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Wallander: Swede dreams are made of this

Kenneth Branagh's 'Wallander' captivated TV viewers. Now, as BBC4 shows the Scandinavian original, Geoffrey Macnab examines their different emphases on detectives, darkness and alienation

Anyone wanting to play Inspector Wallander has to pass the soiled-underwear test. There is a revealing passage in Faceless Killers, the first of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander crime novels, in which the Swedish writer describes his permanently exhausted, world-weary detective bolting down a hamburger so quickly that it gives him diarrhoea.

"As he sat on the toilet he noticed that he ought to change his underwear," Mankell writes, providing his readers with just a little more detail than they probably want or need, but also making it very clear that Wallander isn't one of those glib, telegenic detectives who never has to worry about indigestion, needy relatives or tax returns.

BBC4's decision to broadcast several episodes of the hit Swedish Wallander series has given British audiences the chance to compare and contrast Wallanders. How does the original, local, Swedish series stand up to the award-winning detective dramas starring Kenneth Branagh?

"They are quite different," the series' Swedish producer Ole Sondberg says. "Where they're really different is that Branagh really focused on the dark side of the character, whereas if you see the Swedish series, we are trying to achieve more humour, more lightness, We were very afraid that the character would be too dark."

Both Branagh and Krister Henriksson, who plays the detective in the original Swedish series, look as if they would probably pass the underwear test. They've gone to great lengths to cultivate plenty of stubble and red rings under their eyes, suggesting that they neither get much sleep nor have much time to devote to personal hygiene. In "Sidetracked", the first episode of the British Wallander, the detective is visited by his daughter. Separated from his wife, he is living in a cluttered, messy apartment. "God, this place is squalid," the daughter exclaims. Henriksson's Wallander is dark-haired, slimmer and not quite as unkempt as Branagh. He is a devotee of opera music, which is just how Mankell describes him. (There is no Verdi in the Branagh version, apparently on the grounds that listening to classical music would make him too much like Inspector Morse, whose spiritual heir he seems to be – at least in the eyes of the commissioning editors.)

The irony is that the Swedish Wallander plays much more like a traditional British detective drama than its British counterpart. Henriksson plays him as a detective in the mould of Taggart: a dour, taciturn figure, albeit with a morbid sense of humour and an underlying humanity. Confronted with a seemingly motiveless double murder, in which one of the victims was his childhood sweetheart, in "The Brothers", he and his team probe away patiently for clues. His own emotions don't cloud his professionalism. One trait immediately apparent is his liberalism. He deplores the kneejerk racism of some of his compatriots, especially those among the wealthy elite.

The British Wallander is far more stylised and cinematic in conception. It lacks the sense of local identity that characterises the Swedish version. Given that it was made in Sweden by British actors and technicians, this was probably inevitable. The programme-makers try to bolster their Swedish credentials by referring to the assassination of Olaf Palme and including lines like "the world now recognises that Sweden stands for a little more than just Björn Borg, Abba and a bit of skinny-dipping in mountain lakes." Even so, when all the actors, whether they're playing cops or criminals, speak English with the same neutral, middle-class BBC-style accent, it never seems that we are really experiencing life on the streets of Ystad ("a nest of pirates and fraudsters," as Strindberg once described it.)

The stylised quality is intensified by Anthony Dod Mantle's brilliant but idiosyncratic cinematography. Dod Mantle, who has worked closely with maverick film-makers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, shot the Wallander dramas using the Red One digital camera. The visual effect is striking.

Often, in TV detective dramas, the emphasis is on close-ups. We see the hairs in Ken Stott's nostrils or on John Thaw's furrowed brow looming out of the small screen as the sleuth wrestles with the latest mystery. In Wallander, as shot by Dod Mantle, attention isn't just concentrated on the sweaty landscape of the detective's face. We also see spectacular sequences of fields and cityscapes. For example, during the very first moments of "Sidetracked", we see a young girl fleeing through a field of yellow, head-high crops before setting herself on fire in front of Wallander.

Branagh's performance is fascinating, if very over-determined. He first met Mankell during the Ingmar Bergman Week on the island of Faro in the summer of 2007. At times, his Wallander seems less like a hard-bitten Swedish detective than the anguished priest played by Gunnar Bjornstrand in Bergman's Winter Light. Just as that priest is struggling with his faith, Branagh's detective is in similar conflict about his profession. Each fresh crime he encounters takes a huge psychic toll on him. Branagh has talked of "the ongoing empathy, the open-wound quality" that Wallander has developed in the face of all the suffering he has seen. He is not the typical hard-bitten detective in a police procedural drama who reacts to each new crime, however grotesque, as if it is just in a day's work.

Audiences in Sweden, Britain and elsewhere, respond to Wallander because he does seem such a vulnerable and grounded figure. He is a middle-aged man whose life is always at risk of falling apart. The detective is estranged from his wife and has a tempestuous relationship with both his daughter and his elderly father.

In the wake of the success of the Wallander TV dramas and of the Stieg Larsson film adaptation, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (made by the same production company), there has been much speculation about why the world is currently so obsessed with Scandinavian crime fiction. Is it the light? Is it the long winters, or the tendency toward introspection? Is it the interior design?

The irony, as far as Ole Sondberg is concerned, is that, in the Swedish Wallander, there has been a self-conscious attempt to introduce more humour and to escape from the stereotype of gloomy Swedes. He suggests that the two series work best in very different markets. For example, the US has no interest in the Swedish Wallander whereas the much darker Branagh version has done extremely well with American audiences.

Arguably, the success of the Mankell and Larsson books isn't really to do with Sweden at all. The themes and characters have a universality of appeal. These are stories as much about the personal lives of their characters as the crimes they are ostensibly investigating. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the detective is a rebellious young woman who dresses like a punk. In Wallander, it's a dysfunctional middle-aged man. Both have a crusading quality about them. For all the stresses in their domestic lives, they're relentless when pursuing a new case.

Mankell has given the British version of Wallander his blessing. What he liked was precisely that it wasn't a carbon copy of the Swedish series. "After 15 seconds, I knew these guys are going in their own direction," he said after first watching the Branagh version.

Yellow Bird, the Swedish production company behind the Wallander TV series, hasn't discounted the possibility of a big-screen version. "Nothing is out of the question," Sondberg says.

In the meantime, three more Branagh Wallanders are being filmed in Sweden this summer. There are also some fresh Swedish Wallanders on the way. All the evidence suggests there is room for both. Rather than one series eclipsing its rival, they seem to have enhanced each other's visibility. For now, at least, Branagh and Krister Henriksson look set to march hand in hand. The world can't get enough of crusty, world-weary Swedish cops with personal-hygiene issues. It doesn't seem to matter which language they speak.