TV preview: Shetland

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Actors are a curious breed but, for his own safety, Douglas Henshall was forced to resist any inquisitive urges while flying from Lerwick to Fair Isle to film the second series of Shetland.

“I was sitting right next to the pilot with my wee headphones on,” recalls the 48-year-old Glaswegian, who plays Detective Jimmy Perez in the BBC One murder mystery series.

“I remember him saying to me, ‘Don’t touch anything’, and the temptation to touch everything was, I admit, quite strong.”

Henshall found his mind buzzing with questions.

“You have an overwhelming need to say, ‘What would happen if I just press this button? Or this one?’ You only fly at 1,000ft so you’re very aware of the fact you’re flying [in the small planes],” adds the actor, who trained at the Scottish Youth Theatre before moving to London where he started his career on the stage.

Despite the hair-raising flight, he only felt “slightly twitchy” on landing.

“In a small plane like that, the ground comes up very quickly and it’s basically a small, old fashioned football pitch that you’re landing on.”

Shetland is based on the novels by Ann Cleeves and the series is split into three two-part episodes boasting an impressive roll call of actors, including Julie Graham, who plays the straight-talking Procurator Fiscal Rhona Kelly, and guest stars Brian Cox, David Hayman, John Lynch and Bill Paterson.

Fair Isle, where the final two episodes were shot, was undoubtedly the “highlight of the job” says Henshall.

Not least because of an unforgettable interruption that emerged from the surrounding waters.

“The camera crew were on a little corner of the headland and they were filming a scene with a group of us coming out of the bird observatory,” he explains. “We could hear this noise coming from the ocean, it was whale song. The camera crew could make out in the distance that it was minke whales.”

It was an experience that’s clearly had a lasting impression on him.

“It’s such an amazing sound and not one I’d heard, other than on TV in documentaries,” Henshall continues, his eyes lighting up at the memory.

“The sun, the scenery and the people we were with – combined with this – made it utterly memorable and I was smitten by the place.”

His co-star, Steven Robertson, who plays hardworking detective constable Sandy Wilson in the series, grew up in the Shetlands, but he’s never been to Fair Isle and was disappointed that he couldn’t join the shoot.

“There are a lot of people on Shetland who’ve never been to Fair Isle,” Henshall says. “The place itself is very unique, but also, the people are fantastic. They couldn’t have done enough for us.”

That help extended to large scale displays of generosity. “Because of where filming was set, we only had a skeleton film crew. We couldn’t transport any of our vehicles over, so people gave us their cars and they also put us up.”

The team filmed in the summer, the busiest time of year on the island, as it’s when birdwatchers flock to the area to observe migrating birds taking shelter. “So the fact they welcomed us was wonderful,” Henshall goes on. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it if it hadn’t been for the people there, so we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”

Listening to him speak, it’s clear that he really was smitten. And it wasn’t just the warm welcome he fell in love with – the tranquillity of island life was also a tonic for the actor, who is now based in busy London and married to Croatian playwright Tena Stivicic.

“I think I appreciated the Shetlands more this time round, as we were there for a longer period, so I got the chance to explore.”

Shetland, BBC1, Tuesday 9pm

Mark Walsh.

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