Steven’s bring­ing his work home

Hav­ing grown up steeped in the leg­ends and land­scapes of Shet­land, Steven Robert­son is com­pletely at home film­ing the epony­mous TV drama. And as Su­san Swar­brick dis­cov­ers, he has en­thralling tales to tell about his sheep-shear­ing youth, and the is­land com

Sunday Herald Life - - Contents -

STEVEN Robert­son has a poet’s soul. As the mes­meric, lilt­ing tones of his Shet­land ac­cent drift down the line, it’s clear that the Ler­wick-born ac­tor is a born racon­teur. He is shar­ing sto­ries about his child­hood, the many eclec­tic jobs he had be­fore be­com­ing an ac­tor and the enor­mous sense of pride that comes from see­ing his is­land home­land show­cased in a ma­jor tele­vi­sion se­ries.

Robert­son, 41, will re­turn to our screens in BBC Scot­land drama Shet­land this Tues­day repris­ing his role as sweet and de­pend­able DC Sandy Wil­son in a six-part mur­der mys­tery based on the best­selling crime nov­els by Ann Cleeves.

He lives in Hert­ford­shire th­ese days, and the joy in his voice is pal­pa­ble as he talks about head­ing back to old stomp­ing grounds dur­ing film­ing. Robert­son hails from the Lun­nas­t­ing dis­trict on the north-east main­land of Shet­land.

“I grew up on a croft and was al­ways in­volved in agri­cul­ture,” he says. “We had sheep – and I had my own sheep from a young age – which is some­thing I have missed all the years I have been away. When I get home, es­pe­cially if it is dur­ing the sum­mer, I like to shear some sheep again.

“From when I was a lit­tle child I was lamb­ing sheep and calv­ing kye. Af­ter I left school my first job was as a dairy­man. I milked cows and used to work sum­mers

on my un­cle’s farm. I’m very at­tached to the land in Shet­land. All of that comes from my child­hood.”

While Robert­son didn’t har­bour any am­bi­tions of fame and for­tune, there were early hints that his fu­ture life path may lie in per­form­ing. “As a child I was very in­volved in the Shet­land oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion,” he re­calls. “I grew up with this idea – a silly, ro­man­tic idea prob­a­bly – that I was born in the wrong gen­er­a­tion be­cause I was fas­ci­nated by the his­tory and the sto­ries.”

As a young­ster he forged a close friend­ship with the late Rhoda Bul­ter, one of Shet­land’s most pro­lific and beloved po­ets. Bul­ter spent many of her own child­hood sum­mers on a croft owned by Robert­son’s fam­ily.

“I think it started dur­ing the war when they used to move chil­dren out of Ler­wick at cer­tain times of the year,” he says. “Rhoda would come stay with my grand-un­cle and grand-aunt. She fell in love with that area. I knew her be­cause she would of­ten come visit the croft when I was a lit­tle boy.”

As he speaks, I’m try­ing to do the maths in my head. Bul­ter was born in 1929 (and passed away in 1994). She would have been in her mid-50s when Robert­son first met her?

He con­firms my hur­ried men­tal arith­metic with a laugh. “You would be sur­prised when I was a child by how many of my friends were a lot older than me,” says Robert­son. “I think that is is­land liv­ing. You have friends that are your own age and then friends who are in their 60s or 70s.

“For some rea­son – prob­a­bly be­cause I was very in­ter­ested in the sto­ry­telling and close to my grand­par­ents – that age gap has never meant any­thing to me. I do think that is a small com­mu­nity thing too. Peo­ple are peo­ple. You don’t feel brack­eted in that re­gard.

“It al­ways felt that most peo­ple just talked to you, even if you were a lit­tle child of eight or 10 years old. If you wanted to learn an old Shet­land story, then they would tell it to you as they would any­body else.”

Was Robert­son al­ways a bit of an old soul then? “That is prob­a­bly one way to put it,” he says, chuck­ling softly. “Other peo­ple would say just a slightly ec­cen­tric child. But let’s go with old soul – I think that sounds bet­ter.”

He is ap­pre­cia­tive that his con­ver­sa­tions with Bul­ter left such an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion. “De­spite grow­ing up with dyslexia, I al­ways loved words, po­ems and books. Even at school I had man­aged to fig­ure out a way to study Rhoda’s po­ems as op­posed to the likes of Ted Hughes or Shake­speare.”

Im­mers­ing him­self in the cul­ture and rich sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion of his Shet­land roots, re­flects Robert­son, helped him make sense of the larger world.

“I un­der­stood the sto­ries talk­ing about the lairds and the boats and some of the mys­ti­cal sto­ries we have to do with cows and other crea­tures,” he says. “That all seemed real to me be­cause I un­der­stood the land­scape they were from. Even though I maybe didn’t know it at the time, that was my route into an un­der­stand­ing of what you would per­haps call an artis­tic life or pur­suit.”

There would be a few more pit-stops on the road to dis­cov­er­ing act­ing, though. Af­ter leav­ing school at 16, Robert­son spent a cou­ple of years milk­ing cows. When the farm he worked on moved from dairy to beef pro­duc­tion, he found a job as an ap­pren­tice vi­o­lin-maker.

Next came a stint as a drum tech­ni­cian/nanny for Shet­land folk band Rock Salt & Nails. Wait, let’s just rewind a mo­ment. Can he re­peat that job spec?

“I was a roadie, but also looked af­ter the chil­dren that be­longed to the gui­tarist and key­board player,” he ex­plains. “They were mar­ried and had two kids. So, I was the nanny and the drum tech – all-round gen­eral gofer.

“I’m open-minded to try­ing dif­fer­ent things. If some­one asks: ‘Will you come and help out with this?’, then gen­er­ally I will say: ‘Yeah, I’ll give that a go’.” That’s an im­pres­sive at­ti­tude to life, Steven. “I don’t know if it is wise or fool­ish?” he muses.

Robert­son left Shet­land at 21 to study drama at Fife Col­lege in Kirk­caldy and went on to hone his craft at Guild­hall School Of Mu­sic And Drama in Lon­don.

He has since racked up roles in BBC crime drama Luther, su­per­nat­u­ralthemed com­edy Be­ing Hu­man and sci-fi se­ries Doc­tor Who, as well as ITV’s Vera and The Bletch­ley Cir­cle. His film ap­pear­ances in­clude In­side I’m Danc­ing, Joyeux Noel, Neds and T2 Trainspot­ting.

Away from work he is mar­ried to Char­lotte – whom he met while at Guild­hall – and the cou­ple have a three­year-old daugh­ter.

Shet­land is now into a fourth se­ries. Shoot­ing the first scenes for the pi­lot episode back in 2012, did Robert­son imag­ine the show would en­joy such suc­cess and longevity?

“I’ll be hon­est, right at the back of my mind I had a good feel­ing about it,” he says. “I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily say that I was think­ing we would have done our fourth se­ries by 2018, but every­body in­volved wanted to make it hap­pen.

“There was a great sense of ad­ven­ture go­ing up to Shet­land and shoot­ing it. The team al­ways had a very pos­i­tive en­ergy be­hind it. Al­though a lit­tle part of me never dared to say it out loud, se­cretly I thought that it had a chance to go on and do well.”

The lat­est in­stal­ment cen­tres on an ap­par­ent mis­car­riage of jus­tice. Lo­cal man Thomas Malone (Stephen Wal­ters) has spent 23 years in prison for the mur­der of a teenage girl. With his con­vic­tion quashed, Malone is re­leased on ap­peal and re­turns to Shet­land.

Within 24 hours, the body of an­other young woman is dis­cov­ered in un­can­nily sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances to the orig­i­nal killing, lead­ing many within the closeknit is­land com­mu­nity to point the fin­ger at Malone.

As the 1993 case is re-opened and a new mur­der in­quiry launched, Sandy (Robert­son) is part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion team along­side DI Jimmy Perez (Dou­glas Hen­shall) and DS Ali­son “Tosh” McIn­tosh (Ali­son O’Don­nell). The stel­lar

cast also in­cludes Neve McIn­tosh, Mark Bon­nar and Julie Gra­ham.

Robert­son plays the af­fa­ble Sandy with such pitch-per­fect verve that it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any­one else in the role. Many years be­fore Ann Cleeves’s char­ac­ters were brought to life on tele­vi­sion, there was a ra­dio adap­ta­tion in which Robert­son played Perez.

What does he make of Hen­shall’s on­screen por­trayal of the DI? “Oh yeah, he is bril­liant. As I al­ways re­mind Dougie I could never have played Perez on the TV – I’m far too young,” he laughs. “I’ve only said that to him once as a joke. That is my gag.

“One of the great strengths of Perez as a char­ac­ter is that he goes away and dis­tils all the in­for­ma­tion in his head. It re­minds me of John Thaw play­ing In­spec­tor Morse.”

Or Peter Falk as Columbo? “Yes, ex­actly. You can see that Perez is con­stantly work­ing it all out. He has an aw­ful lot of strands that he must fig­ure out. It is al­most like there’s this mad, math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion in his head and it is miss­ing one or two of the num­bers.

“Perez knows where they should go, but he hasn’t got the piece of in­for­ma­tion yet. Then it is al­ways the sur­prise piece of in­for­ma­tion that changes the cal­cu­la­tions. Dougie does that bril­liantly. He is the right man for Perez in my opin­ion.”

While Robert­son clearly adores the role of Sandy, he al­ludes to feel­ing a weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. “There are much harder in­dus­tries in the world, but this can still bring its own stresses be­cause you want to get it right, es­pe­cially when it is rep­re­sent­ing some­where that you came from your­self.”

When he gets a break from film­ing, what is first on the to-do list? “I’m lucky to say that very much all my fam­ily are in Shet­land,” he says. “I still have a great num­ber of friends in Shet­land. Like a lot of is­land com­mu­ni­ties your fam­ily are your friends, and your friends are your fam­ily.

“Even if we are film­ing in Shet­land for weeks and weeks, I still run out of op­por­tu­ni­ties to visit every­body that I want to and do ev­ery­thing that I mean to do when I’m home. But I cer­tainly get back to the area of Shet­land that I grew up in, Lun­nas­t­ing. I al­ways need to get back there as soon as pos­si­ble just to see it; there are cer­tain beaches and hills I need to look at. If you grow up with that scenery around you, I don’t think it ever leaves you.”

Shet­land is fre­quently shot in and around his fa­mil­iar haunts. “In se­ries two we filmed on my aunt and un­cle’s farm on Muckle Roe,” he says. “That was re­ally sur­real. It felt like art im­i­tat­ing life. I thought it was very brave of them to let a film crew use the farm, but they seemed to re­ally en­joy it.”

Many lo­cals have played ex­tras or been em­ployed to help with pro­duc­tion du­ties such as trans­port. As the only main cast mem­ber from Shet­land, has that given Robert­son a spe­cial ku­dos? “Ah, I don’t know about that,” he laughs, sound­ing in­stantly bash­ful.

The ac­tor ac­knowl­edges some par­al­lels with his on-screen al­ter ego. “There’s al­ways a sense with Sandy in the scripts that he has never re­ally been away,” he says. “Perez spent a long time in Glas­gow and Tosh moved up from main­land Scot­land, so Sandy is the lo­cal con­ti­nu­ity.

“He is the lo­cal boy and knows peo­ple. Sandy is the lo­cal knowl­edge. That is a great cross­over for me be­cause when we are film­ing the Shet­land-based scenes, I feel like I am Sandy.”

What as­pects does he most re­late to? “Be­ing the lo­cal guy and very pro­tec­tive of the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Per­haps hav­ing a dif­fer­ent take on things which have hap­pened in the past be­cause they were a bit more per­sonal to him – that is some­thing which is big in this new se­ries.

“That ele­ment of him I can com­pletely un­der­stand be­cause when­ever we go back to film it is my home. I am very emo­tion­ally at­tached to Shet­land.

“Peo­ple back home don’t treat me any dif­fer­ent. And nor should they. I would be mor­ti­fied if they did. I’m Steven from Lun­nas­t­ing and I hope to be no more or no less than that for the rest of my life. I would be per­fectly happy with that.”

Shet­land re­turns to BBC One on Tues­day, 9pm

Robert­son feels the cul­ture and sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion of Shet­land set him off on a path that ul­ti­mately led his role as DC Wil­son

Since leav­ing Shet­land at 21, Robert­son has had a va­ri­ety of film and TV roles, in­clud­ing with James McAvoy in In­side I’m Danc­ing, above, and in Doc­tor Who

Steven Robert­son and Shet­land co-stars Dou­glas Hen­shall, Anne Kidd and Ali­son O’Don­nell re­turn to BBC1 this week. Pho­to­graph: BBC/ITV Stu­dios/Mark Mainz

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