HBO nabs ‘Ladies’ Detective Agency’

Scott, Rose set for Weinstein, BBC adaptation

HBO has pacted with the Weinstein Co., the BBC and filmmakers Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis for a drama skein based on Alexander McCall Smith’s popular book series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

Series will star thesp-singer Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of Botswana’s only femme-led detective agency.

Minghella recently finished lensing a two-hour pilot in Botswana from a script he co-wrote with Curtis. The two began working on the project for the Weinstein Co. last year before the BBC and HBO came aboard.

HBO had been tracking the project for a few months. After screening the two-hour telepic in January, committing to the series was a no-brainer, HBO execs said.

“The opportunity to work with the exceptionally gifted Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis makes this project all the more exciting,” said HBO co-prexy Richard Plepler.

Minghella and Curtis are exec producers of “Ladies.” Sydney Pollack and Timothy Bricknell will also produce for Mirage Enterprises, headed by Pollack and Minghella, along with Amy Moore of Cinechicks.

HBO has ordered 13 segs of the series, in addition to the pilot. HBO will control TV and homevid rights for the U.S. and Canada, while the BBC will handle U.K. television distribution. Weinstein Co. will control all other international rights. Company plans to shop the property at next month’s Mip international TV sales confab in Cannes.

TWC co-topper Harvey Weinstein said he was particularly gratified to be in biz with HBO on the project that marks the Weinstein Co.’s first big splash on the smallscreen side.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to produce a series for HBO,” Weinstein said. “I’ve often called over there to tell them that they make better episodes than we make movies.”

Weinstein has been a champion of Smith’s mystery series for years, since he read the first book. TWC greenlit the two-hour telepic before any network was attached.

“I knew the best way to do it was to have Anthony and Richard go out and make it,” Weinstein said. “You can’t explain this, or pitch this — sometimes you have to step up to the plate.”

Cast also includes Anika Noni Rose as Ramotswe’s quirky secretary and Lucien Msamati as Ramotswe’s love interest. The gumshoe elements of the show have a lighter touch, with the show largely character-driven, said Michael Lombardo, prexy of the HBO programming group and West Coast operations.

HBO aims to launch “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by the first quarter of next year. The show is expected to go back into production on the remaining 13 segs by August, with shooting probably taking place in London and Botswana, Lombardo said.

Minghella intends to remain closely involved in the production. The Oscar-winning multihyphenate has a wealth of experience producing British TV skeins earlier in his career and is well equipped to serve as creative steward for the new skein, Lombardo said.

“Anthony knows the medium of television very well,” Lombardo said. “The (two-hour) has a charm and a lightness to it, but these are not two-dimensional characters. (Precious) is a woman who is smart and sexual and has ambitions. And you’ve never seen storytelling done in such a way where the setting of Africa is so integral” to the plot, Lombardo said.

In a statement, Minghella said the experience of filming in Botswana was an “amazing adventure” and noted the beauty of the country’s landscapes.

“Particularly fascinating to me was working and filming in an African country where old and new are currently coexisting, where traditional values have not yet been eroded by the demands and efficiencies and neuroses of the modern,” Minghella said. “It was a privilege to be working on a film which celebrates what we can learn from Africa, and not what we think we can teach it.”

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