ACTOR, ALISON O’DONNELL, REVEALS WHY THE CRIME DRAMA IS SO SUCCESSFUL
What’s it like playing Tosh?
Alison O’Donnell laughs at my opening question before repeating it out load. It’s as though she’s never been asked it before, which I find impossible to believe. Still, she has a comprehensive answer ready.
“There’s always something new. It’s just like your own life, I suppose, you don’t know what’s coming. And with every season they develop her further and further and there’s always new things to explore. She doesn’t feel like a static experience, it’s ever-evolving, ever-changing, there are always new challenges.”
For those who may not know, Alison plays Temporary Detective Inspector ‘Tosh’ McIntosh in the hugely successful TV series, Shetland. In fact, she has been with the cast since the very first two-part pilot in which she was introduced to viewers as a young Detective Sergeant back in 2013.
“I like that’s she’s independent and bold and smart and ambitious,” Alison continues. “It’s really fun to portray all those sides of her and it’s been really exciting to watch her grow and develop and try and keep up with her.”
Fans of the series will know, however, that Tosh has had her fair share of troubles, not least a serious sexual assault in series three. How does Alison deal with those challenging storylines?
“I welcome anything that allows me to apply my skill set and my intellect. Also, the thing that drew me to this job is that I fundamentally believe that storytelling is really important for us as a species. I think that telling, sharing and consuming stories is a really important way to stay connected and to imagine other people’s experiences… to stay empathetic and stay sympathetic. So it’s really exciting as an actor when you get to do something that people are going to be able to connect to.”
With the sexual assault storyline, in particular, there was also a sense of responsibility.
“It felt like a huge responsibility for everybody involved – the creative team, the writers, and me – so we took it very seriously. We did a lot of research, we spoke to Rape Crisis… and just tried to do due diligence.”
Prior to this episode in 2016, Alison believes sensitive storylines such as this were often sensationalised and glamorised on TV, with little or no respect paid to the survivor.
“At the time it felt quite radical… we wanted to change the narrative. If felt in a way like a sort of activism. We had to do it in a way that respects and honours the version from the survivor’s point of view… and then we just applied that to every part of it. People seemed to respond with gratitude, that we had tried to move that on. It felt like an important thing to be a part of and I was very proud of that.”
Of course, that was just one of many challenging storylines. Unsurprising when you consider that the crime drama is now in its eighth series. But while Tosh and her long-time colleagues, Billy and Sandy, continue to tackle Shetland’s most serious crimes, Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez (played by Douglas Henshall) no longer leads the team. I ask Alison what it was like filming the new series without her ever-present friend and colleague.
“I have cut my teeth with him,” she admits. “I basically learned how to act for camera by watching him and working with him and asking him questions. By the time we were filming seasons six and seven I felt really sure-footed with him, I knew exactly what the dynamic was, what every scene required from me. This was the exact opposite. I felt, in a way, even though it was the same show… like I was starting all over again. Which was actually really lovely because I just had to focus and be very present. At the time I did feel slightly panicky but looking back now, it was really thrilling and really engaging.”
In the new series, DI Pérez is replaced by DI Ruth Calder, a native Shetlander who reluctantly returns to the isles after 20 years with the Met. Her character is played by Ashley Jensen.
“Because Ashley is really collaborative and experienced and open and generous, it was just a pleasure. We were able to figure everything out. It was rewarding in a different way.”
I would imagine, though, that joining a long-established show with a loyal audience could be quite daunting for a newcomer?
“She was really sensitive to the fact that the show precedes her by quite a stretch,” Alison says of Ashley. “But the other side of it was that she brought such confidence to her role. That combination of honouring what had gone before but really making an offer for something new, she really hit the sweet spot with that.”
For anyone doubting the future of the hit series without DI Pérez at the helm, they needn’t worry. Having watched the first two episodes of season eight, I have no doubt that both old and new fans alike will be enthralled.
“Nobody was being casual about it,” Alison says of the decision to continue with a new DI. “People still had an appetite for it, so it was a risk worth taking. But every decision was really carefully made.”
And it goes without saying, there’s a lot more to Shetland than one DI, regardless of his popularity. Tosh herself, for example, and the stunning location.
“I think the location offers so much from so many different angles,” Alison says when I ask if she can explain the secret to the show’s success. “It’s not just that it’s breathtaking to look at, but it’s so remote. It has this magical, mysterious atmosphere. It’s the perfect setting for this genre because the mystery is already there, the drama is at every corner you turn. You’re faced with drama from the elements, from the landscape, and on top of that is the fact that it’s a small community so people know each other’s business. You can really play with things like secrets and guilt… they really lend themselves to the genre.”
Surprisingly, though, not all of the filming takes place on Shetland itself.
“Each series takes about four months to film and we do six weeks out there, split into two visits of three weeks. Obviously, when you’re out there, what they want is the scenery so it’s quite hard-core. You’re outside all day every day, come what May, whatever the weather. The rest is filmed in and around Glasgow and in studios. I’ve also been to Aberdeen and Edinburgh, it’s just what’s in the script.”
Despite the long hours and potential for bad weather, does she enjoy her trips to the islands?
“I’ve certainly got to know the place, and the locals are fantastic, they’re so welcoming. It’s just such a lovely place, it’s so full of heart. I always look forward to going back.”
She also enjoys working with the rest of the team, some of whom, like Alison, have been with the show since day one.
“It’s lovely. I don’t think any of us could have imagined that this show could have the life that it is has. It feels that every chance we get to be together now just feels like such a blessing and such a bonus. But because we learned the show together on the job, it just has a very easy kind of vibe. Everybody understands what their job is, we get on with it and we know what we need from each other. It’s a real pleasure. I feel very lucky to have been able to go on that journey with them.”
Prior to landing the role of Tosh, Alison’s acting career had consisted entirely of stage roles. She tells me about those early days and how it all started.
“Looking back, I’ve always been obsessed with people… my brain always prioritises people, behaviours, feelings, emotions. I’m just really excited by this human experience and there’s no better way to explore it than to literally try and inhabit somebody else’s experience. I just have always found that to be really thrilling.”
As a young student, she took advantage of every opportunity from drama classes to school plays. But when it came to leaving school, she followed a different path.
“I ended up going to study law which just seems totally bonkers! I lasted about a month. I remember standing outside the university library with this group of students and they were all saying ‘I always wanted to be a lawyer’ and I had this moment where I was like, I want to be an actor!”
Needless to say, she dropped out and after taking a year off, applied for drama school.
“That was me on track,” she says, “and I never looked back.”
It was, however, a slow start when it came to securing roles.
“Initially I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t quite find my feet. Actually, that’s a really good lesson in the industry because even if you come out of drama school and it goes really well for you, you’re going to have periods of time when that’s not the case. You need to immediately understand that you have to graft and hustle. It’s all about stamina and endurance. If you learn that lesson it will serve you really well.”
Describing herself as ‘bloody-minded’, Alison did just that, eventually securing the role of Tosh and winning the hearts of Shetland fans with her portrayal of the young detective.
“When I was filming the pilot,” she recalls, “I was kind of thrown in at the deep end. I was just in survival mode. I was trying desperately to learn on the job and keep up with everybody and beat down my imposter syndrome. And when I actually saw it… there was no way of knowing that it would grow and grow the way that it is has.”
Much of that, needless to say, is down to the writers who continue to keep viewers gripped with new, intriguing storylines.
“Each time I always think, surely they must have run out of decent ideas… and good actors. But somehow they never do. I just think when you have the right synergy and the chemistry is good, if everybody is bringing care and thought, which they always do with this show, then I think something special happens.”
It certainly does. And series eight promises more of the same.
“Even the most experienced super-sleuths and crime fanatics aren’t going to guess this one,” Alison teases. “There is so much to come. Paul Logue, the lead writer, his writing is very psychological. There’s a lot bubbling under the surface, a lot simmering… and secrets. What are people telling and what are they not telling? And where are we being misdirected to? There’s a lot of that to enjoy and I think that sort of stuff really comes to life in a crime drama. I just think the conclusion… people are not going to see it coming.”
While we’re all eagerly anticipating the next nail-biting episode, Alison can reflect on yet another successful season.
“It’s the most amazing gift,” she says of being involved in the show. “The crew are always amazing… I’ve got to work with so many amazing people and learned from so many super-experienced actors. I’ve had the chance to grow this character and try loads of different storylines. It’s given me so much. It’s been the most incredible thing.”
And her final word for Shetland fans?
“I hope people who have loved the show for a long time will feel that this series really honours what has come before and elevates it to another level.”
Shetland is screened on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One, or find it on BBC iPlayer.