Her spirit is as big as Africa, and her inquisitiveness is even bigger.
Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) is Botswana’s finest female detective. In fact Mma Ramotswe is Botswana’s only female detective. But she takes enormous pride in opening her new business on the dusty streets of a small village, as written in the novels of the same name by writer Alexander McCall-Smith. And she has much to prove.
This HBO / BBC series is unlike anything else on the box, if only for its vibrant location. The 2008/9 series comes with an impeccable pedigree: Its producers include the Weinstein Brothers (Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, Good Will Hunting), the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley), the late Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Presumed Innocent, The Electric Horseman) and Richard Curtis (The Vicar of Dibley, Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary).
Fittingly, The No. #1 Ladies Detective Agency is filmic in style, with lush cinematography capturing the arid landscape of this country as the sun beats upon it. Minghella’s pilot episode was the last screenplay he ever directed. He sets the tone of the series, lovingly bringing to life the colours and music of Botswana, contrasting its widespread poverty. There are wide shots cars beating through desert roads, camera cranes hovering over bustling village markets, and at the centre is Scott as Ramotswe, who insists there is no problem so great that it can’t be solved with a cup of bush tea.
In the first episode Ramotswe appears as a curious young girl who, following the death of her father, applies her craft as a woman to her self-declared occupation. She opens an office in a ramshackle Post Office, hires a forthright graduate secretary in Mma Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) and solicits business from wives whose husbands have strayed.
It doesn’t take long before she has cases with real crime.
Botswana may be bursting with songs of praise from its churches, but there are black markets, contraband and violence on the edges of this stark community. Ramotswe never shrinks from a fight, even from the country’s most fearsome thugs. Watching a woman square off against such threats is one of the attractions of the series.
The other is Jill Scott, who turns in a spirited performance as Ramotswe, easily shifting from the story’s dramatic moments to its lighter scenes. Together with Lucian Msamati as car mechanic Mr. JLB Matekoni and Desmond Dube as the flamboyant BK owner of the Last Chance Hair Salon, this is a formidable ensemble. Only the righteous Grace Makutsi will prove a challenge, both to Ramotswe and possibly to the audience. She never lets up on being right and reminding us of her 97% Secretary School Grades -the highest ever.
Clearly produced by UK and US interests on location in Botswana, it is hard not to see the series as an outsider’s interpretation of African life. Indeed two of the four principal actors are American. Support characters are so far two-dimensional, potentially reiterating African stereotypes. How would the end product compare had it been crafted by the African film community? Or would it never have been made at all?
Nevertheless, the series has so much point of difference from other crime dramas it is afforded much virtue simply for putting itself, and potentially Botswana, on the map. This is an easy hour of entertainment because it has some of the best names in the biz on board.
Precious Ramotswe is full of mad methodology in crime-busting. She is sure to surprise.
The No. #1 Ladies Detective Agency airs 8:30pm Wednesdays on Showcase.