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Shetland star Alison O’Donnell opens up about motherhood, the pandemic and how an on-set colleague became an off-screen friend

© Robert PerryActress Alison O'Donnell
Actress Alison O'Donnell

Being a new mum is tough enough but trying to do it while making film and television adds another level of difficulty.

Ask Hollywood A-listers Carey Mulligan and Zoe Saldana who have spoken out about how the industry needs to do better when it comes to on-set childcare.

Or talk to Shetland star Alison O’Donnell.

The sixth series of the popular island police drama begins this week and O’Donnell’s scenes were filmed soon after the arrival of her second child. Like too many workplaces across the country, TV sets aren’t the ideal place for a mum.

“This industry is like a machine and once it starts moving you can’t really get off,” said O’Donnell, “and it doesn’t stop for anyone.

“So if you’re somebody with an extra responsibility or any kind of extra need, then it can be quite difficult to fight for what you need to be accommodated within that set-up. I think there’s still quite a lot of work to do.

“For example, both times I’ve had the baby, they have been breastfed and I can’t explain to you the logistical problems with it. Quite often I have to step off the set and express milk so that I can keep sending milk home for my baby while I’m working. You can run into issues quickly where you get mastitis.

“There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about it, and production (on Shetland) have been as supportive as they possibly can be.

“I’m very vocal about it. Any time anybody in the crew asks me, I just talk about it because I feel like…look, this is just the reality, and it’s true for so many working mothers in any industry.”

Shetland cast: (left to right) Steven Robertson, Alison O’Donnell and Dougie Henshall (Pic: BBC/ITV Studios/Mark Mainz)

Those working in showbusiness are typically can-do troupers who parrot lines about having the best job in the world; O’Donnell, though, believes talking about these issues helps normalise the experience for mums everywhere.

If she has any parenting problems on set it’s not only the crew on Shetland who will lend a hand but also the cast; namely Dougie Henshall.

Since the show, based on crime writer Ann Cleeves’ series of novels, began in 2012 both O’Donnell and co-star Henshall have become parents.

Henshall, who starred as Professor Nick Cutter in Primeval, welcomed his first child, with partner Tena Stivicic, four years ago while O’Donnell became a parent along with her playwright partner DC Jackson not long afterwards.

“It’s hard to really sum up, he’s come to mean so much to me,” said O’Donnell of her co-star. “And so, in so many ways, you know he’s been a mentor, a friend, a champion.

“When we first started working together there was quite a gap in terms of our life experience. I was really a bit of a rookie while he was quite a decorated actor. And then, as we’ve gone over the series, the gap has closed because we both now have young families, and we’re in a similar place in our lives. We’ve gotten to know each other and the relationship has grown.

“We just have so much in common and are in such a similar place in our lives. Now we have so much to talk about. Our girls are close together in age so it’s so nice to talk about all of that.”

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Returning to film Shetland earlier this year after the pandemic was a relief for O’Donnell, who plays DS Alison Macintosh; the remote location and open skies of the island were a panacea for a year in and out of a tough lockdown.

“During the first one, the common consensus was it was mad and a bit scary,” she said. “But there was a kind of novelty to it. Everyone was watching Joe Wicks. When the second one came it was the winter and we all just sank at that point. It was really tough.

“When the pandemic hit I was in the early stages of pregnancy. I had my second baby in October. Having a newborn and a toddler during that second lockdown last October was the darkest and most difficult thing I’ve ever lived through. I still haven’t recovered. It was absolute hell.

“He was very young when I was coming back to work, but luckily my mum was in our bubble so she was there, and the production have been really supportive of that situation so it was hard but I was only, only grateful for the world opening up.

“Anybody who’s had a young baby knows that one of the main things that gets you through it is people popping by. Someone will nip in and make you a cup of tea or clean your toilet.

“I felt totally alone, we were completely on our own with nothing to break up the days. Getting back to work? I was so glad.”

Bafta-winning Shetland’s production staff arrived on the island earlier this year just as they had done for the previous series; given the island was largely Covid-free at the time, it was understandable why they perhaps weren’t given as warm a welcome as previous visits.

Being sensitive to the local concerns was paramount for cast and crew, according to O’Donnell, who appeared in Holby City earlier in her career.

“It was a mixed bag because we always want to have good relations with the people who live here, who are so welcoming and help make the show possible,” she said.

“We had to think about it from their point of view, they were Covid-free and we were in Tier One and there was this big influx of people from the mainland onto the island.

“In our first visit especially, we were very much on our best behaviour. We were asked to continue to behave as though we were living in Tier One at home. We didn’t suddenly start going out to Shetland pubs.

“We were trying to respect the fact that it was a delicate situation. We mostly kept our heads down for that first visit, and we’re just very grateful that we were able to be here.

“It was all kind of hashed out again up-front. We were being tested, twice, three times a week, and we had our own testing facility so we wouldn’t have to wouldn’t put a strain on the NHS services up here.

“It was lovely to be here and we felt more free than at home. But we didn’t unleash ourselves on Shetland.”

Shetland, BBC1, tonight, 9pm