The BBC are currently repeating the wonderful Swedish detective series "Wallander" on BBC4, and it is one of the few programmes I watch and look forward to. The series is quite unlike most other detective series in that it is relentlessly downbeat, and pervaded by a sense of melancholy and world-weariness; a feeling enhanced by the washed-out colours and the dilapidated bleakness of the locations selected. There is more than a suggestion of an inherent disgust with a society that allows the mundane cruelty, suffering and pain, and the many petty indignities which the Ystad police witness with such regularity.
One of the lead characters is the detective's daughter and fellow police officer, Linda Wallander, played by the Swedish actress, Johanna Sallstrom (pictured above). Linda is a young, fit and healthy woman, starting out on a career as a newly recruited policewoman, who has obtained rapid promotion to detective. Yet her character seems haunted by the same sadness that affects her father, the experienced and worn-down, Kurt Wallander, whose face is a mirror of the toll his job has taken. Somehow, this trait never quite rang true with me, despite her father's character. Very few women in their twenties have that quality overshadowing them, and especially not when advancing well in their chosen profession, and living a full and active life.
It is revealed later in the series, however, that Linda's mother is a psychotic alcoholic and is in a psychiatric hospital, and that Linda, herself, had tried to commit suicide when her parent's marriage fell apart. I was quite in awe of Johanna's ability to transmit this so consistently in her portrayal of Linda, whilst being a busy and dedicated police officer. A rare talent, indeed.
The mystery was solved for me recently, when I happened to read an article about Johanna Sallstrom. Johanna's was not a happy life, despite her great talent and burgeoning success. She was a teenage star of soap operas and films, winning an award for her part in Under Ytan (Beneath the Surface). Yet, she found it hard to cope with the attention this brought, and in 1997 she took a break from acting and moved to Denmark, where she worked in a cafe.
She returned to Sweden in 2000, and resumed her career. She struggled financially, landing only occasional bit parts and faced eviction from her home, even as she was pregnant with her daughter, Talulah. She divorced from her husband shortly after Talulah's birth, and later confessed she was so lonely that she welcomed the visit of a court official, assessing her eviction She invited him in for coffee, as he was the first human contact she had had in so many days. She was at the lowest possible ebb when she landed the role of Linda Wallander.
This should have been a turning point for her, and she seemed set for happiness with her young daughter and a dream role, but in December 2004 she was holidaying on a beach in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami swept in, devastating the coast and, as it turned out, Johanna's life. She managed to save her own, and her daughter's, life by clinging to a tree, but saw many hundreds of people killed around her, including friends and dozens of fellow Swedes, who favoured these resorts.
Johanna seems never to have recovered from that experience, and a naturally shy and fragile person, who already struggled with the demands of her chosen profession, was haunted by what she had experienced and seen in Thailand. Much of that trauma seems etched on her face in the Wallander films. In filming some of these episodes, she must have been faced with many of her personal demons to do with death, mental illness and the tsunami. The shock and distress we see on Linda's face was probably all too real at times for Johanna.
Although intensely private, Johanna gave an interview early in 2006, in which she revealed that she had not expected to live to 30 (she was then 31), and implied suicidal thoughts in the past, but that she was looking forward to her future career, and enjoying life with her daughter. Sadly, her mental state rapidly declined after the filming of Wallander ended, and she was admitted to a psychiatric unit in Malmo.
It was some months later, on 13 February, 2007, whilst on an unsupervised visit to her flat, that Johanna took her own life by a prescription drugs overdose.
It is tragic that a young mother should have been so traumatised by her 2004 experiences, and by the demands of the public spotlight and life in general, that she should have chosen to leave her young daughter alone in that manner. It is even more sad when that woman was a beautiful, gentle and talented woman, who had so much to offer, and so much to look forward to, and who was finally achieving the career success and stability that she had struggled so hard for.
This story affected me deeply when I read it. Henning Mankell, who wrote the "Wallander" books and scripts, was so upset by her death, that he has not written another "Wallander" story since, and swears that no-one will ever replace her in any future "Wallander" books or films.
I feel a tangible connection with Johanna through my own experiences of clinical depression, my appreciation of her talent, and love of her work, and through my regard for the Skane region of Sweden where she lived. I was unaware of her death when I first saw "Wallander", and my second viewing is now highly coloured by my knowledge of it.
Like Kurt WallanderSallstrom should have felt the need to take such a step? It is clear that the tsunami paid a large part in her subsequent illness, but Johanna was already in trouble long before that.
Our obsessive individualism has robbed us of much of the support and solace we could traditionally have turned to, and even the best medical systems are not adequate to replace them. Our celebrity culture places intolerable burdens on those who seek to use their talents, but do not seek the fame and attention that that now entails. Our vicarious interest in their every word and deed seems guaranteed to drive many others down that path, as it has so many already. But, it is not just the celebrity elites that are so afflicted.
All the indications are that such mental illness is afflicting more and more of us throughout society, and across much of the world. It afflicts young and old, rich and poor. It corrodes the families, communities and organisations that should be the foundations of our lives. Is this society and culture the best we humans can devise when it drives so many of us to the brink of insanity, and all too often beyond?
6 days ago