The Lady Is Still #1
April 2, 2009 by Chip Wood
I guess it was inevitable that I’d be disappointed. I had looked forward to seeing the show for weeks. It was based on one of my favorite book series. It was filmed in an exotic locale and made to look as authentic as possible. Three of the best-known names in the entertainment industry (HBO, BBC, and the Weinstein brothers) had combined to produce it.
With all that going for it, how could it possibly live up to my expectations? The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t.
But don’t let my mild disappointment dissuade you. “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency” is still an enchanting series. Whether you watch it Sunday nights on HBO or read the books by Alexander McCall Smith, chances are you too will be smitten.
You are sure to enjoy seeing our heroine — the “traditionally built” Precious Ramotswe — use a sharp eye, her intuitive understanding, and a healthy dollop of common sense to solve the problems her clients bring her. Jill Scott, an American actress and Grammy-winning singer, does an incredible job portraying Mma Ramotswe. And my oh my, does she dress well. It seemed as though in every scene she wears a different, brilliantly colored outfit. If some dress-manufacturer in Africa has inked a deal with HBO to promote its business, the product placement Sunday night was great advertising for it.
By the way, author Smith claims that he invented the term “traditionally built” to describe a native woman of generous portions. The phrase has become so accepted that the author says it can be found in the latest Oxford Dictionary.
All of the action in “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency” takes place in and around Gaborone, the capital of the tiny, land-locked African country of Botswana. The series’ author, Alexander McCall Smith, was for many years a law professor at the University of Botswana. Although he now lives in Scotland, it is clear that he has fond memories of his adopted country. In his retelling, it is a place of gentility and serenity — a community where people address each other politely and hardly anyone raises a voice in anger. He captures all of that very well in his writing. And I’m happy to say, so did the producers of “The #1 Ladies” TV series.
While what you see in the show is certainly uncommon, what is even more unusual is what you won’t see … or hear. There is no blood-soaked violence, no gratuitous sex, no profane cursing — not even an occasional mild “damn” or “hell.” There is nothing in the books or TV show that would make a maiden aunt blush. Watching “The #1 Ladies,” you will find it hard to believe that it is being brought to you by the same network that produced “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” which seemed to use the “f-word” in every second sentence.
The first show in the series was directed by Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella and produced by another Oscar winner, Sydney Pollack. Sadly, both gentlemen died before the series was finished. But as one reviewer said, the program is “a fitting cap to their career legacies.”
When Hollywood movie-maker Harvey Weinstein originally bought the rights to the books, he envisioned making a series of movies, not TV shows. “It was going to be my James Bond — the gentlest James Bond in the universe,” he said. Still, he says he is incredibly pleased with the result: “Of everything I’ve ever done in this industry, nothing makes me prouder than this television show, of all things.”
For those of you who missed last week’s show, and have never read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, here is a brief synopsis of the story line. When her beloved father dies, Precious Ramotswe inherits his collection of 180 cattle. Precious wants a new life for herself, but she also yearns to help her people and her beloved homeland. “I love my country Botswana,” she says early in the show, “and I love Africa. I want to do good with the time God has given me.”
She decides to sell the cattle and use the proceeds to start a detective agency. Somehow, she has come across a copy of a book, The Principles of Private Detection, by an American private eye, Clovis Andersen, and thinks she would make an excellent detective. The lessons in the book will form the bedrock of her approach to the cases that are brought to her. She says, “I know I will succeed, because a woman knows what’s going on more than a man.”
Precious hires an incredibly efficient secretary, Grace Makutsi, who scored a legendary 97% on her final exam at the Botswana Secretary School. Grace, who is played almost too exuberantly by Anika Noni Rose, is socially awkward, even inept. But she makes up in enthusiasm what she may lack in good judgment. She is the legendary lady who will always jump in (at least vocally) where angels fear to tread.
Another key player in the series is the stolid and reliable automobile mechanic, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He is smitten by Precious and, to show his affection, is determined to keep her ancient little white van running. Much later in the books (and perhaps even in the TV show), he and Precious become man and wife. Even then, she always refers to him by his full name, including all three initials.
And then there is BK, a gay hairdresser who sends Precious clients and offers an endless stream of advice. BK did not appear in any of the books; he was added to the series, probably by a fan of “Sheer Madness” or some other show featuring a stereotypical gay hairdresser. Grace doesn’t know what to make of this person, who seems to have “a lot of girl in him,” as she remarks. But Precious enjoys his company and is amused by his remarks — as you will be, too.
When USA Today ran a preview of the show last week, the headline read, “She’s Precious, show’s perfect.” The article said in part,
“Anyone who hasn’t read Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ novels may be surprised by how lovely he makes life in Botswana seem, and how enchanting his characters are.”
The reviewer, Robert Bianco, added, “As much as anything, Ladies is McCall’s attempt to counter some of the stereotypes many of us have about Africa, and to share and explain the affection he has for a world where gentility and formality still have a place. You’ll hear it as much as see it: Contractions are seldom used, women refer to each other as ‘my sister,’ and people address each other with honorifics and last names.”
Bianco concluded his piece by noting, “this is as good an adaption as any Ladies lover could wish, one that overflows with the joys of life and exudes an all-embracing spirit. Be ready to be beguiled.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. So I hope you will give this lovely and hope-affirming series a try. The next installment airs this coming Sunday night on HBO. But reruns are shown many times during the week. Plunk yourself down (or turn on your Tivo) and prepare to be transported to a kinder and gentler place.
At the conclusion of one of her cases, Precious remarks to herself, “when people ask for advice, they very rarely want your advice and will go ahead and do what they want anyway, no matter what you said. That applied to every sort of case; it was a human truth of universal application, but one which most people knew little or nothing about.”
As you will discover, Precious has a deep and innate understanding of the human spirit. And she likes us anyway.
You will definitely reciprocate her affection.