Filming in the southern Swedish country of Scania, says Branagh, adds to Wallander’s solitude. “To look out of a car in Scania, you see a painting on the horizontal – one windmill, one tiny farmhouse, acres of beet or grass,” he says. “Everything is dramatic, framed, composed... God somehow in a little cinema laboratory decided it’s very good if you keep things flat.
Wallander’s unflinching introspection –garnished, of course, with large helpings of violence and gore – proved a literary hit for Mankell. From the publication of the first book in 1991, it multiplied into a series of 11 novels (including one with Wallander’s daughter, Linda, taking the lead). The books have been translated into more than 40 languages, and sold over 40 million copies worldwide. Today, those basic ingredients have mushroomed beyond Mankell’s pen into a hugely successful genre, known as many to be one of the literary masterworks of the Nordic Noir. It spans Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (and their film adaptations, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), as well as the hit Danish TV detective series The Killing and the more recent Swedish/Danish co-production, The Bridge.
“In the 70s, in Sweden, we had suddenly a very good tennis player called Bjorn Borg,” says Mankell. "He came out of nowhere. And then all of a sudden we had many good tennis players. Nothing succeeds like success. Obviously I have been an inspiration for many writers. I think in that sense you could say that I have been a sort of locomotive, Wallander is the locomotive. The Killing, I watched, it is very good. (Danish political thriller series) Borgen is also very good. But then, I can assure you, there is a lot of s**t.”
Mankell is too diplomatic to name and shame, and Branagh has only praise for The Killing. “Yes, I enjoyed it hugely, I saw both series,” he says. “The thing that I was fascinated to watch is that it allows quite a lot of room to simply observe the characters thinking and being. I was happy not to be told everything, even though it’s also very suspenseful.” Branagh also acknowledges that the long running time of The Killing – the first series lasted 20 hours – helped create that atmosphere.
But, he says, British TV drama should only adopt a similarly lengthy approach if the right series comes along. “Only if you find that subject matter, only if you find the people who want to write it,” he says.
“And we have different writers – Jimmy McGovern’s an example, with something like The Street, exploring things in an important way, not maybe at that length.”
Branagh points out, though, that each episode of Wallander lasts for a full 90 minutes. “People are ready to listen to the silences, as long as we are earning them, and it doesn’t become a mannerism,” he says. “For me, every Wallander is a one-off experience. It could be more raw, or more real, or more simple or more of a chance to let the audience do the thinking and feeling. We take a long time in the run-up to each series. I read the final Wallander novel The Troubled Man not long after it was published. Then my wife read it a little while ago, and loved it...”
Mankell interrupts, surprised. “You’re married?” “Yes,” says Branagh, then quite hotly, “Yes, I am!” “Yeah?” “Yeah, yeah. Yeah.” “You were not married last time we met,” says Mankell, firmly. “No, I was, I was,” counters Branagh, who wed art director Lindsay Brunnock in 2003. “Congratulations!” says Mankell. “Thank you very much,” says Branagh, before ploughing on.
“This last time was the first time she came out to Sweden – thank God – and created a great house for us,” he says, and then, finally, returning to his theme: “We had ended up talking about The Troubled Man, so I’d already had two hits of experiencing that.”
As well as that laconic pace, says Mankell, the best Nordic Noir has a conscience. “I know that these guys who write The Killing, they do the same as I do. They ask themselves, before they start writing, ‘What do we want to tell about our society?’” he explains. “We are living in a world where some of the most dominant businesses are selling weapons, drugs, and trafficking. Out of the five biggest businesses in the world, three are absolutely based on criminality. To hold out a mirror of crime, to talk about society today, it is a very efficient way to tell a story.”
And for the British version of Wallander, says Branagh, the same resonances hold true. “We think, ‘What is a version of the current Swedish attitude to, say, immigration or prostitution or the severity of criminal punishment?’ Inevitably, all of those reflect back into our own system, and it makes us compare and contrast,” he says. “There’s always something to think about, in terms of problems that are dark and important and immediate and scary.”
Series 3 of Wallander begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1