Filming has started of a Shetland murder mystery to be shown on prime-time TV, the biggest drama production ever to be filmed locally.
The adaptation of author Ann Cleeves’ book Red Bones, one of her Shetland quartet of crime novels, will star actor Douglas Henshall and feature Shetland actors Steven Robertson and Sandra Voe.
The two-part drama, with the title Shetland, will be shown on BBC One in the winter. If it is well received, the other three books in the quartet could also be dramatised. She has written another, due to be published in February.
Most of the 50-strong film cast and crew with various huge trailers arrived off the boat on Tuesday, and filming will be taking place in various parts of Shetland Mainland and on the ferry Leirna. The story, sparked when human bones are unearthed in an archaeological dig, is set in Whalsay, but no filming is taking place in any of the isles. The film cast and crew plan to be in Shetland for around 10 days, with locals being invited to play extras. Other parts of the production will be filmed in Scotland.
Henshall, who appeared in The Kidnap Diaries and The Silence, plays the lead role of Detective Jimmy Perez, a native Shetlander who has returned home after a long spell away.
Recently widowed Perez possesses a dry sense of humour and an idealistic desire to protect Shetland from inevitable change.
When a young archaeologist discovers the human remains, the island community is intrigued to know if it is an ancient find or a contemporary mystery. And when an elderly woman is shot on her land in a tragic accident, Perez and his team find themselves at the centre of two feuding families whose envy, greed and bitterness has divided the surrounding community.
On Wednesday the action was in a misty Whiteness around an isolated croft house at the head of the voe, from where Ms Cleeves watched proceedings. Filming in Shetland, the isles she has loved and visited for 35 years, means a great deal to her. She said: “It’s very weird to be here and see people play your characters. It will be different from the book. It will be a wonderful piece of TV and I’ll enjoy it along with everyone else.
“I don’t think it could have been set anywhere other than Shetland. The bleakness adds to the mystery and if you get a murder in a small community where everyone knows each other it’s even more shocking than it would be somewhere else.”
Ms Cleeves has already seen some of her other work adapted for the screen, and said she was in safe hands with this production.
“I’m delighted that my old friends from ITV Studios have teamed up with the BBC to create a television adaptation of the Jimmy Perez book Red Bones. Shetland is a pilot, so hopefully it will be well received and then the other books in the series will be filmed too.”
The casting has also pleased her, even though Henshall, not being dark, “doesn’t look like Perez”. (Perez comes from Fair Isle, allegedly a descendant of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor). But “he’s got quiet authority and an edginess”.
One person already familiar with Perez is actor Steven Robertson, 35, from Vidlin. He played Perez on Radio 4, but knew his youthful looks would make him unsuitable to portray the detective on the screen. Robertson now plays his sidekick, local boy Constable Sandy Wilson.
Between takes, which involved numerous re-runs of a distracted young archaeologist rushing down a track, to be confronted by Wilson, with the crew standing on the hill urged to be quiet prior to the shout of “action”, Robertson said: “I went for the audition and splendidly they already knew I existed. I’ve been very lucky, people keep wanting to have me in things.”
Working on his home turf, as opposed to being on holiday, is a new experience: “It’s the first time I’ve acted up here, it’s good to be home.” (And he has found time to clip sheep during his visit.)
He described playing the policeman as “a lovely part”, and said: “I’ve got the wonderful Douglas Henshall to work with, it’s the first time I’ve worked with him, he’s brilliant to work with. I like to think I’m here as back-up.”
Just as Robertson admires Henshall, so his character admires Perez. “Sandy Wilson would dearly love to go up the ranks here, he’s very close to Perez and hoping he will become a detective, maybe it will never happen. The complication for Wilson is that a lot of his family are caught up in the story line and it’s a conflict for him and emotionally difficult.”
Playing a policeman is a new departure for Robertson. “I like to think I’m quite a nice guy. I’ve played so many criminals, it’s nice to be on the right side of the law.”
However Robertson considers Shetland itself to be the biggest character in the drama. “The islands are on the screen all the time, like a voice or a presence, it’s powerful.”
Robertson has had to modify his own voice for the production, toning down his Shetland accent for a national audience. He has not lost it, however – when he is in London, where he is based, “People think I’m Dutch.”
Producer Sue de Beauvoir echoed the need to have broad appeal. “We wanted to use local actors if we could for authenticity, and for the distinct accent.” Having local and other voices in the drama mirrors the make-up of Shetland, she said. “It’s a good mix as there are so many incomers here,” and added: “It’s important to set the drama here to make it feel as real as possible.”
She praised the help received from the community for the huge “logistical challenge” of bringing cast and crew to the isles. There is a small village of white trailers, loos and mobile diners in a base a mile down the road.
Ms de Beauvoir said: “We couldn’t wish for better support. Everyone has been really helpful, suggesting places to film. The council and Shetland Arts have been very supportive, archaeologist Val Turner set up the dig [on land owned fictionally owned by one of the older residents Mima Wilson, played by Sandra Voe], and we’ve had a really good reaction for the islanders.”
This support has included local fixers seeking out atmospheric locations, knocking on doors of complete strangers and asking to see their bedrooms.
But, according to SIC head of marketing Neil Henderson, the “hugely positive” feedback from the team’s recce visit resulted in more filming days in Shetland than were originally planned, with the consequent boost to the local economy. The council’s economic development service has been working with the film team since April, trying to make everything as easy as possible for them. The service is a member of the Scottish Locations Network, which involves providing advice and contact information and securing external funds for visiting projects.
Mr Henderson said: “The Shetland production is an incredibly exciting project since it is simply the biggest drama based production ever to have been set in the islands and backed by a major studio with a highly professional production team. I am sure, given the very detailed level of preparation and support given by the council and others, that the filming will go well here.
“The team here are using a large and diverse number of local service suppliers which are already directly benefitting the Shetland economy. The main benefit however for projects of these nature is the longer-term economic gain, achieved through exposure of Shetland through positive representation on screen to a large audience on a prime channel.”
He said that statistics show that 40 per cent of tourists known as “set jetters” want to visit places featured in film and TV productions, so it is likely that this exposure through the BBC and wider networks – the drama could be screened in the USA and Australia – will result in more visitors to Shetland in future.
“This is only a pilot show, but if everything goes well and it does achieve high viewing figures when shown on television this winter, then hopefully Ann’s other Shetland books can be given a similar treatment, which would be highly positive for Shetland.”
Meanwhile extras are being sought for the drama, with a crowd required on Sunday for Up-Helly-A’ filming. No experience is necessary, say the film crew: “It’s all about the look and is a fun experience and an excellent group of people to work with.”
People should gather at Lerwick’s Market Cross at 3pm: filming will take place there until about 8pm. From 9pm to 10.30pm action will be at Fort Charlotte, then from 10.30pm to 2am at Lower Hillhead for the lighting of the torches.
Crowd members will be directed by a crew representative, with the actors moving through the throng. The action will be repeated until the director is happy with the take, and a fun and lively experience is promised.
Casual and colourful winter clothes are required, with not too much black or white, no summer clothing or footwear, no football tops and no big logos.
Anyone interested should send an email with a photo to email@example.com with the chosen role in the subject line, or send a photo via camera phone through email or text to second assistant director Iain Atkinson on 07584 681 781.