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Viewpoint / ‘Why not wait, Shetland? That’s all. Wait a few weeks’

Please come to Shetland, Shetland. But not yet, says Tom Morton.

Lead actor Douglas Henshall and Steven Robertson on set during filming for the last series. Photo courtesy of BBC.Lead actor Douglas Henshall and Steven Robertson on set during filming a few years ago. Photo: Shetland News

We love Shetland. And we love Shetland.

Hillswick based journalist and broadcaster Tom Morton.

We live in Shetland, a unique island community. And while we rejoice in the fact that we don’t live in the Shetland of Shetland, with its constant murders, Alice in Wonderland TV geography (“you can’t get there from there!”) and peculiar preponderance of Volvos (compulsory in TV police thrillers – see the new Bloodlands for some prime XC90 action) we just adore watching and talking about it.

In some cases (notably mine) we take pleasure in the frequent daftness of the scripts, and the sight of excellent actors struggling with accents and environments clearly alien to their sooth sensibilities. Others among us benefit enormously from the presence of cast and crew (when they’re not utilising North Ayrshire’s apparent similarity to our landscape), the money they spend, the glamour they shed on our lives, and the chance to mingle and dream of stardom as we work with them: extras, drivers, camera crew, costume department. The production is currently advertising for five “paid trainee placements”.

It’s all rather wonderful. And there is no apparent downside. The success of past seasons have brought huge international attention to the isles, and for tourists of all kinds, aged cruise ship passengers especially, the locations used for the cavortings of Perez and company are now de rigueur destinations. You can’t pay for advertising like that.

Except this year there is a downside, of course. We are in a pandemic, with just a glimmer of hope that, through vaccination and disciplined behaviour, better treatment, masks and social distancing, we might be able to glimpse the beginning of some “new normal”. And just as we’re thinking maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to travel to see our grandchildren or aged parents, risk going to the supermarket without wearing hazmat suits and welding gloves, we are told that the Shetland production is coming back to the isles. Rejoice!

Thing is though, they’re not coming back in the summer, which would make sense. Longer days, better light. Instead it’s been announced, quite bullishly, that a 40-strong team will be in the isles for most of April. Five weeks away. Long before the advent of the Scottish Government’s so-called roadmap out of lockdown, with the rest of Scotland still urged to stay at home and Shetland under less severe, but still draconian measures, including a de facto travel ban if you want to leave or come to the isles, except under extraordinary circumstances.

We are told that this is fine, as film and TV productions are classed as essential workers and can do their dressing up where and when they please. Notably, Peaky Blinders has been, for some bizarre reason, in Portsoy. Stringent precautions will be taken. There will be masks, and social distancing, and handwashing, and testing.

We don’t know where the cast and crew will stay (no wonderful Scalloway Hotel, alas, for the stars this time round) how catering will be carried out, or where shooting will take place. We don’t know what kind of tests will be used or who will administer and assess them.

We don’t know how the locals involved will be dealt with as part of this testing regime. And we have no way of knowing just how accountable this production is, and to whom. What happens if someone, as seems inevitable, tests positive during the filming? Will the production be shut down? Will we, or the health authorities, even be told?

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson was reported as saying there was “no risk” to the community from the production’s presence. That’s not quite true. What he actually said was this:

“While our community’s concern and fear of Covid is completely understandable, given what we have all lived through, we are in level three which means workers (including actors and crew) can legally move in and out of Shetland without NHS “permission”.

“This television show brings economic benefits to our isles through global publicity as well as through hosting the actors and crew.

“It is in all our interests for it to go ahead but safely and without risk to our community.”

Not quite the same thing. Read that statement carefully and what Mr Dickson is saying is: We have no authority to stop this. The filming, if it can go ahead “safely and without risk”, is in all our interests. This is not a health board faux pas of “SMUHA can go ahead, just don’t share whisky flasks” proportions.

Risk of infection in epidemiology is much studied and there is ALWAYS a risk, as Mr Dickson knows and will undoubtedly be seen in the risk assessments prepared by Shetland’s production team for their insurers and other statutory bodies. It would be interesting to have these made public. Not least because we would then know how much all concerned are earning out of it all. Money, after all, talks.

For the production to come here and work through April is risky. Some people feel threatened, again something alluded to in Mr Dickson’s statement. Folk also feel saddened at what appears to be a willingness by cast and crew to put under threat a community which has supported, guided and aided their past success.

It feels like the colonial media missionaries expect the sweeties and glass beads they have previously distributed to reap some brutal rewards: no more Mr Nice Guy. This includes one of the lead actors describing mild local criticism on social media this week as “unbelievable attention seeking” and informing one co-worker who had never been to the isles that they would “have a ball.”

Now, it’s been tough for everyone involved in TV, theatre and film over the past 12 months. Shetland has already postponed filming and it must be hellish for technicians, production staff and actors to be locked up in their city apartments, unable to work, or even go out. We know that.

We have elderly parents, children and grandchildren we cannot visit and who cannot come here. Shetland may not have suffered as much as other parts of the UK but never forget, we have paid a terrible price in deaths and long-term illness. We have given up a lot in terms of festivals, social contact and income. This pandemic may seem under control, but putting that situation at risk by bringing a large number of young, unvaccinated, socially active people into the community in a large group, in April, seems like folly.

Why not wait? That’s all. Wait a few weeks. By July, we should at the very least be in a situation relatively similar to last summer, but with the added protection of vaccination which by that time will have reached most of Shetland’s population. If Messrs Wishart and Carmichael can swing it, there will be compulsory testing at all entry points to the islands. Pubs, cafes and hotels will all be functioning in some semblance of normality. The simmer dim will be simmer dimming like crazy.

Please, Mr Perez. You seem like such a sensitive guy. Do the right thing. We love Shetland. But more than that, we love Shetland. And maybe you do too. A bit.

Prove it.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021