Sunday, 23 March 2008

Elementary my dear Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni

The BBC/HBO adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was able to let its sumptuous location filming do a great deal of the work establishing the text as realistic that is so important for crime fiction. HBO of course are renowned for their use of location filming - The Sopranos and The Wire both make very effective use of the locals they are set in to establish them as realistic as have many other important HBO products - and the BBC does from time to time make very great use of on location filming when the discourse of realism of the text requires it. However, a well written and well directed 105 minute superior TV movie filmed entirely on location in Botswana must have been budget stretching. This lavish location filming has set the realism bar very high and it will be interesting to see if the 13 part series that is to follow can maintain that standard.
The screen-writing by Richard Curtis and direction by Anthony Minghella gave the text a rather lovely narrative naturalism that suited the piece very well. Minghella was all ways a natural story teller and his background as a writer informed his direction as his work is not very filmic rather it uses naturalistic mise-en-scene to make it seem as though the story tells itself. The highly filmic styles of Scorsese, Tarantino, Spike Lee et al that are based on showing you that you are watching a film - consider the brilliant filmic surface Scorsese constructs as a metaphor for glamour in Goodfellas - do not always lend themselves to easy telling of a tale.
The text also displays an normalising representational strategy in regard of Africa. Gaborone is in this text no more or less exotic than, the similarly populous, Brighton (and indeed far less 'other' than East Grinstead). Indeed the version of Baltimore to be found in The Wire seems more alien and other than Mma Ramotswe's Gaborone. This normalising representation is rather refreshing and the presentation of the characters was as naturalistic as the telling of the story and both were essential to the strong realism of the text.
Mma Ramotswe join a short and honourable list of TV detectives (such as the observational savants Robert Goran, from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Jonathan Creek) whose magical powers of observation have been inherited from Sherlock Holmes himself. This prodigious perceptive power is even more an index of the presence of Holmes than the Pipe & Deer Stalker Hat that Sidney Paget conjured. This power of observation, that was Holmes foremost talent, is most obviously pointed to at the beginning of A Scandal In Bohemia from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes where Holmes gently chides Watson for not having noted that there are seventeen steps up the stairs of 221b to their room. In The No1 Ladies Detective Agency Mma Ramotswe puts the same talent on display during her first meeting with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and at the same time shows us her utter suitability for the task of detection.

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