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Lockdown, Lowdown… Ringside Report Looks Back at the TV Show Shetland

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

Unusually for me, this is a show that is still in production and is about to do the swap thing with a lead character. This is always a tricky moment when the loyal audience is asked to accept that the shoulders of one character are no longer to linger on the credits but upon another characters’ shoulder shall the whole thing now rest.

We have, of course, seen this before in Scotland. The longest running TV crime show survived the loss of its lead actor Mark McManus, who played the lead which gave the show its name – Taggart. Tragically, McManus died, and the show kept going with a new lead, played by actor, James MacPherson, who was at least, the second in command when they lost Taggart himself. Then MacPherson left the series and was replaced by a new character and lead with well-known Scottish actor Alex Norton taking over – it kept on going for some time thereafter.

Jimmy Perez, played by Dougie Henshall, has hung up his spurs as the sheriff in Shetland and decided to follow his heart. Based on the very popular crime series of novels by Ann Cleeves, this was originally an ITV production made for the BBC which made its debut in 2013 and has run for 7 series.

The development of an episodic structure was set early on, with series one being a two parter. Given its success, that structure was copied for season two, however from series three onwards each series stretches the storyline into six episodes which follows a single crime or series of criminally connected events. It took us as far north in the United Kingdom as was possible as the Shetland Isles are the part of the map which has to be stuck in a box to make it fit the TV box when it comes to the weather – it is closer to Scandinavia than Scotland. But Scottish it is.

In this oil-rich part of Scotland, murder has often been afoot. Alongside Henshall as Perez we got a pretty stellar cast with Alison O’Donnell as Detective Sergeant Alison “Tosh” McIntosh, Steven Robertson as Detective Constable Sandy Wilson and Mark Bonnar as Duncan Hunter. Lewis Howden as Sergeant McCabe, Julie Graham as Procurator Fiscal Rhona Kelly, and Anne Kidd as forensic pathologist Cora McLean are also principal members of the cast in a series originally adapted for television by another Scottish creative stalwart – writer, David Kane.

Central to each investigation is not just Perez’s relationship with his team but also Perez’s relationship with stepdaughter, Cassie, played by Erin Armstrong and Duncan Hunter – his stepdaughter’s father. It is a bond between the three much tested and much focused upon as it is a strong bond that defies much by way of description at times. However, it always puts the right thing first at its heart. That is what makes Perez a compelling character and which now, with his departure, asks some serious questions about the show.

The 39th episode is much anticipated! Ashley Jensen, of Ugly Betty fame and also of Agatha Raisin shall step into Perez’s role then.

The bleak landscape of Shetland mirrors the bleakness at times of the Welsh production Hinterland, which makes both quite special for us Celts, I suppose, because that bleakness is also where its beauty is held. The dramatic landscapes can hide the precious clues and dramatic findings of investigations but more importantly it tests the resolve and the characters of each of our heroes. Perez was someone with a clear moral compass, eventually in series 6 having to show that when he arrested the father of his stepchild for murder, but continued to support him. These moral dilemmas were evident too when one of his team, being sent alone to follow up a clue on the mainland was raped.

Though it was set in a far flung archipelago of the country, its heart and earthiness was firmly set in the 21st Century and in the deep psyche of us Scots. I loved it and I am not alone. Strong following for the show has continued whilst accolades, which were originally showered upon it, may have fallen off, perhaps with a new lead people shall watch with new eyes. Though they shall be no less expectant as it has always shown strong production values with a very strong creative streak. Jensen has a tough act to follow, and hopefully it will not be focused on her gender and the difficulty of a rugged role going to a woman.

In the US it has been broadcast by PBS and is on both Amazon and Netflix, worthy of a visit and staying for as long as you can deal with the Shetlander accents!

British television is a curious affair. Begun through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) it is funded through the universal license fee. In essence, if you wanted to watch the television, you had to pay the license fee. The BBC got it all and is state run, albeit at arms-length. Then came along commercial television in the form of Independent Television (ITV) in 1955. Designed to bring a bit of competition to the BBC, it was paid for through advertising but still free to air… well they didn’t add another license fee to it. By the time that I was born, 1965, there was BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. And that was it. It was still years before Bruce Springsteen would moan that there were 55 channels and nothing on but here in the UK, we kept this going until, in 1982, we added a fourth channel and in 1997, a fifth. With sparkling imagination, they were called Channel Four and ehm Channel Five… In between came Sky and we understood what Springsteen meant. And so, my childhood and leading up to early adulthood we had three options… But the programs made were exceptionally good. And so, here is some critical nostalgia as the lockdown has brought a plethora of reruns, new formats and platforms and old classics trying to make their way back into our consciousness as broadcasters flood their schedules with classics… or are they classics at all? Let me take you through an armchair critics’ view of what we have to see, to find out… Welcome to the Lockdown Lowdown…

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