In 2006 Ragnar Bragason wrote and directed Children. A gritty portrayal of life in a Reykjavik suburb. The film won The Golden Swan at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, an Edda at The Icelandic Film and Television Academy’s annual awards ceremony. It was selected as his home nation’s submission to the Oscars.
While readying the sequel for theatrical release Ragnar started developing a series for television about three socially dysfunctional and emotionally crippled misfits that worked the dead hours of night in a downtown Reykjavik petrol station. Trapped by character flaws and a litany of mistakes and mishaps, they seemed fated to patrol the forecourt for the rest of their working lives.
The broadcast network and its audience were initially unprepared for a tragicomic series built on crushed dreams with a strand of humour that was at times absurd, frequently politically incorrect and shot through with pathos. Midway through the season Iceland fell in love with this hapless trio and the show became a monster hit.
Demand for further misadventures was so high two sequels and a spin off movie were produced.
The Night Shift would make broadcasting history by being the first Icelandic series to air on a UK network.
Stand up comedian Jón Gnarr, later to become Mayor of Reykjavik played hardline communist sympathiser Georg Bjarnfreðarson.
Overqualified and under-skilled. Possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies, Georg never wastes an opportunity to let people know of his educational attainments. One of the small screens all time great comic characters. His catchphrase “personnel on the forecourt” was repeated by fans throughout Iceland.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lenin, this complex figure is a cross between Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Joseph Stalin.
Long standing co-worker Olafur Ragnur, played by Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon, is frequently a lab rat for Georg’s hair-brained initiatives and suffers when things go spectacularly wrong. Dreaming of fame and fortune, he manages a band and is convinced the big time is just around the corner.
The death of a colleague creates a shift vacancy. Insecure and neurotic medical school dropout Daniel (Jörundur Ragnarsson) applies to head office for the post.
Working at the garage while he decides what to wants to do with the rest of his life, Daniel is fleeing from his parent’s tyranny but has unwittingly stepped into a workplace that occasionally resembles a Soviet era labour camp.
We asked Ragnor about how he sold the series to the network.
“It was pitched to the TV station as a comedy because that’s a word they understand. That’s a word that is safe for them,” he says.
“I had Jón and Pétur, two of the main comedy actors in Iceland. I had worked with both of them on other series. I knew those two guys had the ability to do drama. They had that kind of depth to do more than comedy and that intrigued me to do something that on the surface would be comic but if you look beyond that was basically a tragedy.”
“I wanted the series to reflect life and life is complex. There’s no good or bad or black and white, it’s all shades of grey.”
With two lead actors familiar to Icelandic audiences cast in lead roles how did Ragnar find the right person to play Daniel?
“I wanted to have an unknown actor in that part. I checked out all the actors coming out of drama school and the Academy of the Arts. He was the last one to come for audition. He was half an hour late. His car had broken down. He came in sweaty, mumbling excuses. Very nervous and neurotic. I didn’t have to do any casting because I decided on the spot that he was the perfect guy. Just by walking in the door I could see he had all the right elements so I told him he had the part.”
“The station had no idea how complex it would be, it was just a comedy with two popular actors. I don’t recall ever sending out a script. They changed programme directors at the TV station in the middle of writing. So basically we got a new programme head who took over and realized they had put some money into the scriptwriting of this series. It was kind of “should we green light the whole thing, put money in the production,” he explains.
The writing of The Night Shift was a collaborative effort between Ragnar, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson, Jón Gnarr, Jörundur Ragnarsson, and Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon.
The network was not prepared for The Night Shift’s appeal to a wide section of the TV audience.
“They thought it would be a cult thing, maybe a limited amount of young people smoking dope that would like it. The crossover thing took them completely by surprise. I actually think it saved the TV station. When The Night Shift was a huge hit subscription rate went up ten or twenty per cent.
“I think it’s really interesting to look at the whole thing, series and film, from the concept of friendship. Those completely different guys who normally would never associate with each other but they end up becoming friends. It’s a big struggle in the beginning. Friendship is often stronger than blood and they don’t have this connection with their families,” he says.
“They are traumatised in a way by life, from upbringing and their experiences. They bond and find a form of family. For me that’s really kind of precious. To take those three elements in the first episode of The Night Shift and end the way Bjarnfredrson (the spin off film) ends is a huge journey.”
Shot in a documentary style, the series was filmed in a real petrol station. Fans regularly flock to the location and repeat catchphrases on the forecourt.
We quizzed Ragnar about how difficult it was to get the oil company on board.
“The oil company never asked for a script. Of course they asked for a pitch and which actors would be in it. They thought it would be good publicity, we don’t have to pay anything. In the end I think they should have paid us for shooting there because it picked up business for them.”
Initial response to The Night Shift was lukewarm but once the audience had got used to the strange goings on in the petrol station it became must see TV.
“The first episode, what you heard was very negative. Those people that watched the first show watched the second because their was something intriguing about it.”
“I recall it was the night of the fourth episode it kind of blew up. Everybody was talking about it. You heard people using Olafur’s phrases. It was the talk of the cafeterias of business, schools, and kindergartens. Kids were talking about it, everybody was talking about it. We didn’t expect that crossover thing where it would be across the board popular. There were no negative voices after that. Everybody latched onto it.”
In the next part of this interview Ragnar talks about the sequels and beating James Cameron at the box office.
The Night Shift can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:
Co-writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson spoke to Iceland on Screen about the writing process for The Night Shift: