Sir Ken's Swede Success: Despite Being the Star of Hit TV Detective Series Wallander, Just-knighted Kenneth Branagh Insists He's Still Plain Ken

The Daily Mail, 28 June 2012
By Richard Barber

You have to wonder what the dour Swedish TV detective Kurt Wallander would make of it all. A knighthood for Kenneth Branagh?

The very thought of the honour, which was announced earlier this month, is enough to bring on one of Wallander’s deep, brooding pauses. He’d settle back in his iconic leather chair and stare into the Baltic sunset while the machinery of his mind – as trusty and as plodding as his Volvo – cranked into action and analysed every possible permutation of response.

Branagh, 51, who has played Wallander for four years, thinks he knows precisely what his alter ego’s reaction would be. His face lights up in a distinctly un-Wallanderish smile. ‘Of course, the Swedes have a royal family of their own,’ he says, ‘but Kurt’s pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool republican, so I don’t think he’d have any truck with titles.’

The reaction of the author of the best-selling Wallander stories, the avowedly left-wing Henning Mankell, is much the same as his creation’s would be, says Branagh. ‘But he’s got a terrific sense of humour so he’s been very funny about it, which is exactly what I’d have expected. He’s been ribbing me about it ever since the news came out. Fair game, as far as I’m concerned.’

Mankell, 64, chooses his words as carefully as Wallander would. ‘The Swedish people are very happy for him,’ he says diplomatically. ‘Their view seems to be, “You may beat us at soccer but we’re partly responsible for Branagh’s knighthood.” He’s very well liked and they approve of the way he plays Wallander.’

So how should we now address the newly ennobled knight of the realm? He roars with laughter. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ he says, ‘I still want to be called Ken.’ The offer of a knighthood arrived in the post about six weeks before the Queen’s birthday honours list was to be made public.

‘You have to send back your acceptance on the understanding that you won’t hear from the Cabinet Office again until the morning of the announcement. And I don’t mind admitting there were moments during that time when I couldn’t help wondering whether my letter had been lost in the post.’

But it hadn’t, the honour is his, and his mood is a mix of humility and relief. ‘Now it’s out in the big, wide world, something that had seemed surreal has instantly become concrete and real. People always say they’re humbled on these occasions, and that’s true. I thought of the colleagues I’ve worked with over 30 years. You know they’d be chuffed, and so the right thing is to say thank you, not only on your behalf but on theirs, too.’

On Sunday 8 July, 'Wallander' returns to BBC1 with the first of three new feature-length episodes, 'An Event In Autumn'. Our taciturn hero has bought a farmhouse in the country and is trying to make a go of his relationship with girlfriend Vanja (Saskia Reeves).

But even before the opening credits, a pregnant young woman is seen going over the side of a ferry. Meanwhile, Wallander’s dog digs up human remains in his garden, prompting the local pathologist to remark drily, ‘I thought you weren’t going to bring your work home with you, Kurt.’

As always, Branagh gives an understated yet towering performance. ‘I wanted Wallander to be naturalistic, to have a kind of Scandinavian neutrality. That’s difficult because it makes you feel very thick-skinned. But then there’s nothing superficial about Kurt. He doesn’t really do banter.’

Branagh describes the stories on which the TV dramas are based as ‘long, deep broods’ and admits he used to find playing Wallander so grim he’d do anything to escape from the character.

‘I’d try to lighten up, and so I’d write “Smile!” on my script to remind me not to look quite so glum. When I had time off, I’d wear bright clothes and do jolly things. I’d go to flower shows to cheer myself up. All the things you can’t imagine the introspective Wallander doing. But I’ve learned to compartmentalise my life now, and although I’m as deeply into the character as ever, I find it easier to break free away from the cameras.’

Mankell is fulsome in his praise of Branagh’s interpretation of the character he created. ‘He brings so much to his portrayal. I already knew he was a very good actor and, when I was told he’d been cast in the role, it took me five seconds – no, four – to realise he was perfect for it. Ken inspired me to write more books because he gave me insights into the character I didn’t have before.’

After this clutch of three films, there will be just three more: one based on Mankell’s novel 'The White Lioness', set in South Africa, the other two from the final Wallander book, 'The Troubled Man'. ‘Only then,’ admits Branagh, ‘will I dare look at the original Swedish TV versions. I’ve deliberately never seen them because I thought they might cramp my style.’

The end of 'Wallander', however, won’t be the end of his association with Mankell. An unrelated novel, 'Italian Shoes', about a retired surgeon living on a remote Swedish island, is to be brought to the screen, with Branagh directing and Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench starring. ‘It’s been a logistical challenge finding a time when everyone’s free at the same point,’ says Branagh. ‘I was talking to Tony about it this morning. It’s been sidelined for the moment but I’m confident it’ll happen one day.’

Also on the back burner at the moment is another directorial job, 'The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society', starring Kate Winslet. ‘We were going to start filming this spring but it was a case once more of the people and the money not coalescing at the same time.’ Kate played Ophelia to Branagh’s Hamlet in the 1997 film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. ‘I hope this new film happens because I’d love to work with Kate again.’

So, first out of the blocks will be a new Jack Ryan film, adapted from the Tom Clancy novels, which Branagh will direct. Chris Pine from 'Star Trek' will play the lead in this prequel (previous Jack Ryan films have included 'Patriot Games'), in which the hero works covertly for the CIA as a Wall Street analyst.

Branagh has been married since 2003 to film art director Lindsay Brunnock – they were introduced by his ex-girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter after the collapse of Branagh’s six-year marriage to Emma Thompson – and they like little better, he says, than catching up with Scandinavian dramas on TV. ‘But it’s time for a break. I think we’re going to work our way through a box set of 'Carry On' films.’

The new series of Wallander starts on Sunday 8 July, 9pm, on BBC1.

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