Shetland review: Douglas Henshall features in this new BBC drama but the island is the real star

by Matt D

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Over the past week we’ve been inundated with murder mystery dramas with both Mayday and Broadchurch attracting viewers with their intriguing storylines. Tonight the BBC gives us another mystery drama in Shetland which feels a lot more traditional than either Broadchurch or Mayday. Based on the Shetland novels by Ann Cleves it introduces us to DI Jimmy Perez a policeman who wants to protect his island at all costs. As Shetland is presented as an island where everybody knows each other’s business the murder of one of its eldest residents comes as a big shock.

But that’s exactly what happens in Shetland’s opening scenes as we see Mima Wilson flicking through an old photo album before being killed by a mystery shooter. The murder is later discovered by Mima’s grandson Sandy who is also one of Jimmy’s colleagues. As a stunned Sandy attempts to come to terms with his grandmother’s death he is also forced to help Jimmy with the investigation. Jimmy learns that Mima’s croft was the site of an archaeological dig with a couple of university students attempting to research the history of the island. It appears as if the dig may have bought up old memories for Mima as the students found a human skull. This skull seemed to have spooked Mima which leads us to believe that it belonged to some she knew. Jimmy later discovers that there is also a family feud boiling between Sandy’s father Joseph and his cousin Jackie the latter of whom is one of the island’s more wealthy residents. It is Jackie’s son Ronald who may be the prime suspect as many of the islanders believe him to have accidentally shot Mima while drunk. Ronald isn’t the only suspect though as it later transpires that Joseph wanted to sell Mima’s croft to local entrepreneur Duncan Hunter. With Mima now dead, Joseph inherits the croft and is now able to sell it to Hunter who wants to build holiday cottages on the land. This theory is strengthened when Joseph shuts down the dig claiming that the croft has now become sacred land following the discovery of the skull.

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Though we are given several prime suspects it seems as if Mima’s death could have greater links to the history of the island. As Jimmy finds out that Mima’s husband and Jackie’s father worked on the Shetland Bus together he quizzes his old history teacher for more information on the ships. She tells him that these shipmen would often be involved in ferrying supplies and spies into Norway during the Second World War. She goes onto explain that ‘Taking the Shetland Bus’ became code for escaping from the Nazis. He also discovers that the men who operated the Shetland Bus were later exposed by a double agent who revealed their movements to the Nazis. Jimmy then believes that the man in the picture alongside Jackie’s father and Mima’s husband may indeed be this double agent. Time begins to become an issue for Jimmy as he hopes to solve Mima’s death before the lights are shut off on the island to celebrate the Fire Festival of Up Helly Aa. However the case might not be as easy to solve as he thinks when another dead body shows up on Mima’s land.

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After watching the first few minutes of Shetland it is easy to see that the star of the piece is the island itself as its eerie landscape looms large over the investigation. With its low-hanging sky and miles of uninhabited countryside it becomes the perfect place for a murder investigation to take place. Shetland is also presented as a place with a vast history especially when we learn about the involvement the island had in the Second World War. Jimmy Perez is sort of portrayed as the protector of the island as he sees it as a completely perfect place and refuses to believe that this will ever change. We later learn that Jimmy met his true love on the island and they left Shetland only for him to return following her death. Jimmy is also devoted to his stepdaughter Cassie who he is utterly protective of mainly because he’d be lost without her in his life. It appears though as if Cassie might be bored with life on the island as there’s little for a teenager to do in a place as quiet as Shetland.

With its eerie location and Scandinavian connections, Shetland will obviously draw comparisons to the Nordic Noir dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge. Indeed it is often quite brooding with its lack of constant backing music making a refreshing change from a lot of British crime dramas. However where Shetland differs from its Nordic counterparts is that it does have a sense of humour about it. Despite Jimmy being a damaged character he still seems fairly amiable and only occasionally lets his personal grief get in the way of his professional duties. Jimmy’s DC Alison, better known as Tosh, is also presented as the comic foil throughout the course of this first episode. When we initially meet Tosh she is passed out on a friend’s floor and later throws up after indulging in too much Dutch chocolate vodka. Tosh is also unique due to the fact that she wears braces because, as she tells Jimmy, she doesn’t want to be stuck with Scottish teeth. In the lead role Douglas Henshall is suitably stoic and he convincingly portrays a man who wants to keep his island as crime-free as possible. I also thought Steven Robertson was great as the grieving Sandy mainly because he has such an emotive face. However at the same time it’s hard not to suspect Sandy as Robertson has a history of portraying slightly psychopathic characters.

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Overall Shetland was a traditional Sunday night crime drama which I enjoyed thanks to easy to follow story that never insulted the audience’s intelligence. Though it didn’t feel completely original it was never boring and I was also very interested in the way the history of the island played in to the central plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the other books Ann Cleves’ Shetland series are also adapted for the screen as I feel audiences will respond well to this first two-parter. Ultimately Shetland was well-shot with great performances from Henshall and Robertson but it is the island itself which is the true star of the piece.

What do you think to Shetland? Would you like to see the other books in the series being adapted? Leave Your Comments Below.


  1. anita jackson on March 10, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Had difficulty understanding accent

  2. Sue on March 10, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    I really liked it and will watch tomorrow 🙂

  3. Frank Cranmer on March 10, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    The accents didn’t sound very Shetland at all. Were the producers worried that if the cast spoke Shetland they’d need subtitles?

  4. Crispian Emberson on March 10, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    Sad not a Shetland accent to be heard – everyone seemed to be a Sooth Moother.

    Also the only non Norwegian members of the Shetland Bus were Lieutenant David Howarth RN and some shore based RN rating and then only when they moved from Lunna to Scalloway when they got their fleet of MTB’s.

  5. MS Johnson on March 10, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Since when was Lerwick pronounced with a silent “w”!?

  6. John Anderson on March 11, 2013 at 8:16 am

    MS Johnson – if you know Shetland you should know Lerwick is often pronounced with a silent ‘w’.

  7. robin on March 11, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Pity I only heard one Shetland accent and if you are living in Lerwick at least you could pronounce it properly. Sloppy!

  8. John watt on March 11, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Lerick is da waye it’s pronounced nithin sloppy aboot dat robin

  9. catriona grainger on March 11, 2013 at 9:07 am

    AWFUL accents. Nothing like shetland never mind Scottish. So bad it put me off the story because i couldn’t stand it. Some weird hybrid of Edinburgh Glasgow maybe a touch of teuchter false scottishness. Please ry harder .

  10. Liz France on March 11, 2013 at 9:23 am

    I have recently read the book and the tv adaptation is really bad, the person concerned could not have read the book as the main charactewas of Spanish descent and was dark and swarthy yet they cast a blond man with blue eyes. The book was very good and did not need it to be changed so much.

  11. John on March 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    Really disapointing, was looking forward to this show and it was a real let down. Accents are terrible, acting and script poor with little or no effort put into researching how islanders normally speak. Full of irritating mistakes.

  12. Mike Montgomerie on March 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Successful novel plus “stunning backdrop of..” does not guarantee a winner. Apart from a radio announcer, not a local accent to be heard. Stilted dialogue and an obvious attempt to use aforementioned “stunning backdrop” at EVERY opportunity. Sorry, BBC..but you ain’t got another Bergerac here.

  13. Donald Campbell on March 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    If a drama series relies on its location being the “real star”, then it follows that everything else..storyline, acting, casting, directing, production etc.. is secondary. This is certainly the case here. Contact the local Tourist info sites if you want to enjoy the magic of the Shetlands..don’t rely on this second rate series to do it for you.

  14. Linda James on March 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    I’m not often driven to comment on TV programmes but after such great series as Silent Witness, Call the Midwife etc we are subjected to Shetland, dull, plodding it drove me to switch over even before the end. Landscape great, the only highlight of this very second rate series.

  15. davidstrachan on March 11, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I was so prepared to like ‘Shetland’ – but didn’t.
    I found it sluggish, dull and disappointing – such shallow characters – I didn’t hear any Shetland accents/voices, just the usual Glaswegian stuff – all very lifeless, the plot tediously slow (you knew what was going to happen next), the dialogue wooden, laboured.
    Poor Shetland – you deserved better.

  16. Soothmoother cliche on March 11, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    I’m amused by the typical Shrtland naysaying.

    You do know that some of the cast were Shetlanders? I’m not surprised that not many noticed, too busy writing irate emails, I suppose…

  17. crispian Emberson on March 11, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I am baffled – Ok so which of the cast are born and bred Shetlanders?

  18. ICTJohnboy on March 11, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Edinburgh people usually pronounce Lerwick as Lerrick because they’re more familiar with Berwick, or North Berwick.

    Like everyone else I was disappointed not to hear a Shetland accent. Never heard one utterance of the word “peerie”. Perez sounded very wooden to me – almost as bad as Mark MacManus as Taggart.

  19. John N Hunter on March 11, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    @crispian Emberson Sandra Voe and Steven Robertson are Shetlanders. Steven felt he had to tone down his accent.

    Lerrick is the most common pronunciation.

  20. Andy H on March 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Please take note – Lerwick is usually pronounced by Shetlanders, with a silent ‘w’ . . . ‘Lerick’.

    Oh yes, it is Shetland or the Shetland Isles. . . never, ‘the Shetlands’.

  21. Ian Butcher on March 11, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    I’ve been looking everywhere for some kind of credit for the beautiful violin music used in the program – can you help?


  22. John on March 11, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Soothmoother cliche, i’m sure there were Shetlanders cast, they just didn’t get any lines…..clown.

  23. ICTJohnboy on March 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I enjoyed the background music which was composed and produced by a Scot (but not a Shetlander!)John Lunn.

  24. susie Q on March 11, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    I really enjoyed it and would love to see more. We need more drama series like this and less reality shows which have killed good TV.

  25. Soothmoother cliche on March 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Two of the leads are shetlanders. The cast didn’t use exclusively Shetland dialect, in the same way that Taggart wasn’t 100% Glaswegian actors using 100% Glaswegian slang. Apparently not all Londoners sound like the Queen, or Phil Mitchell, either.
    It’s TV, not a tourist video.

  26. Mike Montgomerie on March 12, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Reply to above: Yes it’s bad, but does it really matter to the BBC in the long run? WE know that it not good… but will the real, the US, Canada, Australia etc not lap it up as we lap up Neighbours and American Housewives. How much did us real Highlanders cringe at “Monarch of the Glen”.. or even “Take the High Road”…apparently sold to Fourteen other countries.. thankfully dubbed… thankfully gone…

  27. Karl Ward on March 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Leaving the quality of the drama aside (not as bad as some I’ve seen), if the programme was filmed in mostly Shetland accents, most people would have difficulty in following anything! Here are some examples…
    Another thing that most people are not aware of is that there are a wide range of accents in Shetland as anywhere else, should it have been in a Lerrik accent or Whalsay or Dunrossness or Cunningsburgh! The main thing for me,as a Shetlander, is that it’s good publicity for the Islands.

  28. John on March 12, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I would like to see more dramas and less reality tv too, but it has to be good dramas with interesting characters and plots, not this switch your brain off bore fest.

  29. Hilda on March 12, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Really enjoyed. Hope more to follow

  30. john womaqck on March 12, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    In the words of Frazier, Sheeeer Rubbbbish!!
    Slower than Goddfrey!

  31. ann matt on March 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Just wanted to say I loved it! No criticism, just really enjoyable tv. Thanks

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