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Keeping HBO's 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' true to its author and to Africa

HBO's creative team and actors talk about the series' all-black cast and their commitment to the source material and Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack's vision.

March 28, 2009|Greg Braxton

The last time HBO built a series around primarily female characters, the show was "Sex and the City" and it revolved around four white women exploring the mysteries of love in the wilds of New York City.

Now the premium cable network is launching another female-centric show, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," and it's about two black women investigating the mysteries within the wilds of Africa.

In tone, feel and locale, the new series, starring singer Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose, couldn't be more different from its female-themed predecessor or from any other of HBO's previous hit shows, like "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under" or "The Sopranos."

The leisurely-paced crime drama centers on a caring, plump businesswoman who has little time for men and operates in a world where whites are all but invisible. The show will be distinct -- a drama with an all-black cast -- and also will be unique in American television as the only series ever set in Africa in which none of the protagonists is white.

Though obviously enthusiastic about their new project, HBO's executives acknowledge the risk in departing from their recognized brand of provocative themes, and explicit sex and violence. The new series stars the Grammy-winning Scott, a relative newcomer to acting, whose character speaks English with a distinctly Botswanan dialect. Also, the drama, despite its crime-solving conceit, contains little violence, no sex and no profanity.

In fact, it is the first original HBO series that is family-friendly enough to air at 8 p.m.

"This is definitely a little different from what we usually do," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO's programming group. "But it speaks to what we're always looking for: distinct points of view that are smart and well executed, and presents something that people will not see on ad-supported television."

Based on a bestselling series of books by Alexander McCall Smith, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" turns on Scott, who is the caring and relentlessly hopeful Precious Ramotswe. Thanks to skills fostered by her father, she decides to open the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana. (Rose plays her quirky, no-nonsense secretary, Grace Makutsi.)

"This is the first time a series or a feature film has been built around an oversized black female who is experienced in life, and is not a wife or mother," Lombardo said. "She's not in a relationship with a man -- she's fully independent."

Scott was found after an extensive search for the role and studied two months to nail the proper African accent.

"I wasn't intimidated by the acting," said Scott, whose most noteworthy role previous to the series was as a fat woman who is dumped by her husband in "Why Did I Get Married?" "Ever since I was young, I would dress up, try to make myself cry. I've always been acting."

The series boasts an impressive, though bittersweet, pedigree: the two-hour pilot was the last project directed by Oscar-winner director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), who died in 2008 from complications after surgery for tonsil cancer. The project also lost executive producer Sydney Pollack, the Oscar-winning director of "Out of Africa," who died after him last year.

"Anthony wanted Precious to be really genuine, and he would talk to me all the time about how she had to be really hopeful," said Scott, whose character is haunted by an abusive relationship that resulted in the death of her infant. "I just hope it succeeds exactly the way Anthony wanted it to. He loved me, and I loved him right back."

The show's executive producers are Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The Weinstein Co. and the BBC are producing partners for the drama, which is already airing in Britain.

Adapting the books was a labor of love for Minghella, who was determined to show a softer, more even-handed portrait of Africa, Lombardo said.

"Yes, there are all these problems that the Western press has focused on," he said. "But Anthony had a missionary zeal to show that Africa is more than just a continent of disease and poverty."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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