The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, BBC1

Did we like it?
Perfect viewing for someone on their deathbed to savour the enduring goodness in most people, before they slip away contented. For everyone else, it’s something to watch if you’re trying to drift your mind away from something stressful, quaint but hardly engaging.

What was good about it?
• Jill Scott impressed as Precious Ramotswe, who sold her father’s bequest of a herd of cattle in order to set up the only female detective agency in Botswana. While Precious exuded moral piety from every pore, she was also capable of acts of deviousness, but always in the cause of the greater good.
• Botswana, like so many unspoilt wildernesses across the globe is, especially to Western eyes jaded by endless traffic jams and stone leviathans crowing the urban skylines, an antidote painted in glorious shades of swamps, becalmed rivers, marshland, savannah and humble villages, with even the deserts imbued with a desolate pulchritude.
• And, with the first hour or so being bereft of any sort of cohesive plotline, the vistas were pretty much the major attraction. In some instances it was like being in a theatre where the intricate stage designs and set pieces were being intermittently hampered by technical glitches, and in the meantime the audience were being entertained by a slideshow of the performing troupe’s tour of Africa.
• This may be interpreted to be as much a bad aspect as a good aspect, but the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency also preyed on the general ignorance of the target Western audience of life in the Third World.
• This was most keenly illustrated in the general stupidity and inattentiveness of the major villain. When he came to negotiate with Precious for his pouch, that contained a child’s finger bone amongst other things, he gave a clear exposition of his villainy including a threat to abduct a little girl. Unbeknown to him, and to the surprise of a complacent Western audience, Precious had taped the whole conversation that later led to his arrest.
• In a complex police drama set in the UK or US, such a device would not have been plausible as villains would always ensure that they were not being taped or be more evasive and circumspect when giving such an exposition. The reason we’re more inclined to include such a device as ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’ is simply because the setting of Botswana, rightly or wrongly, liberates the script from being so fastidiously tight and realistic as we’re sure we’re not the only people suffering from CSI fatigue where the only way to solve crimes is by a single strand of random DNA found in the snot from a murderer on the victim. Employing less regulated environments, such as Botswana offers more leeway as regards the conclusion, albeit sacrificing some of its credibility.
• The comic relief supplied by Precious’ prim and proper secretary Mma Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), who complained bitterly about how she could never find a job despite a 97% success in her exams because some younger woman with “42% and a short skirt” was employed in her stead.

What was bad about it?
• As in He Kills Coppers, we’re vacillating as to the veracity of the Botswana we were presented with. As in the 60s of Frank Taylor, the world of Precious is ostensibly peopled by benevolent souls with only the infrequent diabolic interloper causing mischief and mayhem. And while that may entertain some complacent souls, we felt as if we were slowly slipping into a coma.
• The long scenes, which meant that despite the beautiful imagery of rural Botswana, very little happened. Sometimes journeying between compass points in the plot was like travelling between the stars – light years of staring out of the window at the pretty universe, but very little to do until you actually arrive at your destination.
• Once Precious set up her agency, she eventually got four different jobs, but they were ordered so haphazardly in the script it took a little time before you could pick up the threads again. One example was the case of a woman who suspected that the old man pretending to be her long lost father was nothing more than an iniquitous freeloader, and by the time Precious sorted it out we’d almost forgotten all about it. And the case of the woman who suspected her husband of being unfaithful was resolved when Precious tempted him into kissing her, and then abandones for some time before it was finally resolved.
• The ending was over-happy for what had actually been accomplished. Precious rescued the little boy by exploiting the improbable idiocy and weak will of the villains, and then everyone celebrated in the sort of performance by schoolchildren of the sort the Queen grimaces at whenever she visits the poorer quarters of the Commonwealth. It was all very dazzling, but we don’t feel it was really warranted.

Aired Sunday 23 March 2008

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