Is Shetland the Scottish Killing?

Bestselling crime writer Ann Cleeves and lead actor Douglas Henshall reveal the secrets behind Shetland and the importance of the show's setting

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On a latitude north of Oslo and Stockholm – where the landscape is bleak, the weather gloomy, the people dour and the nights dark – a troubled detective investigates a murder. As the intense, tenacious Jimmy Perez returns to the islands of his birth to investigate a death that threatens to blow apart the secrets of a tight-knit community, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the latest Nordic noir.

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But no, this is a home-grown drama, Shetland, that the BBC hopes will beguile fans of The Killing and Wallander. The BBC might be onto something: the more historically minded will know that Shetland was, before being pawned to Scotland as part of a princess’s dowry in the 15th century, part of Norway. And Fair Isle, the most southerly of the Shetlands, is famed for its knitwear. While no one in Shetland wears a jumper as iconic as Sarah Lund’s, it’s reasonable to ask: is Shetland the Scottish Killing?

“I don’t know about that,” says Ann Cleeves, whose novel Red Bones was adapted for the two-part Shetland. “It’s a flattering comparison, but Shetland is, I think, warmer and more domestic. The Killing was so different and so interesting, though I’m not sure that was due to where it was set, but rather the storytelling and character. For me, Shetland’s location and landscape are vital. The landscape is so open – there are wide skies and you can see for miles – and that contrasts beautifully with people hiding things.”

Cleeves, whose Vera Stanhope novels have been adapted by ITV (a third series of Vera, with Brenda Blethyn, is forthcoming), says that location is crucial to her work – specifically, locations that she knows. Growing up in Worcestershire and Devon, Cleeves lives in Northumberland, and has been visiting Shetland for more than 35 years.

“I dropped out of university and got a job on Fair Isle and really fell in love with the place and the people. It was so different from where I’d come from and yet shared similar traits. Any small community – whether island or pit village – has shared secrets and knowledge that isn’t discussed and I suppose I find that fascinating and ripe for exploration. You can do that exploration – psychological archaeology, I suppose – in Vera and you can do it in Shetland.”

While Cleeves admires those writers who site their detectives in gritty city settings, she’s clear that those habitats aren’t for her. “I couldn’t write an urban detective novel. For me, those urban backgrounds are almost interchangeable. My work is so rooted in place because landscape is what shapes my characters.”

Cleeves makes an intriguing point. Of the best detectives, those that aren’t defined by their times – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, for example – are defined by place. From Morse to Taggart, character and location are tied together.

“What your environment does to you psychologically and emotionally, especially when something like a murder happens, is fascinating,” agrees Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy Perez. “Ann’s quartet of Shetland books are seasonal. They’re about the environment, the weather and the light. I sometimes think that the wind is the biggest character in Shetland, because of what it does to people.”

As an expat Scot living in London, a sense of place matters to Henshall, too. The actor – star of Primeval and The Secret of Crickley Hall and most recently seen on stage playing Oliver Cromwell to Mark Gatiss’s Charles I – brings a real depth of understanding to the role of Jimmy Perez, a prodigal Shetlander who returns, not just to investigate a murder, but also to deal with unresolved personal issues.

Henshall, 47, has lived in London longer than he lived in Scotland, having left at 18. “I was always someone who was going to leave, but my soul will always be Scottish,” he says. “Much as London has been home for 25 years, I don’t think it feels any more like my home than it does to anyone who’s come from anywhere. It’s a city of immigrants. Unless you’re born and bred here, it’s never home: it’s a place that people come.

“As well as shooting on Shetland, we filmed in Barrhead, which is where I’m from,” he explains. “We shot in the old council offices, where my grandfather used to work, and we shot in the old health centre where my mother was a nurse. I was very aware that my home town isn’t my home town any more, and I felt that way about Glasgow, too, where we shot all the interiors. There were so many parts of the city that have changed. I walked everywhere. It was as if I was desperate to own the place again. Emotionally, that’s quite conflicting. I felt like an outsider.”

As both Cleeves and Henshall suggest, place plays an important part in people’s psychology and that’s perhaps why it’s also a preoccupation of crime drama and fiction. “Location, location, location” may be a mantra we associate with property programmes, but it can be just as pertinent to police procedurals, from Shetland to Copenhagen and beyond.

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Shetland starts in Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC1