“I ONLY ever think about what Shetland has given to us,” actress Alison O’Donnell says when asked about how crime drama Shetland has brought the isles global attention.
“I think we’re lucky that you guys have been so welcoming and so supportive and we get to come here and borrow this beautiful place.”
O’Donnell, who plays police sergeant Alison ‘Tosh’ McIntosh, is speaking on the cusp of wrapping up filming for the latest series of the popular BBC series.
With reports of people visiting the isles just to soak up the sights of the show, it has given Shetland and its tourism industry priceless PR – even if the fictional crime rate is alarmingly high.
The timing of bringing a fairly large crew to film in April and again in June drew criticism from some in the Covid era, but the mask-wearing team introduced twice-weekly testing, and brought their own lab north so local services were not affected.
O’Donnell is speaking as the crew prepare to film a scene outside Lerwick Sheriff Court – or the police headquarters, in the Shetland world.
No rowdy scuffles or explosions – just DI Jimmy Perez getting out of a car. Which actor Douglas Henshall drives himself, no less.
The last series – season five – was broadcast back in 2019, and like just about everything else, plans to film last year were postponed due to the pandemic.
O’Donnell appears delighted to be back on set after the rigours of the last year. “Obviously this is a very different climate to what we’re used to, but it’s just so nice to be back at work after a long time of everybody being pretty idle,” she says.
“I feel so grateful. It’s just nice to be able to do the job that we love again.”
Her character Tosh, something of a fans’ favourite for her rapport with the more austere Perez, is “really maturing in her work” this time around.
“When we first met her in the pilot, she was a real rookie,” O’Donnell says.
“The writers have really allowed that to grow over the series and then this one particularly I think she has been really nice to play, in that growing sense of confidence in her work.
“She’s really working on her instinct, she’s sniffing things out, she’s following up leads, she’s getting to the heart of what’s going on and I really loved doing that. It’s a progression from what we’ve had before, and it feels like it’s evolving in a really nice way.”
Producer Louise Say, meanwhile, plugs six series as “utterly compelling”.
“The interesting thing about season six is it’s all set on Shetland,” she adds.
“We don’t have a storyline that takes us back to Glasgow. In a way it becomes more intense for Perez, and for the investigating the crime, he’s here. He’s also got a really significant emotional journey that he goes on in season six, which takes him to a territory that he hasn’t been subject to before.
“That is exciting to see, and I think it’s challenging for Dougie [Henshall] as an actor to portray as well. I think he’s really enjoying it. His performances are outstanding, and all the cast – we have a brilliant core cast, and a really great guest cast with us. The BBC have seen early cuts of the show and they absolutely love what they’re seeing.”
Series seven, which will be shot in Shetland in September and October, will be “very different”.
Say added that plenty of planning went into the Covid protocols around the filming, which were shown to NHS Shetland and the council prior to their arrival. While shooting outside the court, the crew were masked – and any visitors had to ‘check-in’ with the team through an app.
“We just do everything that we can to keep each other safe, to keep the production safe, and really importantly to keep the community safe,” Say said. “We do respect the fact that it’s a small island community.”
Filming this year has gone well, according to the crew – although the variable weather gave the crew a true experience of all four seasons.
“In April we had blizzard conditions and 70 mph winds in the first week which was quite challenging I have to say, but we got through it,” Say reflects. “I’m really proud to say we got through it and we produced some really excellent material.”
The programme, which sees local actor Steven Robertson complete its trio of lead roles, first filmed in the isles in 2012.
Back then it was just a two-episode series adapted from Ann Cleeves novels.
But it has morphed into six-part seasons with its own storylines, broadcast across the world, from the US and Australia to Estonia and Slovenia.
This has helped to catapult Shetland as a visitor destination to a whole new audience – with Perez’s lodberry house, of course, a key focal point, in amongst sweeping shots of the landscape.
After filming in Shetland for nearly a decade, O’Donnell describes the isles as feeling like a second home.
“There’s people here that I love and I look forward to seeing them,” she says.
“I’ve got little rituals and routines that I have when I’m here. It’s such a special place to me. The fact that there’s benefits to you guys as well, I think is a happy by-product, and I’m really happy for that, but I think it’s much more what we have received.”
So what’s her favourite place in Shetland? The St Ninian’s tombolo is hard to beat, she says. “It’s like a magic trick”.
“I also really love that you guys have such good facilities here,’ O’Donnell continues. “I took my daughter to the Clickimin pool yesterday. It’s so nice, everything is so well looked after. I could talk all day about things that I love about here.”
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