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

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape