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By Alastair HamiltonApril 27th 2019
Alastair Hamilton

Life in Shetland still retains all the qualities that have drawn people to the islands and kept them here: a strong, active, welcoming and generous community; a relatively relaxed pace of life; and a superb natural environment with wonderful landscapes, abundant wildlife and all sorts of outdoor opportunities.

But some things have changed over the past forty years or so. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a substantial investment in sports facilities, bringing a large and well-equipped sports and leisure centre to Lerwick and no fewer than eight swimming pools, most with sports centres attached, to other parts of Shetland. In 2007, the new Shetland Museum and Archives was opened.

Then, in August 2012, Mareel arrived. A strikingly modern addition to Lerwick’s award-winning, regenerated waterfront, it has done for the arts what the earlier facilities had done for Shetland’s enthusiastic sporting community and the islands’ cherished heritage. As is often the case with large projects, the £12m development wasn’t without controversy. All of us who enjoy a visit today owe a large debt of gratitude to those who funded it, to the vision of the then Convener of Shetland Islands Council, Sandy Cluness, and to the determination of the former manager and deputy manager of Shetland Arts, Gwilym Gibbons and Kathy Hubbard.

Although it’s often described as a cinema and music venue or, in shorthand, as an arts centre, neither of these labels really conveys the range of activities and possibilities that it embraces.

At its heart is a first-class auditorium, designed especially for music but with the flexibility to host comedy, drama, talks or conferences. It accommodates 330, partly in a balcony that wraps around the main raked seating area. With the seating removed, the hall is transformed into a perfect space for dancing or events such as weddings and trade shows. The acoustic is superb for music, whether amplified or not; every detail of a string quartet or guitarist’s performance is crystal-clear.

every detail of a string quartet or guitarist’s performance is crystal-clear

Shetland used to have a cinema, the North Star, but it succumbed to the pressures that saw so many of its peers close in the 1970s and 1980s. I recall only too well the occasion – a year or more after it had officially closed – when the Shetland Film Club agreed to put on two showings of Local Hero for Thames Television, whose crew were making a documentary about Shetland and oil. The plan was to interview members of the audience after they’d watched the film. Alas, with the first full house seated and full of anticipation, it fell to me to explain that the bulb in one of the two elderly projectors had blown, and they could get their money back at the door.

The facilities at Mareel are not only a world away from those at the North Star, they’re also likely to be a revelation for anyone whose cinema experience is of today’s multiplexes on retail parks. There are two cinemas; the larger of which seats 160 and the smaller 37. Those seats are of the highest quality, of the sort for which you’d pay a premium in most cinemas, and it’s steeply raked, so you never find yourself having to peer round a tall person in front of you. The picture and sound are first class and as good as you’ll find anywhere. What’s more, you don’t need a mortgage to buy the ice creams, drinks or snacks.

The screens show a really appealing programme which packs in a remarkable range of films every week, ranging from current mainstream releases to independent and classic movies. That’s not all: there are live or recorded performances from London’s west end, brought to us by National Theatre Live, with ballet and opera also featuring from time to time.

As Esther Renwick, Shetland Arts’ Sales and Marketing Manager, acknowledges, “It’s quite a challenge to programme two screens and try to get it right for everybody”. However, the Mareel team must be doing that, because, she adds, “We actually have the highest cinema attendance, per head of population, of anywhere in the UK.”

We actually have the highest cinema attendance, per head of population, of anywhere in the UK

Before or after a performance, customers can relax with a coffee, a cocktail or any other kind of refreshment in a stunning, double-height café-bar. The glazed wall overlooks Hay’s Dock, one of the oldest parts of the waterfront, dating from 1830, which was restored as part of the adjacent museum project. It’s common to see seals or even the occasional otter hereabouts, and on warmer days, café-bar patrons drift out onto the dockside to enjoy the afternoon and evening sunshine.

The café-bar is a welcoming space; and whilst Lerwick’s nightlife could hardly be described as edgy, it does feel particularly relaxing and safe. As Esther told me:

“We were a finalist in the Scottish LGBTI Venue of the Year and we try our best to ensure that it’s a really comfortable and relaxed space for everyone. We also support the national ‘Ask for Angela’ campaign in the bar so that anyone who is feeling pressured can alert our staff.”

The café-bar sometimes hosts smaller-scale, informal live music or DJ sessions in the evenings, with cocktails, wines or beers to help the party along.

During the day, and in the evening, it’s a popular meeting place, whether for business or pleasure, and there is an all-day snacks menu, with coffees, teas and cake. There are light lunches, too, and a selection of slightly more substantial evening dishes.

Upstairs, in the gallery, there is more seating, either on comfortable sofas or at a long work desk offering a dozen or so spaces, equipped with power outlets and USB charging points. On most days, that area is well-used as people catch up on emails, browse the web or work on writing projects.

it’s a popular meeting place

So far, so good: those are the elements of Mareel that most visitors see. But there’s much more. As Esther says:

“We offer a huge breadth of activities and opportunities here. It’s not just a cinema and a music venue, it also gives the opportunity to study, train and work in the arts. There are so many different skills within the building, because it does so many different things. We have everyone from Front of House and Café staff to sound and lighting technicians and film and event programmers.”

Mareel’s role in education is important. In conjunction with Shetland College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, students can pursue topics related to film and music. It helps greatly that this is a working venue, where they can develop their knowledge and understanding in a real, live performing environment.

“It’s possible,” Esther explains, “to go all the way up from Vocational Pathways, a programme for 15 year olds, to an MA.” Students learn performance skills, too. “We have a regular student night, which allows our students to showcase their talents. They’re really popular now – we’re getting over a hundred people coming along to enjoy a free night of the latest upcoming talent.”

There’s no question that the staff at Mareel are at the top of their game, and that students have first-class mentors. If proof of that were needed, one band that visited Mareel in 2017, the chart-topping Scouting for Girls, were so impressed by the skills of one of the lighting technicians, Liam Brennan, that they asked him to look after the lighting on the remaining stages of their 26-date tour of the UK and Ireland, which included – among other venues – the London Palladium.

If the staff impress visiting performers, so does the venue. Esther says:

“Bands who come here to record are always amazed by the facilities. They come up from south, and it wows them with both the technical spec of our facilities and the amazing views! We have bands who just come up here to record, because it’s a great place to have a ‘recording retreat’. They want to work on a new album with no distractions in a beautiful setting but still have access to high quality technology.”

All the other facilities that performers expect are here, too. There’s a Green Room with, quite possibly, the best view from any such space, anywhere.

There’s no question of the vitality that Mareel nurtures and generates. It welcomes folk from babes in arms to centenarians, but there’s a distinctly young vibe to the place. It feels full of possibilities and that quality has enticed some Shetlanders who’d been working in mainland Scotland to come back to live in Shetland and even work in the venue.

Jenny Leask, who is Film Programme Manager, is one of them. “I moved to Edinburgh for university, and stayed there until I moved home three years ago. I’ve worked for cinemas and film festivals for more than 20 years, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to continue doing so in Shetland, making use of my experience and doing something I love.”

Another member of staff who has returned is Kathryn Spence, Creative Project Manager. She says: “To be able to continue to work professionally in the arts at Mareel really has enabled me to move home. I am beyond delighted to be able to work in my chosen career path here in Shetland.”

I am beyond delighted to be able to work in my chosen career path here in Shetland

A senior, retired local official once remarked to me that Mareel had transformed life in the islands, and that’s true; but Mareel is also a piece in a jigsaw of local facilities that, together with that natural environment and strong community, create a quite exceptional quality of life.

And the name? ‘Mareel’ is the Shetland word for the phosphorescence that is sometimes seen in the sea at night.

So, yes, like its namesake, our Mareel really does sparkle.