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Tony Grist

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The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency [Mar. 24th, 2008|10:27 am]
Tony Grist
Botswana basks in the light of a never-ending afternoon. Is that golden glow for real, or did they achieve it with filters? You've got to suspect the latter, else why haven't we heard of this heaven on earth before? And why aren't all of us who can afford it living there?

I've just read a dismissive review in the Times. Their critic says Alexander McCall Smith's dialogue is unsayable. Oh, really?  I found it mannered but charming- like the dialogue in Wodehouse. I laughed a lot. And my worries about things turning out to be too insufferably whimsical were effectively chased off the field by Idris Elba's chilling turn as the local hard man.

Admittedly this is an indulgent outsider's view of Africa, the faces behind the camera were all white, the lead actors were all either British or American and the guiding sensibility is resolutely Anglo- in a tradition of gentle, pastoral comedy that goes back to the Forest of Arden and takes in Wodehouse, H.E. Bates, Whiskey Galore and the Vicar of Dibley. Nothing wrong with that. This is family entertainment, not documentary. This is a script co-authored by Richard Curtis.

Even so, we're talking about a landmark production- Mingella's last film, the first feature ever shot in Botswana- and when was the last time you saw a British movie in which every single cast member was black? Or a film about black people where race isn't an issue? Or a film in which the star- the radiant Jill Scott- is a black woman of "traditional build"? It seems unlikely but this unpretentious, sweet, little movie is both a marker and an agent of change. There is, after all, such a thing as a velvet revolution.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: karenkay
2008-03-24 11:44 am (UTC)
I don't think that the "guiding sensibility" of the book was "resolutely Anglo". Actually, the contrary. But your comparison of Alexander McCall Smith's dialogue to Wodehouse is a good one, I think.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-24 12:19 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the book so I can't comment. The film, though, is essentially an up-dated Ealing comedy.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2008-03-24 12:22 pm (UTC)
I absolutely loathed the book and found it unsufferably patronising. This is a view very few people share, however, so I seem to be reading it wrong, or something.

I actually thought the dramatisation worked much better, perhaps because I expected less of it?
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[User Picture]From: frumiousb
2008-03-24 12:35 pm (UTC)
I shared this feeling about the book, so much so that I could not bring myself to see the film. I didn't loathe it, but found it incredibly patronising and really wondered why others had not had the same reaction.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2008-03-24 02:07 pm (UTC)
This puzzles me too. Everyone had been raving about the books and they sounded interesting and so I was terribly disappointed when I didn't enjoy them. Oh, there were passages that I thought were moving (Mma Ramotswe's father's experience in the mines, for example), but I'd expected a sort of African Miss Marple, I suppose, and instead the cases were solved at a stroke with extremely simplistic solutions that just wouldn't have worked in reality. It was that, along with the constant chorus of how wonderful she was that made me feel it was patronising. It was like smiling indulgently at kiddies playing. Ugh!

But you're one of the few people I've come across who have had a similar reaction, so I remain mystified.
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[User Picture]From: brixtonbrood
2008-03-24 05:56 pm (UTC)
You're far from alone - Dead Ringers took the books to pieces in some detail a few years ago - mostly attacking their failure as detective novels, and the constant choruses of how wonderful our heroine is.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-24 01:06 pm (UTC)
I'd like to know what the Botswanans think of it. Do they feel patronised or are they just happy that the outside world is noticing their existence. I'll admit it does bother me that no Africans seem to have been involved in the project- except as extras- unless McCall Smith counts as one.
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2008-03-24 12:22 pm (UTC)
I loved it, and for the reasons you stated in your last paragraph. The books were like modern fables and the ambiance decidedly upbeat. Precious Ramotswe managed to be both an innocent abroad and a canny operator. I thought the film was absoutely wonderfully true to the books and I look forward to the TV series. What I particularly liked was that Botswana was not really seen as backward, but very sophisticated culturally; remember the Handsome Men's Bar - I think I could go dancing there and have a great evening out.

McCall Smith would be on my list of ideal dinner party guests, he seems very culturally non-judgemental and so positive and affectionate about Africa.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-24 01:10 pm (UTC)
I read an interview with Minghella where he said they were filming this colourful, tribal ritual when someone wandered across the foreground with a bluetooth stuck in his ear.

I'm looking forward to the series too. And a little anxious about whether it'll live up to the standards established in the pilot.

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[User Picture]From: zoe_1418
2008-03-24 02:47 pm (UTC)
I didn't know it had been filmed! I've read most of the books as they've come out, and loved them. Did not see them as patronizing (unlike some readers who've commented here) -- but then, I'm a white American, so maybe I don't have a clue... except that part of the charm for me was that some of Mma Ramotswe's phrasings reminded me VERY much of the ways my Nigerian and Kenyan friends in college would put things.

Is this (the film/pilot, whatever it is) only available in the UK right now?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-24 03:18 pm (UTC)
It was premiered on BBC 1 last night. What happens next I've no idea. Maybe it'll be sold abroad, maybe there'll be a cinema release, maybe it'll go straight to DVD. I should imagine it's being an Anthony Mingella film will create interest.

Although it wasn't marketed as a pilot, we've been told a series will follow next year.

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From: athenais
2008-03-24 04:15 pm (UTC)
I'm a big fan of the series, and look forward to an opportunity to see this show. I also look forward to visiting Botsawana and Namibia next year. But I doubt I'll find anyone as devoted to the old Botswana morality as Mr. JLB Matekoni and Mma Ramotswe.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-24 05:09 pm (UTC)
I don't think you'll be disappointed in the film. It's been made with great affection.
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2008-03-27 06:48 pm (UTC)
Hey! Oh--Kate brought me #1 Detective Agency recently from a book sale and I fell in love with his wit and lightness and tight, spare writing!

It's wonderful to find good books that turn out to be a series of books by a prolific author!

(And I like it that Smith is, "in his spare time, a bassoonist in the PTO {Pretty Terrible Orchestra")!)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-27 07:45 pm (UTC)
I haven't read any of the books, but I may well do so now I've been charmed by the film.
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