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Reviews / ‘Roll on the next episode’: new Shetland series makes promising start

Photo: BBC/Silverprint Pictures/Kirsty Anderson/Matt Burlem

When I heard we’d have a new Perez-less series of Shetland, I wondered if Guadaloupe was coming to Gulberwick and the show was going to turn into Death in Paradise with sheep and bonxies, writes Tom Morton.

I mean, it wouldn’t have been hard: go back to the hard-partying, perpetually hungover Tosh of season one, maybe Jack Whitehall then Alan Carr as unlikely transplanted detectives who gradually fall in love with reestit mutton; the usual Eshaness drone shots and windswept clifftop chases. The Largs to Millport ferry. Easy.

Instead, this Henshall-free version is a sleek, dark reboot with the couthy aspects of the past briskly consigned to a bloodied freezer in the Nesting shop, bullet in the back of the head. No, not Jimmy, whose absence isn’t even referred to. He’s emigrated to Zaragoza to research his roots as a Fair isle-wrecked Spanish Armada cabin boy; he can probably see Norway from there.

Yes, there are jokes (a psychotic bird-watching Russian-accented hitman who “just wants to see some puffins”) and Billy’s eternal scone-making, but everything about the new Shetland has been tightened, toughened and, dare I say it, strengthened, from the scriptwriting to the direction, the title sequence to the acting.

All eyes are on Ashley Jensen as Detective Inspector Calder, and what seems at first like a counter-intuitive piece of casting works, on the basis of this first episode, very well indeed. Jensen is a brilliant actor, most recently seen in her work on Andrea Gibb’s wonderful TV version of Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies, and Shetland’s London-set pre-titles ‘cold open’ presents both her and the carefully engineered motor for this season’s narrative with total, alluring confidence. Those shoes. That lipstick. It’s slick, lurid and nasty, and things just get bloodier as the action proceeds northwards.

Calder was brought up in Shetland but hates it. Ellen Quinn was brought up in Shetland and also hates it. Witness to a gangland killing, grabber of thousands in illicit dosh, Ellen hotfoots it back to the isles (trusting in NorthLink). She’s from a clan of dubious provenance, the Bigton Bains (farmers, not socialist musicians in case anyone was worried) led by Phyllis Logan in magnificently vicious form, aided and abetted by Lorraine McIntosh from Deacon Blue and Dawn Steele from Monarch of the Glen.

And there lies one issue with this new supercharged titanium-and carbon-fibre Shetland: there are only so many Scottish actors to go round, and they’re all in…well. Everything else. Wait a minute, here’s Jamie Sives from Guilt and Annika. Even Billy Scones (should be bannocks, surely?) is in Annika (that’s the detective show where Loch Lomond is near Campbelltown and Nicola Walker drives a Saab).

Ashley Jensen as Detective Inspector Calder. Photo: BBC/Silverprint Pictures/Jamie Simpson

Calder doesn’t want to pursue Ellen to her native Shetland but is forced to make the trip north, where Tosh is now Detective Inspector (Acting Up) and busy investigating what looks like attacks on sheep by a satanic cult equipped with red felt-tip pens. She and Calder have to work together and sparks duly fly.

It seems the Met’s finest has some pretty interesting history in the Shetland she left at 18, not to mention a brother who’s now a Church of Scotland minister. Well, that would be the only Church of Scotland minister in the islands, given the Kirk’s spiritual asset-stripping hereabouts, wouldn’t it? He’s following in his and Ruth’s father’s pulpit-steps, and Calder senior appears to have been A Bad Cleric. We shall see.

Anyway, Ruth encounters the clearly and cheerfully dodgy candlemaker played by Jamie Sives and immediately jumps into bed with him while Teenage Fanclub plays on the soundtrack. Or we assume so. It’s either that or she’s taken a sudden interest in his perfumed-wax-and-wick moulding techniques.

Meanwhile, all kinds of EXTREMELY foul-mouthed hellery – be warned, the f-ing and blinding in this series is almost old-school Thule-on-a-Friday standard – is taking place, with unexpected (genuinely shocking) dead bodies, shootings, stomach wounds, ill-advised cliff-jumping, wild swimming and more satanic sheep. Cora the Terrible Pathologist is still there (How long’s she been dead? “It’s hard to tell when she’s frozen…”)

There’s a lot of fun to be had for Shetlanders in working out locations, not just in the you-can’t-get-there-from-there stakes but separating the foregrounds from the digitally-inserted backgrounds, the Lunnas from the St Ninian’s, the Inverclydes from the Lerwicks.

But there’s an assurance, I think to this new series, a confidence and verve, that was latterly missing from The Adventures of Jimmy and The Nurse. And for at least part of the time, the crew were lucky with the weather.

Roll on the next episode: that No-Country-For-Old-Women hitman: will he survive to see puffins emerging from their burrows? Whose corpse is that, lying in the stony ruins? And what about those sheep, eh? Fanks for the memories Jimmy, but if you didn’t go to Zaragoza, and it’s you on the rampage with a felt pen, killing the woolly gods, just stop. There’s plenty of yarn to be spun elsewhere. Actually, didn’t I see you in Barcelona. What are you doing there? Who IS Erin Carter, anyway? How on earth did that terrible nonsense get commissioned?

Bottom line: this remodelled Shetland looks very promising indeed.

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