The Night Shift and Beyond – Ragnar Bragason Interviewed

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Fans of cult TV series The Night Shift received an early Christmas present when director and co-writer Ragnar Bragason made a surprise appearance at the Iceland Noir literary festival.

One of the most prolific directors currently working in his home country’s film industry. Recipient of thirty two awards from The Icelandic Film and Television Academy. During the course of his fifteen year career he has worked in film, television, and theatre.
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.

His most recent movie Metalhead premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Generously agreeing to spend a Saturday afternoon having lunch with fans, he fielded questions about The Night Shift with warmth and good humour. After the meal was over and our fellow diners drifted away to catch a panel in the main hall he spoke to Euro But Not Trash about the series, his early career, and future projects.

Born in Reykjavik, Ragnar grew up in the fishing village Súðavik. His first experience of cinema was watching films in a tiny hall on Saturday mornings. Decades later a touring festival would screen his film Metalhead in the very same makeshift cinema that had ignited a lifelong passion for the moving image and set him on the path to directing the most successful Icelandic film in history.

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The Night Shift is what you are best known for internationally. How did you become a director? Did you go to film school?

‘Actually, I just started making shorts in college with friends. I never went to formal film school. I just started making music videos for local bands and some TV shows. Did some pilots that the TV stations bought. Documentary stuff. It wasn’t until 1999 that I did my first feature film called Fiasco. Trial and error. One thing led to another.’

Until the mid 80s you only had one TV station here. Stöð 2 started broadcasting in 1986, Was it hard to get that first clip shown on air?

‘One of the positive things about living in Iceland is that almost everything is within reach. So if you want to do something you can get to people to help you to do it. We don’t have that kind of big regulation and rule thing. It’s usually quite easy, even for a young filmmaker to get a meeting with the programme managers of the TV stations. When I started, all my first stuff was shown on Channel 2 which was the new station. The first privately owned station. National broadcasting was kind of a dinosaur in those days. It’s quite easy, especially with music videos. In those days they screened it as a filler between programmes. So if you made a video it usually got screened on national TV. It was good to get the exposure. Fairly quickly people know your name or know who you are, and what you’ve done. We don’t have this structure you have in the UK where you have to work your way up to things. We don’t have that in Iceland. I’ve never from day one in ’94, done anything else besides directing or writing. I’ve never worked on a production as something else. I just started making my stuff and kept on doing it. Most people do it that way. Of course, there are exceptions but if you decide to become a director you just become one, Like I said, everything is within reach  so if you have a minimum amount of talent and some determination you can make stuff.’

The opportunities you’ve had were in part because of a new channel which was more youth orientated. Were there any other people from your generation who made a similar transition from shooting band videos to making broadcast televisions?

‘Yeah. There were a few. There are a few others that took that path. Most of my friends that are directors or writers, a lot of them went to film school which is the proper way to do things. That’s what you do, you go away and study abroad. We didn’t have a film school in Iceland then and basically we don’t have a proper university degree film school today. We just have this college based thing.’

Do you think that’s an asset? I went to film school. You have theory imposed on you and you are told the story has to be told this way. By not being tutored in that environment do you think you’ve found a voice you might not have found otherwise?

‘I think so. Some people have strong enough vision of things and can withstand the pressure of film school and things imposed. My film school was one VHS rental store in downtown Reykjavik. They had obscure and international stuff. I went there every day for a few years and got VHS tapes to watch.’

That sounds very much like Tarantino. He worked in a VHS library. He didn’t go to film school and learnt from watching obscure Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films. Were there any films that you were renting back then that have stayed with you?

‘I saw the early works of John Cassavetes. Shadows and Faces and A Woman Under the Influence and all that stuff. That had a had a huge impact on me. I think my biggest influence is Mike Leigh. When I saw Naked I got everything I could find that he had made. He was, for me, really intriguing because he was focusing on normal people in normal everyday life. That kind of appealed to me. Most of the stuff I’ve done as a writer and a director are reality-based stuff even though it’s a bit more comic. The Night Shift is a drama or a tragedy disguised as a comedy. That’s kind of how I see it. I hook the people in with the comic elements but little by little I start to deconstruct that and go into the core elements of it.’

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When The Night Shift aired in the UK it was the comic elements that got people watching. The latter episodes of the season get darker. I don’t know how much of that is characteristic of Icelandic humour. It’s very mythic.   Three characters who shouldn’t be together are thrown together and then can’t be separated. It’s almost as if they are three elements of the same self.

‘Yes. I always say if you took those three guys and fuse them together they would make one person. They are three different elements to the same thing. They are very extreme. Olafur is so completely different to Georg and Daniel is stuck between as some kind of reality or sanity meter. The genesis of it was the cold war. Olafur is the capitalist elements, the US, the consumer while Georg is the communist. Daniel is Iceland stuck in the middle.’

That meaning may not have come across to UK audiences. A new meaning was formed. The characters weren’t metaphors. It was psychological. They’re such damaged people and are all carrying a trauma. For the TV series it’s as though by being together they are making this trauma worse, In the feature film by being together they find closure. They heal. Olafur finds success on the radio station. Daniel decides to stop living a lie and goes to art school. Daniel’s embracing of his truth releases Georg from his prison.

‘Yes, correct.’

There’s some sophisticated, intelligent comedy there and yet you never go totally for the comedy. The tragedy is balanced When you were creating The Night Shift were you deliberately trying to hit all those approaches or was it pitched to the network as a comedy-drama?

‘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. I had Jón Gnarr and Pétur Jóhann, 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 have 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. For me, it was really important to address all those elements that you mentioned of complexity because I want the series to reflect life and life is complex. There’s no good and bad or black and white, it’s all shades of grey. I think it’s really interesting to look at the whole thing, series, and film, from the concept of friendship. They are thrown in like you say. They have no control over that. They are thrown in together in that situation.  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. It’s a big, big struggle actually. They end up in prison and stuff like this. Friendship is often stronger than blood and they don’t have this connection with their families. They are traumatized 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 Bjarnfredarson ends is a huge journey.’

When you delivered the scripts for the first episode to the network were they aware that they had something special or was it just another comedy show to them?

‘The funny thing is that they never read a single word. I pitched it. They knew when I pitched the idea and the cast. They liked the idea of the cast. I don’t think they had any particular interest in the story because it was just a situation. 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.” 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.’

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Sometimes when you’ve got a show that’s going to be a cult hit you can know the next morning. Someone on the bus or a train might be repeating a catchphrase. How quickly did you know that the audience were responding favourably to The Night Shift?

‘The first episode, what you heard was very negative. Negative in the sense people instantly started saying “ that guy played by  Jón Gnarr, Georg Bjarnfredarson, is so obnoxious. He’s such a  terrible person. I freaked out when I watched that show. He’s an idiot.”  We instantly got a very strong negative reaction to a character which we knew we would get. We put so many negative things into that character. Those people that watched the first show they watched the second because there 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, old people were talking about it everybody was talking about it after that fourth episode. 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.’

If The Night Shift had been filmed in the UK  the producers wouldn’t have used Shell. It would have been set in a fictional garage. The interiors would have been filmed in a studio. Was there any time when the network was saying it would be cheaper to film in a studio?

‘No. The whole series cost as much as one episode of a crime show today in Iceland. It was done very guerilla style. Very small crew, I think there were seven or eight people in the crew. It was done during the night. The gas station where we shot closed at seven thirty and we came in and prepped, started shooting at eight or eight-thirty after we shaved the head of  Jón. We shot until seven o’clock in the morning. We didn’t pay anything for the location. Everything was basically done as cheaply as possible.’

You say you didn’t pay, did the company gift the location for so many weeks?

‘Yes because they weren’t closing down or anything. The only thing they had to do was have a night watchman observing things but he mostly wasn’t there. He maybe was there for the first few days, I can’t remember.’

In the UK or USA with a series like The Night Shift, every line of the script would be vetted by the company’s lawyers.

‘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 didn’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.’

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So was The Night Shift meant to be self-contained or were you already thinking about taking the characters and placing them in a new location?

‘When we were developing The Night Shift we wrote it fairly quickly. We started meeting late August 2006 and we started shooting in early January 2007. We developed the characters and wrote the scripts in like three or four months. All the ideas in Bjarnfreðarson the movie that’s basically the material we wrote for the backstory of Georg. We thought it would be a one-off thing. We had no idea that it would become that popular that people would ask for more. There was a huge demand for a second series of The Night Shift. I’m not big on repeating myself and none of us are. So we thought to ourselves OK should we do another one because we love those characters and there’s so many things you can do with them. Jón came up with the idea of the hotel because it was a hotel his father had built.  Jón was there as a kid. He slept there. He remembered being there at like 10 years old or 8 years old while his father was one of the guys who built it. I knew that because it’s very close to the place I grew up in so I stop there every summer. It’s a place I know quite well. He came up with this idea, “what about this hotel? What if they go there?” That kind of clicked with everybody because it was something new. It was not a continuation of a gas station but it would be the next chapter in a saga or a more epic tale.’

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That’s the point where it becomes richer. The characters get more to do. With The Night Shift, people were comparing it to The Office. There’s more depth, backstory, and motivations in The Day Shift. Georg starts on his journey to becoming really unlikeable. By the end of the third series, the viewer hates him and it’s not until the movie you find out why he is what he is and you love him again. By the time you got to the second series you must have known you were going to do a third.

‘Actually, when we did The Day Shift it has this element of a Greek tragedy. Obviously, it dictates what happens next because it ends with two guys going to prison. We didn’t have to think about that. They go to prison. We thought to ourselves while we were doing The Day Shift about Bjarnfredarson the movie. We thought to ourselves that maybe we’ll jump from Day Shift, we’ll skip the prison years and we’ll go to Bjarnfredarson.  Maybe a part of  Bjarnfredarson. We thought about that element. But then The Day Shift was as popular as The Night Shift and people were screaming for more. In a way The Prison Shift because we decided to do  Bjarnfredarson as a movie We started writing  Bjarnfredarson and as a way to do everything very quickly and efficiently we decided to The Prison Shift because that funds the making of the movie. That’s the reason The Prison Shift is a shorter series than the other ones. We shot it back to back. Started shooting in June and we ended up in August so we basically shot Prison Shift and Bjarnfredarson back to back. It was one production period.’

When UK dramas shoot in a real prison they usually get access because the prison is closed for renovations. You got access to a maximum security prison. Did you have to go to the government or did someone at Sagafilm know a member of the Justice Department who was able to secure access?

‘Basically what happened was that my producer Harpa knew the head of the prison. An ex-politician who runs the prison. She called her up and said “we have this idea of doing this. Would it be possible to come in and discuss this?” So me and Harpa and I think a couple of others went there to talk to her. She was really open to it. Of course because of the popularity of the thing it kind of opens doors also. She was really positive and open about it. We never went to anybody in government. We went to the head of the prison system in Iceland. He was also really positive. He got a bit of an extra role playing a referee in a football game in Prison Shift. They were really open to it. We basically decided to do it. We shot all the stuff within those walls. The scenes we did where they are living, where the cells are, the communal thing, the tea room, that we had to build in a studio because there are no empty cells. Our set designer went in and replicated it exactly. It’s a small place one of those halls. He replicated it piece by piece so everything was perfect. We shot all the exterior scenes, all the working scenes, the shop or the garage where they are working, the staircases, and the control rooms. Everything was shot in the prison. The prisoners were very helpful. Of course, they don’t appear. We don’t see them. The rule was we had to bring our own extras in so the number of people in the prison doubled around that time. I actually got an acute sense at one point that they were planning an escape through this because there was some signs that things were missing. There was kind of things that were going on. Some creative minds within the prisoners were trying to find a way to get out through this because we had to come in maybe twenty people, thirty people, forty people every morning go through security and stuff like this.’

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Did any of the crew members feel threatened or have stuff stolen while they were filming in the prison?

‘Nothing was stolen. People were, of course, a bit nervous. Us, the writers and actors, we had gone there many many times while we were writing to meet people, to interview people and I was kind of a bit I wouldn’t say scared but a bit nervous the first time to go into one of the rooms of a prisoner. To meet those guys in a group it’s like shit you’re in their home basically. After about ten minutes it all kind of evarporised because I realized that it’s just like kids. Of course, there are a few sociopaths but most of them are just kids in grown-ups bodies. They are dyslexic or AD or hyperactive. When You talk to them you realize that basically they’ve had bad upbringing or come from a broken family which is very close to what we were dealing with.’

For a UK audience, it’s an interesting document because it gives an insight into how the justice system works in Iceland. The rehabilitation system is more enlightened than what we have. It’s reflected in the show, Olafur thinks he’s gone to a holiday camp when he finds out he’s getting paid.

‘Free food and lodging.’

When The Day Shift aired on TV did the audience know that The Prison Shift and  Bjarnfredarson were coming?

‘No. We kept everything hidden. When The Day Shift came out we just said in the media that this is the end, this is the last one just not to put people’s hopes up or anything like that. We could have ended after Night Shift. The end of The Night Shift is in that way it’s an ending. The Day Shift basically ends of course in an ending also. There’s a change in their lives. So we just said this is the final thing. We didn’t want to tell people that we were going to keep on going. If Day Shift wouldn’t have been popular it would have been terribly received because it’s much heavier than Night Shift. It has a murder in it and terrible things. It’s really dark in elements of it. People loved it. Even more, I think they loved it than Night Shift in a way. It got a stronger reaction. If it had been a flop we wouldn’t have made the rest. That would have been a sign that it’s not a failure but it’s a sign that something overstayed its welcome. Because it was so popular and people loved those characters still even after twenty or twenty-three episodes we just decided to do the rest.’

The film opens at the cinema. The next morning you get the box office receipts and learn you’ve beaten James Cameron. Were you opening the champagne?

‘Yeah basically. It was a great opening weekend. The lucky thing is that of course, everybody knew the shows so we knew we would have a hit. We didn’t know how big it would be but it had that fan base which was a large part of a population. I was kind of a skeptic because when I saw that Avatar was on the same weekend I thought to myself this is terrible because Avatar had that big big opening. Many screens in Iceland and that’s the film every young person in Iceland wants to see. So I thought to myself we’ll be medium hit over Christmas. Competing with a big title like this decreases your audience by 30 percent at least.  Then we got the numbers after the opening weekend and we were bigger than Avatar and Variety wrote about it. Then we knew that there were no worries. Even though people would go and see Avatar they would go and see the other one. They would go two times that week to the cinema.’

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Throughout the 1970s it was relatively common for TV comedies to translate to the big screen. They were always seen by critics as being lesser works. The translation to cinema didn’t work. With Bjarnfredarson the opposite is the case. It’ works. It’s poetic. It’s lyrical. There’s more texture to the screens. By the time you hit that final frame it becomes apparent that every moment since Daniel first walked in for that first job interview has been leading up to this. How did resist the temptation to do a sequel? I’m sure that when you got the box office receipts it must have crossed your mind.

‘Of course, people were going OK now you’ve done Bjarnfredarson next you will do Hannesson which is Olafur Ragnar or you will do a film about each one of them. For us that was the end. Georg standing there and saying  “I am not Georg Bjarnfredarson” that was for me you can’t do anything else. We fiddled around and had this funny idea that we will probably do if we live our lives to a ripe old age which was we’ll stop here. Even if it becomes the biggest film in history we’ll stop here because we can’t keep on. After this point, it will be exploitation because we’ve said what we wanted to say. This idea came up to do one more series in twenty-five years from now or from when we did Bjarnfredarson which takes place in an old folks home. Basically, all three of them end up in an old folks home but we can’t do it until the actors are old and it needs to be authentic. That’s kind of in the back of our heads.’

How soon after the release of Bjarnfredarson did Jón become mayor?

‘Four months.’

Did that help the film’s promotion?

‘No because I think that film is bigger than politics in a way for the public. A lot of the publicity Jón got, of course, came from that. That helped him become a mayor because people loved him. They had been following him through that journey of Georg Bjarnfredarson and the dedication of that and realized that he was more than a comedian.  Jón has these varieties of talents. He’s a writer, he’s an actor, he’s a comic, he’s a humanist.  He has all those elements. He’s a complex and a great guy. I don’t know if he would have become a Mayor unless The Night Shift, The Day Shift, The Prison Shift and Bjarnfredarson had happened. That was kind of the build up to it. I think that’s a good thing that something springs up from art. Different things into different aspects of society.’

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The other two cast members were also two very accomplished comedic actors. Were they your first choices for the roles?

‘Jón and Pétur were the first choices. I had recently worked with Pétur. I worked with  Jón a few years back on a cult show called Fóstbræður. It was kind of the first real sketch show in Iceland. It was a bit controversial. I knew both of those guys. That was for me the basics of starting to do it because I love those two guys. They are very similar, in a way, as persons but they are very dissimilar in qualities not as actors…  Pétur has one experience in life and Jón has another. So from that those two guys spring.  Pétur’s friends are Olafur Ragnar’s guys.  Pétur worked in radio. Had a radio programme on that radio station that Olafur becomes popular on in the Bjarnfreðarson movie. So that’s kind of his background. Jörundur Ragnarsson plays Daniel. I wanted to have an unknown actor in that. I didn’t want to cast an older guy. I wanted a young, young actor. I just checked out all the actors coming out of the academy of arts and he was the last one to come for the audition. I took three or four or five guys into audition and he was like half an hour late. I had been waiting for half an hour and his car had broken down. He came in sweaty, mumbling excuses, very nervous and neurotic. I didn’t even have to do any casting because I decided on the spot that he was the perfect guy. He had all those elements just by walking in the door so I told him he had the part.’

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Your series World’s End was it made during the same period you were producing The Night Shift and The Day Shift?

‘We started working on World’s End later in 2010. Maybe ten months after Bjarnfreðarson. That was basically the same writers. We’ve lost one of ours because he was the Mayor of Reykjavik. Jón wasn’t a part of it. He would have been if he wouldn#t have got a job somewhere. The rest of the writing team is the same. Me, Jóhann Ævar, Pétur, and  Jörundur. So it’s the four of us.  The role of  Jörundur is bigger because he got the confidence to write. He wrote two out of nine episodes as I recall. Basically, it’s the same crew, same producers, same a lot of things you know.’

What are you working on right now?

‘I’m writing a new TV series which is drama. A six-episode drama called Prisoners. It takes place in the women’s prison in Iceland which is a very strange place. It’s stuck in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood. There’s a kindergarten next door. It’s kind of suburbia but you drive past there’s something weird. It’s a big house. There’s kind of a guarded fence around it. A bit of barbed wire. And stuff but there’s a kindergarten next to it and people live in just a normal neighbourhood.’

When will Icelandic audiences see this series?

‘We’re finishing the scripts. It’s been commissioned by the national TV. It takes time to finance. We’re hoping to shoot late next year and get it out sometime in 2016.’

What would you like to say to readers about modern Icelandic film and TV?

‘It’s hard to get Scandinavian films into the UK. I don’t why it is. Maybe it’s the American syndrome of self-sufficient and the language and stuff like this. I actually think, and you can look it up, that The Night Shift was the first TV series ever on TV in the UK.’

First Icelandic one definitely.

‘I think it was the first Icelandic and one of the first Scandinavian. I think it was around the same time as Forbrydelsen, The Killing, the Danish one. Icelandic feature films rarely go to cinemas in the UK which is a shame actually I think because we’ve had a lot of great films in the last ten years. A lot of them especially crime stuff… A lot of the other good stuff doesn’t travel. My films are screened in France, in Italy and Russia and Ukraine. Everywhere else. Never in the UK. I don’t know why.  I think the situation now is that we have the talent, we have the manpower and of course, we have the stories to tell.’

Thanks to Ragnar Bragason and Quentin Bates.

The Night Shift is available to order from nammi.is

DVD Review: The Night Shift

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.

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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.

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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:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

Nordic Noir as a category

In the context of an article discussing the forthcoming latest televisual adaptation of Simenon’s literary Maigret texts, Tara Conlan classified the relatively recent televisual trend of broadcasting subtitled television programming to niche audiences as being part of a ‘Euro-crime invasion.’ Certainly, if one specifically focuses on the publication of literary texts a case may be made based on an analysis of sales figures, accompanied by other investigative methodology, to demonstrate that the distribution of Scandinavian crime fiction over the last decade within the UK and Ireland has resulted in an increased audience awareness of cultural, subcultural and geographic factors that are specific to the Nordic condition. However, with regards televisual texts, to talk of Scandinavian programming in the context of an ‘invasion’ is deeply problematic and raises several significant issues, most notably due to the connotations attached to this term as it implies a displacement and/or eradication of the indigenous form. That a number of televisual and filmic texts have not only been imported and broadcast on free to air networks but have also found an audience in quantitative terms and audiences with regards to qualitative approaches of classification is a potential area of enquiry for the rapidly emerging discipline of Fan Studies. The promotion of said texts by various international embassies is also an interesting development particularly in terms of the legitimization of popular culture artefacts and their corresponding fandoms.

BBC Four’s limited financial resources and available slots has resulted in a very narrow sample of televisual texts being available via broadcast platforms although Arrow Films and other DVD distributors have announced several titles for 2013 release which are not presently scheduled to be carried by any UK based free to air broadcaster. In terms of generic classification/codification Nordic Noir may be fluid and consequently, with each new text the parameters are redefined. The inclusion of Lilyhammer, for instance, suggests that the generic form may now be sufficiently defined for it’s audience to appreciate parody. Also, BBC Four’s transmission of Icelandic series Næturvaktin (The Night Shift) whilst marketed by the broadcaster as comedy has been classified by several fans on assorted forums as being a Nordic Noir text. Have we now reached a point where the term Nordic Noir is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless? Is the term now an intersection which facilitates a struggle between audience and institution over ownership of generic boundaries?

As we, the viewing audience, ready ourselves to engage with the final season of Forbrydelsen the object of our fandom is analysed in press commentary, promotional materials, and user generated content such as forum postings and blog entries. The Irish Independent has published an article which debates potential sources of viewing pleasure for Nordic Noir programming, forms of cultural identification, and associated motivational factors with regards audience loyalty. Another example of institutional discourse being made available to the fan community is the well researched booklet that Arrow Films has distributed alongside several of its titles, this text contains a narrative account of the development by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen of Nordic Noir as a literary genre that emerged in response to generic developments in other territories and as a consequence of social and political developments within the post war Scandinavian cultural context. Stougaard-Nielsen also addresses cinematic and televisual developments. Furthermore, Arrow Films booklet announces several titles which will be released in the UK and Ireland in 2013; Anno 1790, The Eagle, The Protectors, Unit One and Van Veeteren. With the release of each title the boundaries of what constitutes Nordic Noir could conceivably shift/expand. Through the utilisation of social networking and via the film club that enables distributor to directly interact with the consumer within a physical setting Arrow Films has engaged with its fanbase and it will be interesting to see how audience conceptions of the generic category impact upon the release strategy and optioning of further texts for UK and Ireland release.

Tara Conlan’s article on Maigret can be read here; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/oct/16/maigret-return-tv

The Irish Independent’s article on Nordic Noir can be read here;

http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/ten-clues-to-the-amazing-success-of-nordic-noir-3275996.html

For those interested in reading further about the formation and maintenance of Nordic Noir as a genre Vicky Albritton’s well researched blog contains many articles which debate individual texts, key generic, social and historical developments;

http://nordicnoir.wordpress.com/