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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

a DVD set review by Heather Craig

It is seldom that a television series leaves one feeling truly good about life, but that is my experience watching The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I’m not surprised. That has been my experience reading the book series as well. (I have read them all in order and I’m currently reading book nine, Miracle at Speedy Motors.)

When Precious Ramotswe’s beloved daddy dies, he leaves her enough cattle to sell to begin her own detective agency, the first in Botswana to be run by a woman. So begins our friendship with Precious, a woman imbued with self confidence, kindness, and a deep-seated  hunger for justice. Describing herself as “traditionally built” with no apologies, Precious is a woman who knows who she is and is fine with it. Joyfully played by three-time Grammy winner Jill Scott (who reportedly enjoyed gaining weight for the role), Precious is sympathetic, resourceful, and no fool. Nor is she perfect, as her Daddy’s last words that when she marries again, “marry a man who is kind,” show us. Precious was so abused in her marriage to a famous trumpet player that it caused her to lose a baby. She is determined to never be such a victim again, but she faces life with dignity and much humor.

The other characters are as well-drawn. The secretary she hires, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) is extremely tightly wound, repressed, and inflexible, clinging tightly to the fact that she scored an unheard of 97% in secretarial school, her only true accomplishment. J.L.B.  Matekoni (Lucian Msamati) is a successful mechanic with his own shop, whose trade brings him into constant contact with Precious who refuses to retire her old truck. He is a gentle (dare I say kind?) man who is completely smitten by her if a little intimidated by her self-sufficiency.  B.K. (Desmond Dube) the sweet, flamboyant owner of Last Chance Hair Salon, next door to the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, considers himself on a par with the detective. “We can both change a life in an afternoon,” he claims.

Precious and Grace’s cases are not murder. There are no explosions. They do not carry guns. Most clients need something found out discreetly. Perhaps they suspect a spouse is cheating. Perhaps a son is missing. Perhaps two members of a complex household have each accused the other of poisoning people. Perhaps a dentist seems to be two different people, depending on the day. Then Mma Ramotswe is your woman. She is concerned with things being made right for the people involved, which may or may not have anything to do with the legality of the situation.

Academy Award winning executive producer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) was a fan of the book series and was the creative force behind the making of this seven episode season. He made the wise choice to film on location in Botswana. Extras and many of the actors are Botswanan. The stark beauty of the landscape and the open friendliness of the people are characters here. It all seems so lovely that I would like to go there one day.

The culture in Gabarone, Boswana is a formal one. People address each other as Mma or Rra, dependent on gender, and a greeting must be exchanged before business can be transacted. It is also a very musical culture, in which seemingly everyone can sing and dance. Admittedly the life we see here is fairly idyllic. While domestic abuse and AIDS are acknowledged as problems, they are never a plot focus, even when they are the cause of the immense number of orphans in the country. Much is made in the special features on the DVD that the Botswanan people appreciated a story about them that was not about war nor about AIDS.

Each episode is in English with some Setswanan phrases, and is accompanied by a three to five minute Author Talk with Alexander McCall Smith in which he explains what gave him the idea for that chapter. He also gives many plugs for Botswana itself, including for a game reserve which has been named after him, but also many lauds for the extreme friendliness of the people. Other special features include several short interviews with cast and crew, a piece on Botswana as a country, and The Beat of Botswana, which includes several songs performed by local artists.

The episodes are based on the set of internationally bestselling books, and not specifically the one called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. For example,  the primary plot of the episode “The Boy with the African Heart” is taken from book two, Tears of the Giraffe. The pilot was co-written by Anthony Minghella himself. With his death and that of producer Sydney Pollack (two months apart), the making of a second season has unfortunately been indefinitely tabled. That is truly a shame because this delightful series deserves a long run.


Return to Issue 33