August 19, 2007

WE SHALL BE OVERCOME:

The day the No1 Ladies' Detective Agency came to life (Alexander McCall Smith, 19th August 2007, Daily Mail)

Each year at about this time I come to Botswana, the country where Precious Ramotswe – Mma Ramotswe, as she is known – runs her small detective agency at the back of her husband's garage.

I usually come to speak to people, to hear the stories that will appear in the next volume of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

I also come to soak up the atmosphere of this extraordinary southern African country, to look out over its vistas of plains dotted with acacia trees, to gaze into its high sky that arches over a landscape that seems to go on for ever.

This visit, though, is special.

Film director Anthony Minghella is here to translate the Mma Ramotswe books into film, and I am here in Gaborone, Botswana's capital, to visit the set and meet the actors who will be playing my characters on screen.

This will bring me face to face, for the first time, with the actress who has been chosen to be Mma Ramotswe.

The woman who has lived in my imagination for ten years or so is now being made flesh. [...]

Life in sub-Saharan Africa is not easy. In a dry country such as Botswana, for all its blessings, life is often quite hard, and this shows in the faces of the people.

The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency tells the story of Precious Ramotswe, a spirited woman from Botswana who uses the cattle left to her by her father to set up a small detective agency.

It is Botswana's first detective agency and she has no experience, but she makes a go of it. After an early, disastrous marriage to an abusive trumpet-player, Precious eventually marries Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, the owner of a nearby garage, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

Now I am being driven along a bumpy dirt road on a small industrial site on the edge of Gaborone. The road is blocked by a police car and there is a small crowd of onlookers, but we are waved through. And there it is, specially built for the film, Speedy Motors (as it has now become).

On the roadside, a fruit vendor tends a stall but sells nothing – an extra playing her role to convincing effect. There's a blue Jeep with Speedy Motors and the name of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni emblazoned on the side.

They have constructed the garage in its entirety – complete with old engines, all the necessary tools and grease on the floor.

And this is the point when I come face to face for the first time with the fictional characters of the series. American jazz singer Jill Scott, who plays Mma Ramotswe, certainly looks the part – traditionally built and with a face-bisecting smile.

Scott seems extremely modest and, most importantly, seems to understand the potential sensitivity of an African-American actress coming in to play the part of an African woman. Her modesty and courtesy are well suited for the part, and I suspect that Minghella's instincts in choosing her are exactly right.

'I hope that I'm doing it right,' says Scott, in the accent not of the American jazz singer that she is, but of an African woman. 'Is this how you see her?'

'You're doing it beautifully.'

I mean it: she seems to have found the voice remarkably quickly. Later, in conversation with the dialect coach, I am told: 'That woman has an ear! She can do it.'

And then Mr J.L.B. Matekoni himself appears in his mechanic's overalls. Lucian Msamati is a classically trained actor with a rich, bass voice. He is the ideal Mr J.L.B.

Matekoni – and a great foil to his two feckless apprentices, played with style by two young actors Minghella discovered in an acting workshop in Johannesburg.

'You have to tell me something,' says Lucian. 'What do the initials J.L.B. stand for?'

This is never revealed in the books, but I will tell people if asked directly. I whisper in his ear. He laughs. [...]

Later, Minghella draws me into Mma Ramotswe's office, now transformed by the addition of furniture. He produces a small computer on which are stored some of the sequences already filmed.

'I want to show you the scene where the teacher is reunited with his lost son,' he says. 'We did that the other day.'

Suddenly on the screen there is a group of schoolchildren singing.

Their singing falters and the teacher sees his kidnapped son, rescued by Mma Ramotswe, running across a dusty playground to embrace him. It is so beautifully filmed that I find myself struggling with emotion. I give in.

Minghella puts a hand on my shoulder. 'That's exactly what it did to me,' he says; the kindest thing for one man to say to another when one man is overcome.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2007 6:59 PM
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