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Jill Scott and Richard Curtis Discuss HBO's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"

"Do not look where the harvest is plentiful, but where the people are kind." - Botswana proverb

This Sunday, HBO is launching its newest original series, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, based on the best-selling novel series by Alexander McCall Smith.

The series, created by the late Anthony Mingella and co-writer Richard Curtis, stars Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the very first female-run detective agency in Botswana, as well as Anika Noni Rose, Lucian Msamati, and Desmond Dube, along with a host of high-profile guest stars. A departure for the traditionally bleak dramas at pay cabler HBO, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency offers a glimpse into an Africa that's not the tragedy-ridden one we hear about on the evening news, but a joyful place where mysteries lurk round every corner.

"I was a fan of 'The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency' book series before I even spoke to Anthony Minghella about them," said the series' executive producer Richard Curtis, who co-wrote the two-hour pilot episode with the late Minghella. "I loved the fact that they were full of neat little detective stories that I could tell my kids about at night. And I loved the fact that Africa – so often portrayed as being full of violence and chaos – was shown in all its rich, optimistic humanity and normalcy."

"Then one day Anthony, an old friend, rang me and asked if Id like to work on the TV show with him," he continued. "It was my first TV adaptation and I agreed straightaway, as an opportunity to work with Anthony and with books I loved. I thought we might produce a show that would not only be entertaining but do a lot of good, bringing real Africa into peoples' living rooms as entertainment rather than bad news stories."

Much of the success of that hinged on the performance of singer/actress/poet Jill Scott, who plays the lead in No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe, a headstrong woman who leaves her abusive husband and opens up Botswana's first female-led detective agency in the capital city of Gaborone.

"By far the biggest challenge of the pilot, and where it could have gone completely wrong, was the casting," said Curtis. "And it was very hard indeed finding the perfect lead characters, particularly hard to find Mma Ramotswe. Anthony looked on three continents! The moment we found Jill Scott everything fell into place, because if the fans believe in her, they'll believe in the show. Without that, no amount of cunning plotting and pretty pictures would have gotten us through. And now I think all the cast is so perfect – and the guest stars richly idiosyncratic."

Those guest stars include The Wire's Idris Elba, Doctor Who's Colin Salmon, and Spooks' David Oyelowo in the first two-hour episode alone.

For Scott, meanwhile, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency found her rather than the other way around and provided her with a rich acting challenge.

"It's a funny thing, the project actually found me," she said. "[Anthony] contacted me after a colleague suggested I would be great for the part. He was searching for Precious for years and, after watching a few of my performances on YouTube, I piqued his interest enough for an audition. [...] I wasn't familiar with the series prior to my role, but I know it in and out now. There were many worthwhile challenges. The most vigorous would be the dialect training, which I studied for during the three months while I was touring. Up until now, I am constantly trying to perfect my accent, which isn't an easy one. I love a good challenge and I think my fans support me and love to see me in a new light."

Curtis, meanwhile, was working hard behind the scenes to preserve the vision that Minghella had for the project before his death while also broadening it enough to sustain a series.

"In the original pilot, Anthony explained Mma Ramotswe's complex history, her world, the setting up of the agency and a whole bunch of stories," explained Curtis. "Things can be a bit simpler in the shorter episodes, but we are trying to keep all the flavors that Anthony was aiming for--the reality of the lives of the leading characters and the complexities of Africa--as well as trying to tell cracking detective yarns."

And Curtis knew it was meant to be an ongoing series, rather than just a two-hour film. "I always wanted it to be a series," he admitted. "Not only because the books are a series – and because there are lots of stories to tell – but because I am very keen on the idea of people welcoming Mma Ramotswe and Botswana into their living rooms as regular friends, not a one-off exotic exception."

It's the authentic setting in Bostwana, where the series was filmed on location, that adds to the series' appeal.

"Filming in Botswana has been a life-changing experience," said Scott. "So much so that I have to urge everyone to visit Africa at least once in their life. And yes, Botswana and the culture is a character all in itself."

"Authenticity was hugely important to us – Anthony traveled to and from Botswana to get to the truth and was always very passionate to actually shoot the show there, rather than somewhere that looked a bit like Botswana," added Curtis. "And by being authentic, we can be confident about the sunnier side of the show. So much coverage of Africa is so traumatic that many people actually believe that there is no normal life there – no shops and services, no stories and family and laughter and friends and mysteries. We had to be authentic to convince people that this is really Africa and that Africa really is a wonderful and interesting place to be – an opportunity for the world, not a problem."

Definitely adding to that appeal is Scott's winning performance as Precious Ramotswe, a woman as compassionate as she is inquisitive and intuitive, making her the ideal candidate to be a successful detective.

"There's a lot that makes us different and so much that binds Precious and me," mused Scott about her character in No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. "We are both women with passion who have hurt and seen pain, yet remain determined to have our voices heard. We both move to our own beat, meaning we go against the grain and refuse to be common for the sake of being common. There were times I tapped into my own experiences to bring out an emotion while playing Precious, but most of all I learned to simply let go, stop thinking and just be, which was the main lesson Anthony Minghella taught me."

Scott says that she drew on her own personal experiences in bringing Precious to life on screen: "Family is huge to me and the bond Precious has with her father I share with my mother, who has been always been a powerful motivating force in my life. We all need someone to believe in us whether or not we believe in ourselves: that's family."

Adding to the sense of family in the series are Mma Makutsi, played by Dreamgirls' Anika Noni Rose, and JLB, played by The International's Lucian Msamati, who act as Precious' support system in both professional and personal contexts.

"Well, Anika [Noni Rose] is extremely talented and Mma brings a great deal of passion to the agency, although she can be overzealous at times," explained Scott. "In an ironic way she brings a balance to the agency by remaining eager and blunt about each case when Precious is overwhelmed. Anika and I both agree that our characters have enhanced us as actresses."

"JLB is Precious' confidant and he seems to want more, but he's more focused on her happiness as a whole, which is awesome," continued Scott. "It seems they both favor each other, but it shows more in their actions than in romantic gestures. He encourages her by supporting her. From helping her fix up the agency to helping her through a life-threatening situation – you can't get more supportive than that."

Now that No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is about to launch, what does Curtis hope that viewers will take away from watching the series?

"I hope people will watch the series and think, I must watch the next episode," joked Curtis. "But also, I hope they think, I must do what I can to make sure, however I can, that Africa has a chance to thrive [...], full of people just like me and people I know, full of humor and hope and foibles and life."

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency premieres Sunday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Unknown said…
this is the best show I have seen in a long time. one of two I actually recorded. unfortunately, I had to let HBO lapse but I hope to find it on a non-premium channel or on DVD! Jill Scott and Anika are wonderful!!!!

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