The rape scene in BBC’s Shetland was brutal – but the handling of the story was as deft as anything on TV

Too often sexual assault in TV drama is horribly used as a throwaway plot point, but this BBC1 crime series is different argues Alison Graham

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Too often rape in television dramas is a mere dramatic device used when a writer can’t think of where to take an established female character. Run out of ideas? Then subject her to an overwhelming and brutal sexual assault. 

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I hate this opportunism. Rape is too hideous and too serious to be used as a throwaway plot point. Remember Anna in Downton Abbey? Anna was happy and settled and her devotees looked forward to seeing her enfolded in a loving, long marriage.

Then out of nowhere Anna was assaulted by a visiting below-stairs nasty piece of work. The story prompted howls of outrage from viewers, brought nothing to Downton Abbey, and was briskly brushed aside after Anna’s husband treated her to a nice dinner. That’s all it takes to recover from the trauma, apparently. 

In Friday’s episode of the Scottish crime drama Shetland (BBC1) young detective Alison “Tosh” McIntosh was raped. We didn’t see the commission of the offence, only its aftermath. Normally I’d be mounting my high horse to rage about such an offensive lack of imagination.

But Tosh’s attack, or rather its effects and consequences, were dealt with brilliantly by writer Gaby Chiappe (who took advice from rape crisis workers).

As Tosh (heartbreaking Alison O’Donnell) went through grief and fury, we were left with the belief that she had been altered forever, in ways we cannot see. No nice dinner will make Tosh feel better.

Pale and subdued, Tosh could barely bring herself to describe the horror; all she could manage was that she was “called names, you know, the names women always get called.” She felt guilt and blamed herself: “I’m police, I’m trained, I should’ve known better…I made it easy for him.”

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She couldn’t bear to be hugged by a kind and well-meaning male colleague, and the fierce script cried out with anger that something so destructive should happen to someone so decent, someone we have come to know so well. It was an object lesson in how dramas should handle this painfully destructive crime.