It was a bright white night of a Swedish summer evening the first time I met Henning Mankell. It was on Faro, the summer home of [film director] Ingmar Bergman, his father-in-law, and we had dinner with friends and family. He stood up to make a speech at supper. He often did. He liked to mark occasions. This was the beginning of the English-language Wallander being made for television and he was pleased and excited.
We made 12 television films from his books and talked regularly (aside from my father, he was the only person who ever called me Kenneth, not Ken). The last time I saw him was seven years later in 2014, once again we were having dinner, our Wallander was coming to an end, we were both a little sad about it, and more importantly he was living with cancer.
You always had to be on your toes with Henning. He was quick-witted and meticulous. He was dismissive of lazy thought, and in his personal relationships he wanted stimulus and debate. Our films investigated if or when the job of a police detective might “break” his creation of Kurt Wallander. Or whether he could make the difference he hoped might be possible, at least in some lives, in the small town of Ystad.
Henning also had a (Swedish) dry, deadpan humour and a capacity to talk seriously about serious things in the world at large almost immediately upon meeting.
Henning Mankell with Kenneth Branagh
The thing that marked Henning as different from his fellow Swedes was the range of brightly coloured African shirts that he would habitually wear. Half of his life was spent in Africa, and he carried that magnificent continent and its trials and tribulations with him everywhere he went (from 1986 he helped run a theatre in Mozambique concerned with political and social issues). I know that towards the end of his life he was particularly pleased that our ambition to film all of his Wallander novels would indeed include the African-set story The White Lioness, which begins our final trilogy of films.
Living in Africa gave him both insight into a world so very different from his own, and a perspective on Sweden itself. He expressed it through Kurt’s travails in the underworld of crime and human relations. He wanted always to say something about Swedish society in the books, and his way (a Swedish way you might say) was to say it via an ordinarily flawed and fascinating human being, who bore witness to what the best and the worst of human behaviour was capable of.
Henning, like many Swedes, was actively interested in many things – politics, sport, the environment. I was often fascinated to observe among my new Swedish friends an interest in changing jobs and careers. In Sweden, many people train and retrain for different occupations many times – and with government help – throughout their lives.
Many Swedes have multiple jobs. My driver, Ted, was also an actor, film-maker, handyman, and was keenly interested in the process of policing. He came from a family of police officers, and told me how unhealthy Kurt’s lifestyle was and how real officers couldn’t do the job his way. Other police officers agreed with this. “You have to switch off,” said one, “otherwise you would never get out of bed. When this job is grim, and it is often grim, you have to find a way to leave it at the station. If not, it can break you.”
It made our fictional detective with his peculiar focus on the job even more distinctive and perhaps untypical. Is that why he could continue to do the job? Even with the wreckage of a marriage and other dysfunctional relationships laying waste to his personal happiness? Henning made me wonder if it was Kurt’s “un-Swedishness” that was his undoing, a work/life balance that most Swedes have in better order?
As the years passed I would discuss this with Henning and with Ted, and we agreed that over these books and films Kurt seemed to be making progress in his life. That he was actively seeking happiness and, perhaps more crucially, believing it could be possible.
It was only when I met Henning one morning in Hamburg that I knew Kurt’s end could not be conventionally happy. We were promoting the programme in Germany, and Henning approached me like a man clutching the answer to a very great secret. He grabbed me excitedly by the shoulders and said, “I have it, I have it!” “Have what?” I asked. “The last sentence,” he replied, “the last sentence of the last Wallander story!”
He would not tell me what those words were, but I knew from the gravity with which he now spoke that a shadow would fall once again across the life of Kurt Wallander. In The Troubled Man, the last of the Wallander novels, and the last of our films, that shadow stretches out across Kurt’s very mind. With a cruel irony, as Henning charted Kurt’s descent, cancer held Henning himself in its grip until finally he was taken from us last year.
The scenes where Kurt battles with his own mind were played for our cameras as Henning, sick but still visiting us on set occasionally, was battling his own illness. They were painfully memorable days.
They bring a disturbing conclusion to the character’s 12-film odyssey, and it’s impossible not to feel the loss of Henning through his loss of Kurt.
I left southern Sweden in the winter. It was a dark and chilly evening. Ted, as always, drove me to the airport, and I asked him what he was going to do next. After a long pause he said, “I’m going to become a policeman”.
I was surprised, and asked him why. He said, simply, “Maybe I can make a difference.”
Kurt Wallander might have agreed. Henning Mankell certainly would.
This article originally appeared in Radio Times magazine, May 2016