France on a Plate, BBC4
Kenneth Branagh is mesmeric as the depressive Nordic detective, but then he's got previous playing moody Scandinavians
Sunday 07 December 2008
In more innocent times we differentiated the countries of the world by their traditional dances, or the ceremonial dress of their ladyfolk. Now we know them by how they catch their child killers. The TV detective is a national emblem: Precious Ramotswe, Bergerac, Rebus, Maigret, Morse – all places as much as people.
And Wallander is Sweden. Blond, broody and faced every morning with two possibilities, breakfast or suicide, Wallander was invented by Henning Mankell (son-in-law of Ingmar Bergman) and has already been immortalised by two actors in 13 Swedish films. Now he arrives here, played by that well-known Swede, Kenneth Branagh.
He's mesmeric in the role, as it turns out. He's gruff with the camera, too tired to make love to it, too preoccupied. He's like a rumbling sky brewing up a storm. You can't see much apart from clouds but you know there's a lot happening inside them. Then occasionally he'll let off a static crackle. Wallander's the lightning conductor, after all, for the nation's sicko killers, an onerous, misunderstood role, not so far away from head of state... No wonder Branagh's in his element here. Moody Scandinavians are, after all, a speciality.
The heart and soul of the BBC's Wallander feels Scandinavian, and the look of it does too, the clear northern light captured on the new Red One digital camera (the first time it's been used in UK television). But a lot of anglicisation has been done. The name of the town Wallander lives in, Ystad, has been toned down, from "Ees-tod" to "Is-tad". "The authentic local accent is very strange to English ears", said one of the producers. "We didn't want to stray into 'Allo 'Allo territory." Even the shots of Swedish newspapers were mocked-up with specially selected words that wouldn't confuse the British eye. When Branagh introduces himself, holding up his police ID, he pronounces "Wallander" as a very flat English mixture of "wally" and "colander". You find yourself missing the bendy litheness of Swedish vowels and anyway, don't they say "Vallander", to rhyme with "philander"? We could have handled the authentic pronunciation, I think. We don't put the "t" on the end of Poirot, after all. But this is spoonfed Swede, thoroughly mashed – and come to think of it, mashed Swede is what most of the sets are dressed with, too. It's horribly gruesome. We're clearly considered big enough to handle gored-out eyes but not Swedish vocabulary. Ah well.
There was also something slightly patronising about the culinary history France on a Plate (BBC4) which served its facts up as directly as the title suggested. The presenter Andrew Hussey is clearly secretly well-qualified in his subject (polished French, swelling tummy) but he seemed to feel the need to keep himself at a blokeish, stolidly British distance from all that garlic. "Disgusting" was how he wrote off French offal. You wouldn't get very far as a music critic if you used the same word for, say, the woodwind section. Still, he relayed some welcome information, explaining that Gruyère is traditionally the cheese of choice for the man of the right, while Camembert is favoured by the man on the left. He neglected, however, to tell us what women eat when they are feeling hungry and political. Boorish TV presenters perhaps?
Beehive (E4) starring Sarah Kendall, Alice Lowe, Barunka O'Shaughnessy and Clare Thompson is a hit and miss sketch show that delivers some derivative jokes, some non-jokes and some spankingly brilliant jokes. In the last category comes the sketch in which four classical female musicians party backstage like the Rolling Stones, preying on two old male groupies: an instant classic. And even in its slower moments Beehive has the infectious feel of performers enjoying themselves, a rare gas that's hard to bottle.
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