Hard-boiled Swede

In Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels – and their home-grown TV version – Sweden is scruffy, violent

The trouble with television is that, sometimes, it spoils the pictures inside your head. You notice this first, of course, as a child. In 1977, when I was eight, the BBC adapted The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden, a book I loved. Disaster! No one looked like I wanted them to, and yet when I went back to the novel, the images I had conjured myself were distorted, as fuzzy as a fading dream. One of my characters would suddenly begin talking to one of theirs; one of their rooms would morph into one of mine, and over the course of a single paragraph, too. The only constant, porkers being what they are, was the pig. So I learned to avoid adaptations of favourite books until, in 1981, ITV screened Brideshead Revisited, a temptation I couldn't resist. Lucky, then, that it was so very good. When, even now, I read the passage in which Julia Flyte realises that her love for Charles Ryder is impossible, and I still see only Diana Quick sitting on a stone step, tears ploshing towards her beautiful upper lip, I can't say that I mind one bit.

When to resist, and when to give in? Readers of Henning Mankell have a particular problem on their hands in this regard. The BBC recently finished screening a second series of Wallander, based on the Swedish crime writer's novels about a lonely, very angry detective called Kurt Wallander, and a third has been commissioned. These films star the Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh as Wallander and are filmed on location in Ystad, the small town near Malmö where the character lives and works, and everyone seems to like them: critics, award committees (Wallander has won five Baftas), even Mankell. But still, there are some fans out there - I had dinner with one last night - who have so far resisted the temptation to tune in. These readers fear finding their hero . . . what? Too blonde? Too polite? Insufficiently crumpled? All of these things, and the rest. "He cries a lot, this Wal­lander," I said to my friend over supper. She wrinkled her nose. "Wallander doesn't want to cry," she said. "He's against that."

The dilemma - to watch, or not to watch - is exacerbated by the existence of a Swedish television Wallander, which has been shown on BBC4. Actually, by the existence of two Swedish television Wallanders. Between 1995 and 2007, the nine Wallander novels were made into films starring Rolf Lassgård, an actor best known here for his role in After the Wedding (the Oscar-nominated drama directed by Susanne Bier). And between 2005 and 2009, two dozen more films were made, this time starring Krister Henriksson as Wallander.

The films starring Henriksson, shot as two series, are not based on Mankell's novels; these are original stories, based on plots written specifically for television by the author. In Sweden, reaction to them has been mixed: the first and last films in each series are made for cinema release, and thus usually better than the soggier middle episodes. For Mankell, however, the actors inhabit his characters powerfully well. When Johanna Sällström, who played Linda, Wallander's daughter, committed suicide in 2007 - she had been suffering from a depression following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which she and her daughter survived by clinging to a tree - Mankell abandoned a planned trilogy of novels based around the character after only one book; his grief and guilt were, he insisted, too great. It is the first Henriksson series that has been aired in the UK.

I like the Wallander novels an awful lot but, right from the beginning, I decided that I would watch the TV versions, too; however much I enjoy a detective story, the nature of the beast is that I'm unlikely to read it again. Still, this is a strange business. Which of these two - Branagh, or Henriksson - is my Wallander? Oh, it's difficult. Generally, I like Branagh, and there is no doubting that the BBC has gone to town with its Wallander; from the moment the sunflower yellow title sequence begins to roll, you know you are watching Top-Class Television.

But sometimes, Top-Class is not quite what is required. Read Mankell, and the most striking thing about the books is how straight­forward, how pared down they are, even by the standards of the police procedural. I've no idea whether Dashiell Hammett is among his influences, but Mankell's prose is every bit as spare, and its motor, like Hammett's, is - to borrow from the historian of the detective novel Julian Symons - a kind of "wistful cynicism". Wallander is hard and stoic, but this toughness is lookout guy for a longing - for a drink, for his ex-wife, for some kind of peace - that leaves him existentially worn out.

Branagh, to be sure, looks worn out. But he tries too hard. You can see him acting. He's the king of the show, whereas Mankell's Wallander - like Henriksson's - would far rather fade into the background. And Branagh is still handsome, for all that in Wallander he gamely sports a paunch. Henriksson, on the other hand, really isn't, which somehow captures his creator's pitilessness, because in the novels, Mankell won't give Wallander a break; it's almost as if he wants to humiliate him: "He ate a hamburger special. He ate it so fast that it gave him diarrhoea. As he sat on the toilet, he noticed that he ought to change his underwear . . . " Henriksson, with his loose skin and his bloodhound eyes, looks humiliated; Branagh looks agonised, which is quite different.

Admittedly, there is snobbery at play here. The experience of watching Wallander in Swedish, with subtitles, subtly flatters the viewer. (Which of us doesn't read subtitles, and feel his brain swell?) And the Swedes allow their Wallander to listen to opera, as he does in the books; the BBC ditched this, fearing it would make him too much like Morse. But I would rather hear Swedish than listen to Branagh and his colleagues talking in flat voices, as if they were reading a poor translation, and I like the way this Sweden looks and feels. The small-town mentality is essential to Mankell's Wallander, but the BBC insists on making the police station a shouty hive; in the Swedish version, its offices are more like sleepy cupboards. Branagh's Wallander is often to be seen clutching an expensive paper cup of coffee. In the Swedish series, the detectives must use the world's creakiest machine, and they drink from pathetic plastic thimbles.

On the other hand, Ystad, however small, is not a town in aspic. Even though Mankell lived in Africa when he began writing Wallander, and still spends half his year there, he doesn't have an exile's feeling for the country of his birth. He doesn't romanticise it. Mankell thinks the writing is on the wall, that Sweden's democracy is as beset with problems as any other. He is appalled by its growing racism and greed, by the low salaries of public-sector employees. He only created Wallander in the first place as a way in to writing about xenophobia (the first novel, Faceless Killers, involves a fire at a refugee centre and the murder of a Somali immigrant).

Upsetting murders apart, the BBC's Ystad is a place where its audience might fantasise about having a holiday home. The streets are pristine. Desirable Gustavian furniture abounds. There is something swept clean about it, for sure; but only rarely do you get to see where the rubbish is left to rot. In the Swedish version, however, there is a sense - albeit subtle - of loss, of change, of the world closing in. Once people left their back doors open; now a light in an empty farmhouse is only cause for alarm. All are suspicious, no one is safe. Wallander goes to investigate a murder, and it is his childhood sweetheart whose body he must watch the pathologist examining.

This is a Sweden where soldiers - the same soldiers who will shortly travel abroad on peacekeeping missions - rampage like thugs during their annual exercises, where traumatised immigrants have no option but to seek their own revenge on those who have abused them, where gypsies are sexually abused by those charged with their care and are forced to live in freezing cold caravans on the edge of town.

Pretty quickly, you stop being taken in by appearances. "Do you want to have a life, or just burrow in, like a mole?" says Wallander to Linda when she tells him that she, too, wants to be a detective. He is referring to his workload, but there's something else going on here, too. Poor Kurt. Now he's down there, he can't imagine ever seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Rachel Cooke is the New Statesman's TV critic.

A DVD edition of series one and two of the BBC "Wallander" is released on 8 February (£39.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven