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Branagh's back to wow once again

There's a bit of a debate going on at the moment about which of the following is the best: Wallander on BBC1 or Wallander on BBC4. In theory, the latter should have the edge.

It's a Swedish-made version of Swedish author Henning Mankel's crime thrillers, starring a wholly Swedish cast, therefore it has to be better, right? Well, yes, except this is one of those cases where the practice disproves the theory.

Excellent as it is, what BBC4's Wallander doesn't have is Kenneth Branagh, who is a fantastic asset. Branagh is a brilliant actor, one of the best in the business, but his very brilliance is what was almost his undoing.

He seemed to be so good at everything (acting, directing and promoting himself via an autobiography written when he was just 27) that the image he projected -- partly self-constructed, it has to be said -- as the natural heir to Laurence Olivier, was a target just waiting to be demolished.

Branagh had been missing from television for a long time before Wallander came along. His return has reminded us just what we'd been missing. Without Branagh, Wallander would be just another murder mystery; with him, however, it's compelling viewing.

Like John Thaw's Inspector Morse and Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, Kenneth Branagh's Wallander is as much about the character and the actor playing him. Last night's episode was a satisfying enough whodunnit about a hooded serial killer and featured some suitably grisly murders, but the reason you found yourself watching so intently was Branagh.

Wallander was distracted from the investigation by the death of his father (played by another wonderful actor, David Warner), which offered Branagh the opportunity to deliver an understated portrait of a man in grief. The temptation for any actor to overact must be great, yet Branagh controlled the impulse and perfectly captured the numbness of bereavement.

Some actors benefit from getting older and Branagh is one of them. He has grown into his face. Once fresh and youthful and full of the promise of things to come, it's now marked with the lines of experience, and maybe a little disappointment, too. It's a great face -- a real actor's face -- and it's a pleasure to watch it in action again.

There has always been something faintly distasteful about The Secret Millionaire. The notion of sending a rich, successful individual into a deprived community to dole out cash like sweets to so-called deserving causes is patronising, no matter how well-intentioned.

As part of Channel 4's Indian Winter season -- which has yielded a number of excellent programmes, including Kevin McCloud's Slumming It -- entrepreneur Seema Sharma visited Mumbai for Slumdog Secret Millionaire.

The slums of Mumbai are stomach-churning, yet you'd have to burrow long and hard into a mound of rubbish to find anything as physically revolting as the sight of Seema ostentatiously whipping out her chequebook and giving a woman who spends her days foraging on a tip 25,000 rupees, which is about €200.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews The School (RTE1) and learns A History of the World (BBC2)


Wallander ****

Slumdog Secret Millionaire *