Murder and intrigue have arrived on Fair Isle – in the first television drama to be set there. Britain’s most remote inhabited island is the location for the next two episodes of Shetland, the crime thriller series based on the books by Ann Cleeves. Blue Lightning is on BBC1 at 9pm on 8 and 15 April.
Fair Isle and its bird observatory are already on the map for notching up more ‘firsts’ for Britain – sightings of rare migratory birds – than anywhere else.
Now, thanks to Ann Cleeves, who once worked at the observatory, the island has added murder and mystery to its reputation – a reputation being spread to an even wider audience by the television adaptation.
The bird observatory, which attracts people interested in birds and islands, as well as ‘twitchers’, doesn’t seem the obvious place for violent death. In fact there’s never been a murder on Fair Isle, as far as anyone knows.
But in Blue Lightning Ann Cleeves invents a dark underbelly to observatory and island life as Shetland detective Jimmy Perez returns to his native Fair Isle to visit his parents and is soon leading another murder investigation.
Ann says: “I was assistant cook in the Obs in 1975 and cook in 1976. It’s a very special place because I met my husband and many of my close friends there.”
So how did she turn it into a hotbed of murder and intrigue? “Well birding is about obsession, isn’t it? My husband’s a passionate birder and though I don’t think he’d kill anyone for a new bird he does get pretty obsessed and that’s fertile ground for a crime writer.”
In her book, Ann renames the observatory the Fair Isle Field Centre and re-locates it in the island’s North Lighthouse.
The television adaptation goes even further than her, in re-inventing aspects of Fair Isle and the ‘Obs’. Location manager Michael Higson says we might see the exterior of the modern observatory but the interior is a combination of territorial army accommodation, the headquarters of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in East Lothian, science labs outside Glasgow and a studio in the city.
One thing is certain, for many of the actors and crew, filming on Fair Isle was the highlight of the new series. Michael says: “You do feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Then there’s the thing of the community being entirely interdependent. I genuinely hope that the 5 million people watching it will think: that looks absolutely extraordinary.”
Douglas Henshall, who plays DI Perez, says: “Shooting on Fair Isle was one of the best experiences we all had on the entire series. The place itself is very unique, but also the people there were fantastic. They couldn’t have done enough for us.”
The production team chartered an Islander plane, the same aircraft as the ones used by the scheduled service to Fair Isle. Even so, logistics meant they could only take around a dozen of the actors involved in the series, plus a film crew of 20.
Actor Bill Paterson, who plays the detective’s father, says: “To get to film in Fair Isle… I was one of the lucky ones. The flight to Fair Isle was incredible. The plane was tiny – it was really a transit van with wings on it – in fact it was flimsier than a van.
“It only took 20 minutes to get there but it was a beautiful flight because you’re not flying high and we had a surprisingly calm day.”
The island ferry the Good Shepherd was also filmed and skipper Neil Thomson said meeting Bill Paterson and seeing the actor at work was one of his highlights.
“It was lovely meeting Bill Paterson. He’s one of my heroes on the screen. He has very good presence. He could easily have been a Fair Isle man walking down the pier.”
Crofter Jimmy Stout helped drive the Shetland team around Fair Isle and was very impressed by how hard everyone worked. “There were no salmon sandwiches and white wine. More like a bottle of water and some chocolate. Very much rations and very much hard work.”
Some of the TV team stayed at the Obs and warden David Parnaby was pleased to demonstrate the work of the Observatory team, including trapping and monitoring, which may feature in the story.
David says: “I’m sure the series will capture viewers’ imaginations, even if the televised ‘field centre’ isn’t going to be much like our own observatory and the atmosphere in the bar at night here isn’t exactly murderous!
“We’re all eagerly waiting to see which bits of the island are shown. One piece I’m sure won’t make it into the final cut will be when we were filming at North Light and my telescope was being used as a prop.
“Whilst watching the action, I was amazed to see an American Golden Plover circle over us and land nearby; I rushed up to get a better view of it through my ‘scope and may have caused them to have to reshoot the scene.
“They were very understanding though when I pointed out the bird was a rarity that may have just made its first land fall after crossing the Atlantic and at least it gave them an idea of what life at the Obs is like.”