March 26, 2009 / 9:46 PM / 10 years ago

No. 1 lady detective series focuses cheery Africa

NEW YORK (Reuters) - “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is the first TV series on U.S. cable network HBO with an African female lead character, but don’t expect to see much about the continent’s crises and conflicts.

Author Alexander McCall Smith (R) answers questions with (L to R) actress Jill Scott and executive producer Harvey Weinstein during the HBO panel for "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles January 9, 2009. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

“Many outside writers, when writing about African countries concentrate on the bleak, and on what’s wrong,” said Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the best-selling novels of the same name that the series is based on.

“Obviously, there are problems in many of these sub-Saharan African countries, but there are positive aspects and this series celebrates that,” he said.

The series’ main character is Precious Ramotswe, the owner of Botswana’s only, and thus No. 1, female-owned detective agency, played by Grammy winning R&B singer Jill Scott.

According to McCall Smith, the television series, like the novels it is based on, is not really about sleuth work.

“These books aren’t really about detectives, they’re just about the lives of this woman and her friends,” McCall Smith said. “It’s a very good vehicle for talking about society and lots of different people because all sorts of people are coming through the door with their problems.”

Much of the action occurs out of Ramotswe’s agency in a sleepy shopping center on the outskirts of Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, giving a glimpse of Botswanan life, and providing a decidedly lighter feel from traditional edgy HBO dramas, such as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

Filmed in Botswana, the dialogue is peppered with words in Setswana, a local language, herds of cattle make frequent appearances on screen, and early on Ramotswe has an encounter with a crocodile.

The series has already premiered on the BBC and the response has been largely positive, although some people don’t like the cheerful nature of the series, McCall Smith said.

“That is often the criticism which is levied against it by people who don’t know Africa at all who are so used to getting this negative picture,” McCall Smith said. “They feel that anything which doesn’t concentrate on that isn’t realistic.”

In fact, several reviews did take the view that the Africa of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is too simplistic.

Although Newsweek found the absence of “wailing babies with swollen bellies” refreshing, a review in the Guardian called the series “cloying” and the “No. 1 reason to change the channel.”

But it is the constant focus on the negative in Africa that is unrealistic, according to McCall Smith.

“That’s actually treating African countries as being something quite different, mythologized in a sense, made abnormal. Which actually really is, I think, wrong,” he said.

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Doina Chiacu

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