What would the No 1 Lady Detectives say about binge drink Britain


Last updated at 01:25 21 March 2008

alexander mccall smith

Bestseller: No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith

On my way to interview the author Alexander McCall Smith, hours before the premiere of the BBC film of his novel The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I hear that the director of the adaptation, Anthony Minghella, has died suddenly after an operation, at the age of 54.

Everyone involved in the film is in total shock.

Yet nobody is angry or discourteous. Alexander McCall Smith, who has just flown from his home in Scotland to London, says he will proceed with the interview, as a tribute to the film director.

McCall Smith greets me looking leaden and slightly dishevelled, but perfectly polite.

I ask him about the director's legacy, uncomfortably conscious of my outsider status.

McCall Smith, 59, a former professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University and a former lecturer in Botswana, speaks in soft, precise, tutorial tones.

He says that the pilot film was a "special project" for Minghella and that he was the "driving force" behind it.

"I think he understood what the books were about and what Botswana is about. He really understood what that country means to its people," says McCall Smith.

"It is a view of decent people leading good lives with a sense of humour. They are the same as us in their hopes and ambitions."

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The No 1 choice: McCall Smith with Jill Scott, who plays detective Mma Ramotswe in the film

It would have been simpler for Minghella to have filmed it in South Africa, where the infrastructure was already there, but he believed that would betray the country that McCall Smith has made famous as a lantern of hope in Africa.

"That was such a sensitive decision," says McCall Smith reflectively.

"The book is about kindness and Anthony understood that. I had deliberately avoided seeing the film until this week.

"I had hoped that I would see it in his company. That was not to be.

"The thing that really impresses me is that here is a man who went and did something which - oh sorry, I am sorry ... " he trails off.

"What he did for those people mattered. They will be very upset in Botswana."

The heroine of No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Precious Ramotswe, always had bush tea prepared when life became overwhelmingly sad.

Instinctively, I reach for the nearby teapot and pour McCall Smith an overly strong cup.

The greatest compliment that McCall Smith can pay to Anthony Minghella is that he saw him do the right thing.

"When he was filming in Botswana, his driver dropped dead, from a sudden infection.

"Minghella dropped everything and went to this man's funeral at the other end of the country. It shows what kind of man he was.

"And what struck me was his courtesy and kindness towards his actors and extras."

Alexander McCall Smith spent his childhood in Zimbabwe, before moving to Scotland, but avoids mention of his birth nation in print or in speech.

How does he find the contrast between the sweet beauty of Botswana and the bleak reality of neighbouring Zimbabwe?

Anthony Minghella

Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, 54, died suddenly yesterday from a 'haemorrhage' after surgery for throat cancer

Each time, he quickly changes the subject. He says that he is "totally out of touch" with Zimbabwe.

On the country's politics, he is firm: "I have nothing to say about that."

Having taught in Botswana and visiting there every year, he knows the country much better.

But it is likely that Zimbabwe is too bleak and hopeless for McCall Smith's optimistic view of humanity.

In his novels, goodness prevails, whereas in Zimbabwe it clearly doesn't.

He is also anxious to avoid the "African tragedy" mantra of politicians and of Hollywood.

"I want to say: 'Don't be put off by all the negative things you read about Africa.'"

McCall Smith's critics accuse him of refusing to confront the ugly realities of Africa.

Botswana may have one of the better post-colonial records, but it has driven out the Bushmen of the Kalahari from the central game reserve and it is riddled with Aids.

McCall Smith sighs: "Sometimes people say to me 'Oh, you are not a social realist', and it's true, I don't talk about every gritty detail."

He adds that he welcomes the decision by the Botswana courts to support the rights of the Bushmen.

"I know that all sorts of terrible things happen in the world and they must be written about. But I am a writer who operates in a different territory.

"There are all sorts of problems yet at the same time there are wonderful things we can celebrate and appreciate.

"This is a particular vision of life. I don't pretend it is the only one or that it is comprehensive, but it represents a possibility."

It is a vision which clearly chimes with the reading public. The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency has sold 15 million copies in English and has been translated into 42 languages.

Precious Ramotswe, the amply built and sweet-natured detective, has become an international literary heroine.

Her character is so important that the film was nearly called off after Minghella failed to find an actress in Africa who could play her.

McCall Smith says that the director was "despairing of finding someone" when he auditioned Jill Scott, the American soul singer.

Why was she so difficult to cast? McCall Smith explains: "I don't think it was a role for any old actress.

"When I met Jill Scott, she struck me as a very modest woman, low key, not a pushy person at all."

McCall Smith has written two distinct literary series, one about a female detective in Botswana and the other (The Sunday Philosophy Club) about a female editor of a philosophy magazine in Scotland who tries to discover the truth behind strange occurrences in Edinburgh.

I wonder if he is influenced by living in an all-female household.

His wife, Elizabeth, is a retired doctor and his two daughters, Emily and Lucy, are medical students. He lives in literary splendour in Edinburgh where his

neighbours are Ian Rankin and J.K. Rowling.

McCall Smith says that his wife and daughters are not characterised in his books, but that he "enjoys the conversation of women".

The office dynamic between Precious Ramotswe and her female assistant is crucial to the plot.

"I often think that I could not have had two men in that office because what would they have talked about?

"They couldn't say the things that women say. They would have talked about external things, politics.

"Women seem to have better friendships. Women are good at having friends. A lot of men are lonely. A lot of men don't have many friends."

There is also a feminine method of detection. The solutions are often creative.

The women grapple with problems such as whether truth will make the client happy.

He says that his books are not deliberately intended for instruction. If they were, readers would flee, yet his moral universe is clear.

"A function of literature is that it helps us to live our lives.

"A book should say to the reader: 'Here are some possibilities.'

"Literature inevitably takes some stand on things or shows us what a moral adventure life is."

McCall Smith shares a view with the screenwriter on the film, Richard Curtis, and Anthony Minghella, that humanity is essentially decent.

But he is concerned about the threats in Britain to our society.

"What has happened is that we have lost sight of the importance of inculcating certain values in children.

"There is a serious crisis in the British family and we are reaping the consequences.

"It is caused by our abandonment of the conventional family - the facts are staring us in the face.

"There are terrible statistics indicating that we have the most drunken teenagers in the world.

"Look at that dreadful party everyone gatecrashed, where all the teenagers were fuelled by vodka.

"We have got to do something about that, to make people's lives liveable."

My time with McCall Smith is cut short by the sad events of the day and he is called away. He is regretful about leaving me with the bill.

"I am so sorry," he says, taking my hand and thanking me for a pleasant time, although he had been shaken and pre-occupied.

Later, the BBC announces its commitment to continue filming the series.

It has done the right thing - as the books and the films invite us all to do.

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