The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

precious

The novels of Alexander McCall Smith are far from being a guilty pleasure – they are a treasure, read over and again, every beautifully chosen word savoured like a drop of fine whiskey. But if a cup of bush tea is more your style, his novels about the lady detective Precious Ramotswe, set in Botswana, are even better than his novels set in Edinburgh.

It’s easy to fall in love with Precious and her friends and her beloved country, through the pages of these books. But can the magic of McCall Smith’s prose have the same effect on TV? The very idea of this being attempted, with additional characters and the other changes that TV producers think are essential to make something so unconventional (the lead character is a fat woman!) appeal to the average TV viewer.

First of all, it is very well cast. Jill Scott is perfect as Precious, a glowing goddess of a woman, brushing off cruel remarks about her weight because Daddy didn’t raise a wimp. In her opinion she is merely ‘traditionally built’ and loves food – what’s wrong with that? She is a woman who inspires love and hope and trust – and she’s a very good detective, even if she did learn it out of a book. Her offsider Mma Grace Makutsi is likewise not bothered about her appearance – she scored 97% in her final test at Botswana Secretarial School. She has a weakness for beautiful shoes, but even that is not as important as her accomplishments. These women are fine role models.

So is the man who loves Precious, a mechanic who comes to the rescue of anyone with a stuttering engine and no money, especially the struggling owner of a local orphanage. These people are as opposite to most modern TV dramas as it is possible to be. They live in humble houses, they share their offices with free roaming chickens, drive on mostly unsealed roads and the background to their lives is the largely untamed beauty of Botswana, that they share with giraffes, lions, crocodiles and mischievous monkeys.

The cast for the pilot episode are handpicked black talent including Idris Elba, Colin Salmon and David Oyelowo to name a few, but the faces of Botswana are also represented, with wonderful Kalahari faces and long-limbed locals. It is imbued with the flavour and character of Botswana, the people, the bush scenery and the bush tea. Africans who come to Australia are always overjoyed to find rooibus (bush) tea on sale. That may have had something to do with the popularity of the books here. The TV series, alas, did not fare so well.

It lasted one season, then HBO gave it the boot, leaving a clanging cliffhanger unresolved. Not the first time, of course, because TV execs are only interested in ratings, not viewer happiness. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has gone the way of the dodo and Dinotopia. So rarely do we in the west get to lose ourselves in another culture, another country, with characters we can relate to and love, that it is a wrench to lose this one. Especially now, when we really need to reach out and understand one another. That’s what the Asian Cinema Cafe endorses, so no apologies for an African review instead of an Asian one.

There are DVD sets available of the first – and only – season. I have one of those and the cover design is as beautiful as the books. Well worth tracking down, but if you want to know what happens with those two enchanting children that are capturing certain hearts in Gaborone, and what happens to Grace Makutsi, so well deserving of happiness, you will have to read the books. No hardship there, I assure you.

Get the DVD here

Find other fans here

Get books by Alexander McCall Smith here and here

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