Monday, September 10, 2007
Watching the Detective
In 2004 I interviewed Alexander McCall Smith in his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. The bow-tie wearing author of the bestselling novels about ‘The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ lived in the same street as J.K Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) and Ian Rankin (author of the Inspector Rebus novels)
At the time, I remember thinking, wow, that’s quite a thing - to have all three of the United Kingdom’s literary big hitters living, almost, side by side. Perhaps there is something in the street’s water supply to boost literary creativity?
While Rowling and Rankin have imagined up a boy wizard and police inspector, McCall Smith has conjured up of a well-meaning lady detective from Botswana.
He called his African heroine Precious Ramotswe and is she the enterprising proprietor of Botswana’s first detective agency. Mma Ramotswe solves crimes with her woman’s intuition, a canny understanding of human nature and a slightly meddling attitude to life.
However, McCall Smith’s detective stories are hardly heart stopping thrillers or gripping mystery novels. In fact, as McCall Smith conceded to me in that 2004 interview, “Not a lot happens” in his detective books except for a “lot of drinking of tea and eating of cake.”
It is testament to McCall Smith’s writing that such slow paced and simple stories have become an international literary phenomenon. So far they have sold around 15 million copies and being translated in 40 languages.
But despite the success of the books, I imagined it would be quite difficult to make a Hollywood movie that just focused on the mundane day-to-day activities of a Botswana lady detective who drinks a lot of tea and eats a lot of cake.
But the film seems to have captured the charm, pace and endearing quirkiness of the novels – from what I saw in the three days I spent on the film set.
Anthony Minghella – the Oscar winning director of one of my all time favourite films ‘The English Patient’ - co-wrote the script with Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary) and is directing too.
I have not hung out on a film set before so I have absolutely no point of reference – but Minghella seems to have an open and easy going directing style. His method of filmmaking seems to mirror Alexander McCall Smith’s style of writing - there is wry humour, clever cheekiness and generosity of spirit stamped on both the novel and screenplay.
The coveted role of Precious Ramotswe went to American actress and singer Jill Scott. She is in just about every scene in the movie so it was difficult to find time to interview her – but I eventually chatted to her at the end of a long day’s filming. She said one of things she really enjoyed about the role was putting on weight – her character is ‘traditionally built’ (Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful turn of phrase for somebody who has a fuller figure).
There were a few other familiar faces on the set – Anika Noni Rose (fresh from the Oscar winning Dreamgirls) and Colin Salmon (from the last three James Bond films)
While it was fascinating watching the professional actors work – it was the VIP extras really made the story for me.
Joining the cast for a funeral scene was Trevor Muamba, the Bishop of Gaborone.
I thought the bishop was the most unlikely film star but he felt he is more than qualified to play the role of a village priest who ‘officiates’ at the funeral of Mma Ramotswe’s father.
The bishop told me that acting was not that different from his day job because, he said, being a bishop (or a lawyer or a politician) necessitated some role-playing.
I got to see him in action – both on and off the set – and he was right, his ‘acting’ did not look much different from his real life preaching.
Also, as an Anglican bishop Muamba gets to ‘dress up’ in purple robes and a strikingly majestic looking mitre when he preaches at the Gaborone cathedral. In real life, I think his bishop’s costume was so much more theatrical than the plain black and white cassock he dons for the movie.
The bishop was also wonderfully comfortable in the make-up chair. An excellent conversationalist – he chatted happily to the make-up artist Kerry as she tried to give him a more ‘chiselled’ look. He even quipped that he should get her come and ‘do’ his face in the cathedral before his services.
The Bishop was joined on the set by another Botswana highflier.
I met the Minister of Health, Sheila Tlou, in her trailer on the set. This bubbly cabinet minister had the role of ‘Woman Mourner No1’ – she was in the same funeral scene as the bishop.
She seemed completely undaunted by her Hollywood debut and came across as someone who takes her amateur acting very seriously. She’s a member of many of Gaborone’s theatre groups.
In fact, she told me, acting is ‘therapy’ for her, “When you are Minister of Health, anything can happen anytime and you literally hold the lives of people in your hands. So once in a while you need something where you can forget about who you are.”
When I asked her how she was planning to slip into her role as the most senior ‘mourner.’ Mrs Tlou told me she was planning to sing very loudly.
Well, I can tell you, she did far better than that. During the filming of the funeral service there was indeed a lot of singing. But I am quite sure I also spotted real tears running down the face of “Woman Mourner No 1.”
She’s a real pro.
-- From Robyn Curnow, CNN International Correspondent, in Botswana.
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