Last night, I was invited to the BFI for the premiere of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I'm not quite sure how the BBC put together its guest list - the talent on display ranged from Sanjeev Bhasker and Meera Syal via Jacqueline Wilson, Joan Bakewell, Alan Rickman and Andrew Marr to Tessa Jowell and Edwina Currey. I mean... Edwina Currey?? Still, somehow I was on the list, probably because of the involvement with African theatre and BBC Africa Beyond.
Mid-afternoon, glancing at the Guardian website, I realised that this was going to be a rather unusual film premiere. The director, Anthony Minghella, had died that morning at the age of 54.
I met him a couple of years ago when he came to see Nixon in China at the Coliseum. He was very much in evidence around ENO at that time, directing a version of Madame Butterfly, which was not his best work. He was incredibly generous about Nixon, though - and managed, while clearly being aware of his superstar status, to avoid any hint of arrogance or condescension. In fact, he seemed rather humble to me. This impression of him as a man, formed on the basis of one brief interval chat, chimed in with what lots of people were saying about him last night - Richard Curtis and Mark Thompson made speeches before the screening, as did Anthony's brother Dominic and his producer. Knowing the work, it doesn't surprise me very much - and I would emphasise that I mean all the work, including the stage plays which will probably get ignored in the obituary hype, but which I think are most expressive of his artistry. Made in Bangkok, one of the biggest commercial flops of all time, is a brilliant play - and I'm happy to acknowledge its influence on aspects of the Orientations Trilogy. It's very acid, very brutal - and at the same time very humane and compassionate. What theatre ought to be.
The same qualities are there in this last film. I read the novel last year - basically a series of comic anecdotes around some engaging characters. But Minghella makes use of the Botswana setting to flesh the whole thing out, and to place the characters in a spectacularly photographed landscape, which makes real sense of them. He draws off his dramaturgical talent to make links between storylines where the book had none, and so crafts the film into what feels like a multi-stranded narrative. And it's great to see an artist go out with a piece of work that is so deeply life-affirming. So warmly comic, so gleeful.