seem impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. After a two decade absence from our screens fans can now tune in each week to new series from across the continent. What may initially have started as a broadcasting experiment has been met with critical praise and an ever growing fanbase which is actively celebrating its appreciation on social media and at events such as the recent Nordicana festival. With Channel 4 and Sky Arts now following the BBC’s example by acquiring subtitled content and giving it a hitherto undreamed of promotional push alongside a steady stream of releases from Arrow Films, aficionados are all too aware they are enjoying a golden age which would not have been feasible a few years earlier.
Framed within its public service remit, BBC Four’s early forays into bringing subtitled drama back to our screens placed emphasis on cultural exchange and enlightenment. As part of a season of programming entitled Wonders of Iceland the BBC made broadcasting history by being the first UK network to screen an Icelandic comedy series.
First shown on the commercially owned station Stöð 2 in 2007, The Night Shift was an instant success. With ratings amongst the season’s highest, the show’s accomplishments were recognized by The Icelandic Film and Television Academy at that year’s ceremony with awards for ‘Best Television Show’ and ‘Most Popular Television Show.’ Despite being relatively unknown in the UK, such was the appetite in its country of origin for further instalments two sequel series (The Day Shift, The Prison Shift) and a theatrically released feature film spin-off (Bjarnfreðarson) were produced.
A petrol station in the middle of a long winter might initially seem to be an unlikely place to stage a black comedy which on the surface appears to be a synthesis of The Office and Fawlty Towers but on deeper inspection this delightfully idiosyncratic and perfectly formed programme reveals high culture credentials through its channelling of the fatalism prevalent throughout the Icelandic sagas. Veering between moments of grotesque absurdity, tenderness, and tragedy, often within the space of a single scene, The Night Shift revolves around an isolated outpost staffed by a crew of three emotionally stunted employees. An eccentric series shot through with pathos alongside frenzied bouts of insanity, it is blessed by layered scripts replete with a focus on personal enslavement, consequences, the value of friendship, and a considered array of social issues including feminism, politics, modern celebrity culture, and Nigerian e-mail scams. Equal parts character study, satire, civic commentary, the programme is decidedly politically incorrect and confrontational yet manages to never be anything less than magnificent.
Currently in the twilight period of his tenure as mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr has recently been generating column inches with the news that American publisher Melville House has acquired the rights to his political memoir and will issuing it later this year. Titled Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the book will lift the lid on the formation of the Best Party, its ideals and how they may be transposed onto foreign legislative frameworks. Satirizing Icelandic democratic process Gnarr’s unwittingly galvanized an anti-establishment movement seeking to bash the ruling elite for their role in the 2008 financial crisis. A Nordic equivalent of The Monster Raving Loony Party with an inspired list of pledges (and a disclaimer reminding voters they would not be honoured) was forced to redraft its policies into something more practicable after winning six seats on the Reykjavík city council in the 2010 elections.
Before becoming an elected official. Gnarr had a fruitful career as a stand-up comedian and was a regular feature on Icelandic radio and TV. His prior media achievements were eclipsed by the public’s response to his signature role, Georg Bjarnfreðarson.
Proudly possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies Georg is undoubtedly overqualified for the position of shift supervisor. One of the most complex tragi-comedic characters to hit the small screen in the last decade, an amalgam of Basil Fawlty, David Brent, and Joseph Stalin, with a visage clearly inspired by Vladimir Lenin. Running the petrol station as a totalitarian regime he makes token concessions, under duress, to popular democracy and then after being highly critical of the process rigs the results. A critique in dramatic form of uncompromising left wing ideologues, nuanced writing and a knowing performance reveal a pathetic figure hiding behind the bluster who maintains a wrench like grip on the workplace whilst being powerless when away from the forecourt. Frequently inviting loathing and sympathy, despite his oft mentioned academic achievements he is rarely able to strike an accord with his colleagues and relies on threats of sanctions (fines or an onerous chore) and a barrage of humiliating comments expressed in the most inappropriate moments.
Long-standing co-worker Ólafur Ragnar (Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon) has been employed at the petrol station for longer than any of his colleagues and feels undervalued. A reflection of Georg, they both live at home with family members and aspire to make an impact on society. Whereas his boss wants to remould Iceland to comply with a mishmash of ideas taken from Sweden’s social democratic model and Soviet era Russia, Ólafur has a hankering for fame and its attendant trappings. Manager of the band Solin, he is unshaken in his conviction that the big time is just around the corner. Stretched to breaking point by having to administer the band’s affairs whilst on duty at the forecourt he frequently fails at both tasks. A man-child, mid thirties with the mental age of a teenager. Incapable of overseeing his own affairs, credit blacklisted and not earning enough to fund the lifestyle to which he aspires his sister has had the misfortune to house him, never really expecting to receive the oft promised rent payments. His sibling lives in perpetual fear of finding out their grandmother stricken by Alzheimer’s disease has been coerced into guaranteed a loan or finance for a car.
The offscreen death of Gudjon creates a vacancy at the petrol station and this is filled by Daniel Sævarsson (Jörundur Ragnarsson). Nervy and unsure of himself, recoiling from the ramifications of leaving medical school, he has sought solace in regular paid employment whilst undergoing an existential crisis. Escaping from the lifestyle imposed by his parents, working at the petrol station allows him to take control of his personal destiny for the first time. The radical restructuring of Daniel’s life is a covert operation, his family and girlfriend are convinced he is still enrolled at the university and the discovery of the deceit has far reaching consequences. Breaking away from one form of tyranny he is now sheltering within a workplace cum despotic regime. Days are filled with degradation, discussions of holiday funds, security role play, supervision of Georg’s son Flemming Geir (Arnar Freyr Karlsson), and instructions on correct floor cleaning procedure. Salvation may be be found at a nearby all night convenience store where an assistant, Ylfa (Sara Margrét Nordahl) offers the possibility of a relationship based on mutual respect.
Screened nightly in two episode blocks by BBC Four, The Night Shift‘s viewing figures were respectable and fans assumed that the station would pick up the sequel series. Sadly, this attempt to broaden the network’s schedule seems to have been a dead end rather than a concerted effort to diversify its content. Firmly committed to screening drama throughout 2014, it highly unlikely at this stage the powers that be will reverse their decision and give us further glimpses of Nordic comedy.
Fondly remembered by those who caught it, a worldly script coupled with knowing faux cinema verite direction from Ragnar Bragason and mature performances from the series regulars and guest cast, exemplifying joy and despair combine to create a highly original show deserving of greater exposure.
A DVD with English subtitles can be ordered from Shop Icelandic: