The Weekend's Viewing: If you could take the stuff about “shattering” preconceptions and “groundbreaking” work, this was moderately interesting

Shetland, Sun, BBC1 // Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons, Sun, Channel 4

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You might describe Shetland as the story of a detective's relentless hunt for a reliable mobile-phone signal. The spotty nature of coverage in the islands cropped up several times in the first half of David Kane's adaptation from Ann Cleeves' Shetland-based thrillers, with Douglas Henshall as Detective Jimmy Perez, exasperatedly trying to conduct modern police work through stuttering connections. At one point, he was even reduced to using a Post Office phone box, an instrument of communication that can't have featured in a contemporary television drama for many years. And it isn't the only hindrance to his work thrown up by the local geography. No reaching into the glove compartment for a blue-light here and no screeching tyres. When Jimmy is called to the scene of a murder he has to drive down to the harbour and wait for the ferry.

The first body (there's never just one, is there? They're so moreish, corpses) belongs to an elderly woman called Mima, found shot outside her croft. My working assumption would be that Mima did it to herself, having been driven stark mad by the prevailing gloom. Because the sun in Shetland turns out to be even more fugitive than the phone signal. The prevailing on-screen palette is a range of Farrow & Ball greys, very occasionally interrupted by a splash of artificial colour from a sou'wester or a fluorescent fishing buoy. And the emotional mood is an almost perfect match, since it's soon revealed that Perez himself has returned to the island after the premature death of his wife. As he mooches around looking wounded (Douglas Henshall is rather good at this), the other locals stare daggers at each other, minor grievances having not a lot to do around these parts but put on weight.

So, has Mima been murdered as the result of a wartime bit of skulduggery, freshly exposed when a bit of skull is literally dug up from an archaeological dig on Mima's land? Or was she bumped off because she was standing in the way of a profitable land deal? It isn't the case that she was without enemies: “She could start an argument in an empty room” is one of her informal obituaries, and that's from her son. It's also possible she wasn't murdered at all – a sozzled neighbour having mistaken her for a rabbit and then faked a burglary to cover up what would surely be regarded as a faux pas even on the remoter islands. Not a lot of evidence either way so far, but the death of the beautiful archaeologist – who I had rather hoped might bring Detective Perez out of himself a little – seems to point to some wartime misbehaviour. Part two is on tonight. Wear something waterproof and bring a sun lamp if you're at all susceptible to seasonal affective disorder.

Archaeology and ancient bones also featured in Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons, one of those over-excited films that appear to be possessed by a terror that the audience might find ancient history a bit dull. If the audience does, I would have thought, they wouldn't be watching something with a title like this and so we might be spared the wildly over-dramatic narration and hyped-up rhetoric. Anyway, if you could take the stuff about “shattering” preconceptions and “groundbreaking” work, it was moderately interesting, though less so because of the latest theory about Stonehenge (the archaeologist here thinks it began its existence as an upmarket cemetery) than because of the scientific techniques involved. You may like to know that earbones survive cremations particularly well and that strontium isotopes in animal bones provide a rough geographical locator of where those animals originally came from. The remains found at a Stone Age settlement three miles away from Stonehenge indicated that visitors had come from as far away as Scotland to visit the site, a very lengthy journey at that time. “Vaut le voyage” as the Michelin Guide would put it.