An Icelandic sitcom? You must be joking

BBC4's imported crime dramas have been TV hits, but its new foreign comedy may not fare so well, says Gerard Gilbert

There's no doubt what have been the word-of-mouth and critical television drama import successes of 2011 – and neither of them has been on Sky Atlantic.

Danish thriller The Killing and the French detective drama Spiral have enthralled Saturday night audiences on BBC4 – proving that American cable television doesn't have a monopoly on sophisticated long-form television drama. But has BBC4 got ahead of itself by screening subtitled Euro-comedy, the Icelandic sitcom Night Shift that began last week? After all, thrillers have a universal appeal, while comedy struggles to transcend national boundaries.

The French, for example, indulge in wordplay, and are baffled by our more surreal sense of humour, while for a first-hand account of the struggle adapting Monty Python for German audiences, go to BBC iPlayer and catch last Saturday's Radio 4 documentary Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus! And it's no surprise that among our greatest comedy exports have been Mr Bean and The Benny Hill Show – shows that require little or no translation. So what are the chances that Night Shift, a workplace comedy set in a service station on the outskirts of Reykjavik, was ever going to find favour in the UK?

So far it seems that Næturvaktin, to give the show its indigenous title, hasn't. Reviews of the opening episode weren't positive, though I think it's one of those sitcoms that need a few weeks to bed in. It stars Jon Gnarr, a former punk rocker and current mayor of Reykjavik – his satirical political party, the Best Party, having won the 2010 municipal elections on a platform that included "free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavik zoo and all kinds of things for weaklings". Gnarr, sporting a Lenin-style goatee, plays the officious, power-mad supervisor, Georg Bjarnfredarson, a character from a long line of comic monsters from Basil Fawlty to David Brent while the naturalistic handheld camerawork is familiar from any number of downbeat post-Office mockumentaries.

But is Night Shift funny? Or rather – because Icelanders themselves obviously think so, its spin-off feature film, Mr Bjarnfredarson, outperforming Avatar in Iceland on its opening weekend – does its appeal cross national boundaries? It's certainly a lot funnier than many of the post-Office workplace British sitcoms such as Channel 4's PhoneShop or BBC3's Lunch Monkeys. Some of the gags (a stroke victim mistaken for a drunk driver, for example) are sub-Gervais, but there are plenty of more quietly amusing moments, and the characters do develop and deepen.

Night Shift has already inspired an American remake. The pilot episode has yet to be filmed, though its producer, Howard Owens (Ugly Betty and the US version of The Office), is in no doubt as to its appeal. "Night Shift is that rare international format that has American sensibility," he says. "The show has a smart, ironic point of view, which we know will translate well in the US."

But does Night Shift have an "American sensibility", or is it in fact a British sensibility – being yet another sitcom with its roots in The Office, a show that has had a massive influence on sitcoms globally, even if that influence is not always readily credited? The German sitcom Stromberg, for example, was so obviously in thrall to The Office that the BBC threatened legal action – "inspired by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant" thereafter being added to the end credits.

The question is whether or not it will tickle British audiences, already so well served in this area – Getting On, Campus and Twenty Twelve are just recent examples; The Thick of It returns next year. Perhaps in the end, as with The Killing and Spiral, it's the local details that give it the edge – why, for example, Bjarnfredarson is so obsessed with Sweden or exactly how many kronur there are to the pound sterling. You might even learn (though heaven knows when this might come in handy) what to say to an officious Icelander.

'Night Shift' continues tonight on BBC4 at 10pm

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