In the UK: Sunday 23rd March, BBC1, 9pm. Series starts next year
In the US: HBO, but no airdate yet
Some TV programmes are easier to review than others. Some are a lot harder.
Take The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, for instance. I’ve not read the book or any of its sequels. But that’s all right, surely? As the name suggests, it’s a crime novel (of sorts) about a detective agency, and it’s easy enough to judge a show on its own merits, just as you can judge The Tudors without having a degree in history – although it would help.
But another obstacle is the fact it’s set in Botswana, which is where the TV series is shot. What do I know about Botswana? I know where it is, thanks to my recent, slightly pointless project to memorise the map of Africa. But I’ve never been there. I know some Africans, and quite a lot of my neighbours are from Africa, but none, to my knowledge, are from Botswana. I know nothing about its culture, its people, or its languages. I can rip the piss out of Lost for making London a tad too rainy and not putting a Belisha Beacon in front of Covent Garden underground station. But a TV show could stick a giant inflatable statue of Norman Wisdom in every town in Botswana, say he was their Prime Minister, and I wouldn’t know if that was authentic or not without a good deal of Googling and Wikipediaing – although I’d have my suspicions.
All the same, let’s give it a go with a little assistance from my viewing panel: my mother-in-law, who has read all the Alexander McCall-Smith books, and my wife, from whom she borrowed them and who is to reading books what I am to watching tele (but who spends the time she would have spent blogging reading more books instead of writing about them).
When Precious Ramotswe was young, she spent her days with Obed, her father, in the wilds of Botswana learning the secrets of nature, and with that the joys of a natural inquisitiveness and intuition.
When Obed dies, he leaves Precious the first ‘step-up’ into her new career – one hundred and eighty cows. With this investment she decides to become her country’s first ever female detective.
With a bad marriage to jazz musician Note Makoti behind her, the sassily independent Precious Ramotswe embarks on a radical and exciting new chapter in her life.
Precious is not deterred by town gossips and despite few assets, a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, two decrepit typewriters, a teapot and three teacups, she sets up her detective agency with a powerful sense of vocation.
The most troubling of her cases however, involves an evil form of witchcraft and the riddle surrounding a kidnapping…
Was it any good?
There are all sorts of different views of Africa presented in the Western media. There’s the "Africa as problem that needs our charity" depiction that’s usually out of date or hideously inaccurate, such as Blood Diamond‘s or Lost‘s (even I can spot that Eko isn’t exactly a Nigerian name and Eko’s background was a touch more Somalian than Nigerian); and there’s the "Africa as tourist destination" school, characterised by Out of Africa, etc.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is very much a piece for Westerners looking in at Botswana, rather than a "By Botswanas, for Botswanans" piece. Nevertheless, it’s a firmly three-dimensional Botswana we get shown. Yes, it does have a few problems, like HIV/AIDS and crime. Yes, Botswana could be a nice tourist destination – ooh, giraffes and rhinos! But yes, Botswana could be a good place to do business in: it has insurance companies, modern technology and cars. And it has all sorts of people there, some of them superstitious, some of them not. They go out to nightclubs, listen to music. They’re people.
There’s no single element that dominates, though, other than the plot itself. Remember how The Bill used to be, back when it was only concerned with burglaries and handbag thefts? That’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detectve Agency: no gun fights, no explosions – just a ‘traditionally built’ Botswanan woman investigating failing marriages and the like. In fact, it’s a bit slow, truth be told, something that isn’t helped by (the sadly deceased) Anthony Minghella’s pacing – nice character direction, though, which was always one of his strengths.
Despite the simplicity of the plots and occasional predictability, it was actually quite clever, with some expectations defeated. Yet inevitably for something that’s clearly intended as heart-wearming and life-affirming from the first moment, punches are pulled, endings are all happy and even The Wire‘s Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who’s almost unrecognisable here, doesn’t manage to do much more than put the creeps up Precious. It’s Miss Marple: The Botswana Edition.
My viewing panel tells me that as an adaptation, it’s very faithful to the book, bar the inclusion of a gay hairdresser and Precious Ramotswe being a bit younger and thinner onscreen than she’s depicted in print. Incredibly, it’s also far quicker paced than the book, which is much more philosophical. They both loved it though.
I’m not sure I loved it as much as they did. A little too tame and just a little too "Ooh look, it’s Africa!" for me. And even though I couldn’t tell a Botswanan accent from a Mozambique accent, I could spot a few duff ones on display from some of the Western actors. But it’s different enough to be a refreshing change and heart-warming enough for Sunday evening viewing before a hard day at work.
Still, with the mighty Colin Salmon relegated to a non-speaking role as Precious’s ex-husband, it was obvious that this was intended as the first in a series, even before the BBC and HBO agreed to a further 13 episodes. Prepare yourself for more of Precious and company. With only five or so books to go with, it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the characters and how faithful they remain to them in future episodes.
Here’s a little YouTube vid from CNN that goes behind the scenes to speak to the actors.
Jill Scott (Precious Ramotswe)
Anika Noni Rose (Mma Makutsi)
Colin Salmon (Note Makoti)
Vasco Shoba (Obed)
Desmond Dube (BK)
Lucian Msamati (JLB Matekoni)
Bongeka Mpongwana (Happy Bapetsi)
Nikki Amuka Bird (Alice Busang)
David Oyelowo (Kremlin Busang)
Lindani Nkosi (Hector Lepodise)
Idris Elba (Charlie Kgotso)