At Last, A Clue The Beeb Can Still Do Quality
The Sunday Express, 7 December 2008
Forget Denmark; there's something rotten in the state of Sweden. Thankfully Britain's best actor Kenneth Branagh is on hand to clean it up. I found it strangely comforting to think that horrible crimes go on elsewhere, too, if only in the minds of writers. I speak of 'Wallander', which, after the first episode, is already a contender for drama series of the year.
The first instalment was certainly the best single crime drama this year; and there is an amazing amount of competition for this accolade. What makes a crime drama great? Well, Kenneth Branagh now. His impact on the small screen is almost legendary: remember 'Shackleton', remember 'Conspiracy'? His performance was so good this time I almost though it was too good for television, but, hey, after the year we the beleaguered licence fee payers have had, we deserve it.
Just think about how much brilliant drama we could have based on what we pay for Jonathan Ross. In short, a dozen or so single films with the best talent available. That amounts to more than 20 hours of quality drama a year.
Last year, the BBC stumped up for Dame Judi Dench and we got the brilliant 'Cranford'. this year, Branagh for 'Wallander'. It's a fairly simple formula, BBC, and I don't expect there will be a tide of complaints to the BBC that Branagh was too good! "Dear BBC, 'Wallander' was so superb I had to turn off the television. I was shocked! No more please."
What was peculiar about 'Wallander', a crime drama set in Sweden, was that it didn't feel particularly Swedish, in much the same way as Ikea doesn't - at least until you eat the meatballs. I'm not quite sure how this was achieved by the producers but 'Wallander' was some distance from flat-pack, assemble-yourself television.
This was a return to quality drama and, to push the Swedish analogy, more like being chauffeured in a new, top-of-the-range Volvo (by the way, there was almost too much of Wallander's car, to be honest). Every minute of the production was finely crafted, with photography and direction worthy of the big screen. Yet it was Branagh's range as an actor which was most impressive. He gave Wallander a multi-dimensional character, a man who was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown with work as the only area of his life that was holding him together.
In that respect, his closest bedfellow was Morse but with an acute case of paranoia. Psychologists will no doubt do theses on "Wallander: A walking, talking case of arresting Swedish melancholia". He did raise a whisker-thin smile at one point, but I think that may have been related to the heated seats in the Volvo.
The best scenes were undoubtedly the two-handers between Wallander's father (David Warner) and the police inspector. You got the feeling during the drama that if there was any chance of things getting worse, they would. Midway through the film Wallander discovered that his father had the early stages of dementia, which ironically, and almost immediately, seemed to bring them closer togewther. Wallander's tears at the end of the drama were incredibly real, to the point where you felt you were in the room. Sweden is now famous for Abba, Ikea, Volvos ... and now Wallander.