Iceland cometh


Derek Guthrie muses on where he’s going when travel opens up. First stop, Húsavík, Iceland!

The last time I was in Iceland I spent an entire day at Keflavik Airport worrying about the price of a sandwich (£12), buying the very worst schnapps on the planet (a noir bottle complete with skull and crossbones called Black Death) and, despite frozen fingers, taking snaps of springtime snow.

Eurovision parties, the kind an erstwhile partner hosts every year, complete with scorecards and flags, are an acquired taste

Previously, during the documenting of 24-hour nightlife (shot entirely in daylight) around midsummer Reykjavik I had the pleasure of being introduced to the world’s only Penis Museum. Then came Lockdown. You may be sick of it now, but ‘Think About Things‘ was the soundtrack of my domestic incarceration. Best video, catchiest toon, beautiful words. Whenever I momentarily tired of the original Daði og Gagnamagnið creation, covers would pop up on YouTube: other bandsaccoustic, or hornography. There are home-made homages. Families in kitchenspals on Zoomdancers in gardens, all awkwardly bending their body joints in strict staccato formation. The geeks had taken over the dancefloor. The tragedy was, of course, that this was to be Iceland’s glory moment in Eurovision, the bookies favourite, only to be cruelly cancelled like every other form of communal enjoyment this year. Not that it’s ever been my bowl of Frosties. Eurovision parties, the kind an erstwhile partner hosts every year, complete with scorecards and flags, are an acquired taste. At a stretch, I could do Abba at Glastonbury.

Daði & Gagnamagnið

But who cares? Because without warning Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga has burst onto a small screen near you, a kitschathon of coruscating innuendo in concentrate form. An electric pink marzipan cake which on eating that you discover consists entirely of more marzipan.  Gold lame, silver sequined camp; all the sparkle you love/hate about Eurovision but multiplied by ten. By chance, the narrative follows a pair of fictitious Icelandic entrants: an aging Will Ferrell sporting woolly wear, oilskins and Bacofoil twinsets, alongside Rachel McAdam (“She’s not my sister. I think“) – firing jokes both funny and not in semi-automatic spoof mode. Rat-tat-a-TAT.

The cast is random. Graham Norton plays, with ease, Graham Norton the Eurovision host. Pierce Brosnan struggles with Icelandic as per his singing voice in Mamma Mia. It also has Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, of whom you may not have heard.
As the great darkness of Scandi Noir descends on our screens each winter –  Bridge, Killing, Borgen – there is Trapped, a chilly Icelandic whodunit shot entirely in horizontal sleet starring Ólafsson, a  portly detective of swagger,  jacket permanently open as if it’s summer. Actually, it probably is.


But here, he, Mikael Persbrandt (Beck) and others are a motley crew of Icelandic fisherfolk in Husavik, the isolated village that spawns Ferrell’s character. From cod fishing to cod piece, if you like. Its picture postcard cottages beckon seductively beneath powder blue skies, shouting “FRESH AIR!” on behalf of the Icelandic Tourist Board. I’m in.

Its picture postcard cottages beckon seductively beneath powder blue skies, shouting “FRESH AIR!”

But that’s not why I’m going. During lockdown, when we were subjected to a daily barrage of unintelligible statistics, false comparisons with other countries and shocking death tolls, Iceland – with a population of only 360,000 – had three people on TV each night, shooting the breeze and discussing what they might do to resolve the problem. They became known as The Trio and were the trusted public face of an exemplary government attack on Covid-19 that had testing from day one, volume tracking and tracing hundreds of individuals quickly and efficiently. As a result, Iceland didn’t have a lockdown because they didn’t need one. The virus was contained.

Now that travel is cautiously restarting, incoming visitors are tested for Covid-19 on arrival instead of going into quarantine for two weeks. Positive cases are refused entry and everything is open. Plus large swathes of Iceland are so thinly populated that self-isolation existed long before the arrival of coronavirus.

It’s the place to think about things. C