NOT since the Brent oilfield was discovered in 1971 has Shetland had so many positive headlines. Last month, VisitScotland’s ponies in their Fair Isle knits became a YouTube sensation. Last week, more Shetland ponies went viral, this time moonwalking to Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere, to sell the 3 mobile phone network. And tonight the first part of Shetland, the BBC1 drama based on Ann Cleeves’ Shetland-set detective novel Red Bones, goes out in a primetime slot. The concluding part is on tomorrow.
Great hopes are riding on the series, starring Douglas Henshall as Shetland-born detective Jimmy Perez. One of several atmospheric crime series that are being touted as the British answer to The Killing – Broadchurch and Mayday are also in the running, with Hinterland soon to join them – it ticks several of the Scandi-noir boxes without being simply The Bridge relocated to Bressay. Noteworthy knitwear, evocative landscapes, long meaningful silences, realistic women (this one has a terrible cagoule, furry boots and braces) are all present and correct.
It would be unfair, however, to imagine that a bunch of producers suddenly remembered that Shetland is closer to Norway than to the UK mainland, jumped on the turbo-prop plane then tossed off a quickie cash-in. Cleeves has been setting mysteries in Shetland since 2007 and has a strong TV track record already. (Another of her detective series, featuring DI Vera Stanhope, is the basis for the ITV series Vera.) It’s a comparison of convenience, which also notes that the doomy Scandinavian series have certainly opened up mainstream viewers’ minds to the possibility of watching long, multi-part crime series with long silences and no car chases. In that context, who can blame the BBC for putting a Sarah Lund jumper on a show set on the most northerly, Scandinavian-looking part of the UK?
The only surprise is that no one had done this sooner: Shetland is the perfect setting for a thriller. With a close-knit island community, the friction caused by incomers and tourists, the huge potential for horrible deaths and huge amounts of cash created by fishing and oil (the islands’ main industries) to say nothing of the huge open vistas and creepy tree-free skylines, it’s the whole package.
And while Shetlanders are, understandably, hopeful that their moment in the primetime spotlight will give them an economic boost, the series does not hide these less attractive aspects of island life. No Hamish Macbeth cosy Sunday night slice of couthy here. The plot centres around two interconnected families, one with a gleaming new pelagic trawler, the other struggling along with lobster pots. One of the lobster-pot side of the clan is also the local plod who finds the first body. The islands’ drinking culture, lack of disposable fashion outlets, lacklustre internet service and capricious mobile phone signal also feature.
Paul Riddell, who has been working with Promote Shetland to make the most of the opportunities offered by the show, does not see these as disadvantages. “In 50 years there has not been a better opportunity to raise Shetland’s profile. It shows Shetland as it is. We’re not precious about presenting it as a magnificent place where the sun always shines.” He’s not wrong there – it must have come out at some point during the shoot, last summer, because there is a rainbow in one shot. Otherwise, the clouds go from white to grey without a revealing a single flash of blue. Rare is the character in shot without a woolly hat.
Despite this, Riddell maintains: “Shetland is the standout character. It’s the most distinctive place in the British Isles: treeless, with big skies, the bleak but beautiful landscape.”
In preparation for the invasion, Promote Shetland and Cleeves have collaborated on a charming map of the islands, showing the real locations in her stories as well as the places she has fictionalised. Across the islands, stocks of her books are high: “You can’t move for copies of Red Bones with a smouldering Dougie Henshall on the front,” says Riddell.
The murder scene was filmed on a remote spot but the 10-minute hop from Lerwick to Bressay on the ferry is easy for any starstruck visitor to replicate and Henshall’s Perez lives in one of the lodeberries – traditional stone-built houses – by the Lerwick shore.
Caroline McKenzie lives two doors down. She owns the Scalloway Hotel on the opposite side of the island and has high hopes that Shetland will bring the area to the attention of more of the kind of visitors who already love the place. “I think we’ll do well from people who want to get away from run-of-the-mill holidays, nature tourists, folk who like something a bit different and don’t care about the weather.”
She adds that it’s the first time many British TV viewers will be exposed to Up Helly Aa, Shetland’s answer to the Rio Carnival, but with Viking helmets and burning torches. “It’s a unique event and lots of people have never even heard of it.”
Veronica Rocks, owner of the Busta House Hotel 25 miles north of Lerwick, shares McKenzie’s enthusiasm. Both fondly recall the surge of visitors who discovered Shetland after Springwatch presenter Simon King spent a year filming wildlife on the islands. The ponies in the groovy sweaters are already having an effect: “They have been on CNN. I’ve been taking inquiries from the US – although they think the ponies wander about in these jumpers all the time.”
What everyone is crossing their fingers for, however, is that tonight’s two-parter becomes a full-length series. Cleeves’ other three Shetland-set books have been optioned, Henshall and other key cast members are on retainers, the location spotters have been out with their cameras. All that is required is five million viewers – considered across the TV industry to be the critical mass that makes a series viable – to tune in.
Potential audience: over to you.
Shetland, BBC1, tonight 9pm