Last March, more than six million people tuned into the two-part pilot of Shetland, the BBC’s murder mystery set on the blustery and beautiful northern islands known for their green pastures, puffins and ponies. We liked it so much that next month, a six part series comes to our screens, with more grisly happenings set against this dramatic backdrop.
“You’re not going to find a basement of abducted children, as in Top of the Lake [Jane Campion’s New Zealand-based crime drama],” says native Shetlander Steven Robertson, who plays island bobby Sandy Wilson in the series. “Shetland tries to deal with local storylines.”
Douglas Henshall’s DI Perez investigates with help from the trusty Wilson on the collection of more than 100 moody islands. “There are two main characters in the series,” explains Robertson modestly. “They are Jimmy Perez and the Shetland Isles themselves. They are the real stars of the show.”
The tight-knit community portrayed in the drama is rooted in real island life. Robertson even found himself shooting scenes in his relatives’ home during the new series. “In episodes five and six, we needed a fish farm,” he says. “The location the crew liked best was actually on my aunt and uncle’s farm.”
Douglas Henshall experienced plenty of local hospitality while filming on Fair Isle, which lies between Shetland and Orkney and has a population of 65. “It’s nearly a three-hour ferry ride from Shetland, so we flew there on an eight-seater plane and landed on a big square, like a football pitch,” says Henshall. “We couldn’t take any vehicles with us and we were a skeleton crew, because there are very few places to stay,” he explains. “However, the people were fantastic – they lent us their houses and cars so that we could get around.”
“I have friends that grew up on those islands,” says Robertson. “They have to be prepared. They can get cut off quite easily, as ferries can’t run if the sea is rough. You need a large larder with lots of tins and dried goods, as you could be cut off for a month. But anyone that lives there gets great benefit from the peace and remoteness.”
Remoteness, isolation and vulnerability are just some of the problems an island detective faces in Shetland – that, and gossips, of course. “The difficulty in a small community is that everybody knows every- body,” explains Henshall, “so there’s the temptation to listen to gossip rather than the full facts. That’s where we pick things up.”
The new series begins with the familiar Celtic soundtrack, squawking seagulls and sweeping sea views, and then we find out that a friend of Detective Perez has been murdered. “He’s found in a car that’s seemingly been driven off a cliff,” says Henshall.
Then things get more and more intriguing when a girl is found dead on the beach.” All fingers seem to point to a lonely old man played by Brian Cox, who lives within sight of the beach…
Aside from the unusually large number of murders, Robertson believes the BBC’s portrayal of Shetland is true to life. “I think it’s incredibly accurate,” he says. “The camera doesn’t lie – those exterior scenes are the Shetland Islands themselves. Some people may think of Shetland as a backwater, but the series shows viewers that there’s a lot going on and they should go and visit, it’s such a photogenic place.”
In Shetland there are no special effects or CGI backdrops. In the summer, the isles have light for 20 hours a day and no spot is more than three and a half miles from the sea. “We have very few trees, but there are benefits to that,” explains Robertson. “The views of the horizon are stunning. It’s either amazingly calm or really spectacular, like when the ocean is really moving and you get all the beautiful colours of the sea and the power of the waves.
Henshall was lucky enough to encounter whales while filming. “The sun was glinting off the water and the camera crew were filming off a headland,” he says. “We call stopped because we heard this noise. It was four minke whales singing. The noise was just so beautiful.”
Robertson now lives in Hertfordshire, which begs the question why he would ever leave his picturesque homeland. “There’s a tradition of travelling in Shetland,” he says. “It’s such a small economy. Whether they are whalers or merchant seamen, people have had to go elsewhere to make a living. I couldn’t have gone to sea, I haven’t got the legs for it. Acting was my alternative. But I’ve never really left Shetland. I’ve been homesick for the past 17 years.”
What to do in Shetland:
Henshall and Robertson’s offer up their island essentials
“It’s a little town and very, very beautiful. I really began to appreciate the isolation and the peace here,” says Henshall.
Listen to music
“There’s a fantastic folk-music scene in Shetland,” Henshall enthuses. “Almost everybody plays an instrument to some degree or other. They really know how to have a party.”
Get on your bike
“If you like cycling, then the roads are fantastic,” says Henshall. “At times the wind gets up and it’s hard work, but the roads are good.”
“We filmed at Eshaness (above) in Northmavine,” says Robertson. “Northmavine is almost an island [it’s joined to the mainland by a 100-yard strip of land] and has an incredibly dramatic coastline. The mobile-phone advert with the dancing ponies was filmed there. The pony belonged to a friend of mine and it gets fan mail! There’s a campsite at Eshaness that has a great café – Braewick Café.”
Go to the Cabin Museum
“I come from an area on the north-east coast called Lunnasting,” says Robertson. “In the main village, Vidlin, there’s the Cabin Museum, which is full of local memorabilia. My granddad set it up. I spent a huge part of my childhood helping him to research things, and now my parents help to run it. It’s definitely worth a look.”