Oliver Cross: A funny place

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ON Monday evening, as part of my continuing and futile campaign to find something original and worth watching on TV, I turned to Night Shift, a subtitled sit-com about a petrol station in Iceland.

Which doesn’t sound promising but workplace comedies set in dull surroundings have a strong pedigree – Are You Being Served?, The Office, The IT Crowd…they rely on interesting, quirky characters and the fact that workplaces are frequently unpleasant places where most of us spend much of our lives, so seeing them made fun of is a kind of release.

Night Shift, shown on BBC4, is based around three people; the filling station manager, a misguided, overbearing martinet, and two assistants, one a depressed student drop-out, the other a well-meaning fantasist who wants to be a big-shot pop manager (in Iceland?).

Georg, the manager, satisfies the craving of all us subordinates to see the boss making a fool of himself – he combines the faults of Capt Mainwairing, Basil Fawlty and David Brent with his own brand of bureaucratic idiocy.

In the opening episode of the series, shown on Monday, we were introduced to Georg’s son, an obese, pale, neglected wreck of a boy. He was a distressing sight (particularly when Georg tried to have him arrested for shoplifting), but I suppose all comedy, except maybe The Chuckle Brothers, is strengthened by having a dark streak and anyway, I don’t think unalloyed lightness is an option in the Nordic world, home of Ibsen and unremittingly bleak murder mysteries (but also, so as not to get caught up in stereotypes, Abba).

Although comedy and subtitles don’t go together, Night Shift did make me laugh a little and I think that, if I understood Icelandic, I would have laughed a lot. There is an American TV version on the way, which means someone else must have picked up on the fact that the winning thing about the series is not its setting but its subject – workers in the post-industrial capitalist world, where many of us are stranded.

Incidentally, Jon Gnarr Kristinsson, who plays Georg in Night Shift, is also the mayor of Reykjavik. This is not so surprising when you consider that Iceland has a population of less than 320,000, so some double-tasking is inevitable.

And isn’t it impressive that such a small place, having produced, in its sagas, some of the best, most humane folk tales in the world, should also have given us such spectacular volcanic fall-outs and bank collapses?

Night Shift was part of BBC4’s Scandinavian season, now sadly over, which also included reruns of Oliver Postgate’s lovely 1960s children’s cartoon Noggin the Nog.

This was very welcome but really, BBC4 was cheating. Noggin the Nog is set in a kind of dreamy nowhere with Nordic connections, but it wasn’t Scandinavian, it was as thoroughly English as you could get.

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