How The Setting Sets It Apart

There may be many crime dramas on the box, but few series look as stunning as Shetland…


The stunning crime drama television series was actually filmed on location in Shetland and mainland Scotland, so there was never any danger of this crime series not looking utterly authentic. But Shetland goes beyond conventional attention to background detail. It turns the location into a crucial part of the programme. In fact, you could go so far as to say the craggy panorama of this isolated region is almost a character in its own right.

Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez and Steven Robertson as PC Sandy Wilson.

Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez and Steven Robertson as PC Sandy Wilson.

Shetland has been hailed as "Celtic Noir", a reference to the hugely successful Nordic Noir thrillers like The Killing and The Bridge. Actually, they don't have a lot in common in terms of plotting, with Shetland being made up of episodic cases rather than having an over-arching saga-like structure in the manner of The Killing. So why the comparisons? It's all down to the aesthetics, which in turn comes down to the setting.

Like those Nordic Noir shows, the very landscape in Shetland has emotional power. The steel-grey skies, pierced through by the white rays of the near-Arctic sun. The foreboding vistas of the countryside. The humans looking small and almost lost against the sprawling landscape. The cinematic scale of the show makes the Scottish setting look simultaneously gorgeous and ominous. Celtic Noir, in other words.

It's not just about the high impact visuals and atmosphere, though. The other reason why the setting is so important to this series is that it's so far flung. The community is literally isolated. This, after all, is a part of the world that's almost as far north as Greenland. And while it may seem rural and idyllic to tourists, in the context of a crime drama it all suddenly seems rather claustrophobic and threatening, with nowhere to run to once the trouble begins to brew.

Stewart Porter as Sgt Billy McBride, Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez and Steven Robertson as PC Sandy Wilson.

Stewart Porter as Sgt Billy McBride, Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez and Steven Robertson as PC Sandy Wilson.

Another thing: Shetland's position on the globe means that, come the summertime, it's daylight for almost 19 hours every day. These "white nights" can create a hazy, surreal, dream-like atmosphere, especially if they play havoc with locals' sleep. The TV series makes clever use of this, with central characters Jimmy Perez and Tosh McIntosh both burdened by the near-endless sunlight and feeling the onslaught of insomnia. "It's never dark for long enough," Tosh says in one story. "You just wish someone would turn the lights off."

Aside from the sheer resonance of the landscape and climate, the culture and history of Shetland also play a big part in proceedings. One of the mysteries touches on the "Shetland bus", a secret naval operations unit which operated between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway during the darkest days of the Second World War. Other cases take in events like famed Up Helly Aa fire festival of Shetland, as well as corruption involving gas pipelines in the region. Not quite Midsomer, then.

It's worth mentioning that Ann Cleeves, who wrote the original novels on which the show is based, knows the area intimately, having lived there in the 1970s. In fact, the inspiration for her very first Jimmy Perez mystery came during a return visit, when she noticed the striking sight of black ravens pecking in the white snow, and imagined what it would look like if blood splatters and the remains of a corpse were embedded amid the birds.

The actors in the show take the setting very seriously too. Steven Robertson, who plays local copper Sandy Wilson, actually grew up in Shetland and was thrilled to return for this role. Meanwhile, veteran actor Brian Cox, who plays a key role in one of the stories, was so keen to get his performance right that he visited a local Shetland poet to study her rhythm of speech and base his character's vocal inflections on it.

With the location infusing every aspect of the series, you can really see why they called it Shetland, can't you?