I first went to Shetland more than 40 years ago. I’d dropped out of university and, through a serendipitous meeting in a pub, I was offered the job of assistant cook in the bird observatory in Fair Isle. I fell in love with the islands and I’ve been visiting ever since.
It was 30 years later that Raven Black, the first book, was published. For the theme of the novel, I needed a character who was an outsider, and so Jimmy Perez, the Fair Islander with the strange Spanish name and dark good looks, was created.
Dougie Henshall might not look like my Jimmy Perez, but he’s brought him to life in the best possible way. He’s captured the character – his strength and compassion; in the books he’s described as “emotionally incontinent”.
I’ve never been precious about the adaptations of my novels; I don’t complain when characters are cut, altered or added (Tosh, played by Alison O’Donnell, doesn’t appear in the book, though I so wish I’d created her!), or even when the identity of the murderer is changed. Television is an art that’s different from prose and once I’ve given my permission for the adaptation, I have to trust the artists involved. They deserve to be allowed the freedom to develop their own creative vision, just as I’ve been allowed to develop mine. If I were to interfere, that vision might become muddled and the finished product would be a strange hybrid, much less successful.
My concerns about the transfer to television are vaguer, less concrete; it’s about voice and tone and atmosphere, and about a kind of morality. The violence shouldn’t be gratuitous, just to shock or to titillate, and the team should take their work seriously. I’ve been astoundingly fortunate with this in Shetland, as well as Vera. I recognise my Vera in Brenda Blethyn’s warmth, her refusal to patronise or be patronised, her ability to be perfectly happy in her own company. I’m grateful to her and the whole team for bringing my work to life.
I’m equally grateful to everyone involved in Shetland. From series three, the format moved away from self-contained adaptations to longer, six-episode original stories. These allowed plots and characters to develop and for some of the action to move away from the islands. This made total sense to me.
My books usually have domestic settings and preoccupations, with internal monologues, flashbacks to the past, exploration of fractured relationships and communities, none of which is effective for film! A weekly murder in a place like Shetland with its very law-abiding citizens and population of 23,000 could become a little ludicrous. By spreading the story over a longer time-scale and letting in outsiders, the plotline could tackle wider issues, become more credible and very exciting.
Davy Kane, the lead writer, and Eric Coulter, the producer, have managed to develop the show without losing the original voice and tone. No wonder that it’s become a regular at the Scottish Baftas and keeps thrilling viewers with its compulsive storytelling.
Despite a change in pace and scenes filmed in Glasgow and Norway, Shetland still feels like my baby. Though the baby has grown up and flown the nest. That’s partly down to the consummate acting of Douglas Henshall, and to the courage and commitment of the production team who, despite logistical problems, delayed flights and ferries and the nightmare of maintaining any kind of continuity when the weather changes by the minute, spend months in the islands filming.
Shetland is about this special place and the people who have made their home there. It would be a different show if they’d taken an easier option and filmed on the mainland. For the adaptation of Blue Lightning, they even took a small cast and crew to Fair Isle, the island where it all started.
According to Visit Shetland, tourism has increased by 43 per cent since 2006 when the first book was published, and I’m certain that much of that is down to the magnificent cinematography. As the oil industry in the islands has become less important, cultural tourism – music, textiles, archaeology – has filled the gap, and the films bring people to see the house where Jimmy Perez lives and to explore the locations, the places where victims have been found.
Now, as a new series starts, I’m celebrating the paperback publication of Wild Fire, the eighth and last Shetland book. I decided to finish writing about the islands while I was still enjoying it. I’d hate to start repeating myself, boring my readers, losing enthusiasm for my characters. This feels like the right time for it to end.
So, for the last time, I’m about to go out on the road with a novel about Shetland. Of course it’s sad, but it will feel rather wonderful to visit friends there, without seeing it as work. I’ll be able to sit, chatting, in croft kitchens and not filch ideas for plots, and I look forward to walking along the cliffs at Eshaness without wondering where I’m going to bury the next body.
What’s next for me? I’ll still write about Vera Stanhope. North-east England has a more varied palette than Shetland; there’s a big and lively city, small market towns and the postindustrial landscape as well as the beautiful coast and the hills. I still have things to say about the place and the character. And there’ll be a new detective series, too (The Long Call will be published in September), set in north Devon where I grew up. Another place that’s on the edge, out of the mainstream.
Ann Cleeves is the author of both the Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels