Sometimes I think I am the luckiest person in the world. I thought this almost exactly a year ago as I gazed at fish eagles and hippos from a small flatboat as it cruised the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, surely one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Later the same day I thought it again while lying on my back in the middle of the Makgadikgadi Pans, the largest salt flat in the world, surveying the bright stars as they came up to shine from one horizon to the other. It was a good start.
The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first of a successful series of books by Alexander McCall Smith about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe: a wise, beautiful Motswana, whose morality, love of Botswana, humour and common sense have found fans the world over.
Anthony Minghella had been given the book by US producer Amy Moore some years ago, before it became well known, and he loved it. Mirage, the company he shares with Sydney Pollack (and for whom I work), decided to join forces with Amy, set it up with the Weinstein Company (co-financiers which handle international sales for the film) and develop it as a film or TV series. Although it has taken many years, we now seem to be doing both. We have made a film for television, which Anthony has directed from a script he co-wrote with Richard Curtis and we are in the early stages of planning the production of a series.
Neither Anthony nor I knew an awful lot about Southern Africa. Botswana is so central to the book that adapting it for screen felt particularly daunting for us as white Englishmen. We needed to feel confident that the film would be true to the spirit of the country. To do that we would have to rely on the experience and advice of a local crew.
With the aim of bringing as few people from abroad as possible, we set about putting together a team from South Africa and Botswana. Vlokkie Gordon, our wonderful line producer, who works with Film Afrika in Cape Town, introduced us to many fantastically skilled and dedicated technicians. The designer, Johnny Breedt, is someone Anthony already admired for his work on another Mirage production in South Africa, Catch a Fire.
In the end we only needed to bring the brilliant cinematographer Seamus McGarvey from Edinburgh and long-time Minghella collaborators, Australian first AD Steve Andrews and American script supervisor Dianne Dreyer, both of whose titles belie the experience they bring to bear on every aspect of production. But it was the Botswana crew - dialogue coach Kgomotso Tshwenyego, cultural advisor BK Baloi, music supervisor Solomon Monyame and many others - who made sure that our work reflected the real spirit of Botswana.
Casting nearly undid us. We spent eight months searching the globe for our Mma Ramotswe and we almost gave up. She is such a well-known and specific character, with an enormous soul, that there is little room for licence. Eventually, thanks to a home-made audition tape and Anthony's obsession with her poetry performances on YouTube, we cast Jill Scott. A well-known singer, whose live performances are the stuff of legend, she didn't have a lot of acting experience. To step into such famous shoes and appear in every scene every day of an eight-week shoot is a massive challenge. Again we were lucky: she is more wonderful in the role than any of us had any right to hope. Anika Noni Rose is surprisingly touching as Precious' extremely peculiar secretary, Mma Makutsi, and Lucian Msamati, the UK- based Zimbabwean actor, is heartbreaking as shy mechanic JLB Matekoni.
The combination of a good humoured, disciplined and well-run crew and local support that was confident and happy to share their opinions gave us the best shot we could have wished for at bringing this hugely popular book to the screen.
Despite impossibly early mornings (the very worst aspect of film-making), a tight schedule and a lot of very hard work by everybody involved, the shoot felt very special. The sun shone in a clear sky from dawn to dusk every day; the government was incredibly supportive; the country the most beautiful place many of us had ever seen; the people kind and accommodating of our madness; the music addictive; our cast and crew happy and hardworking. We all fell in love with Botswana.
I am very lucky to have the tele-vision series to look forward to.
The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a Mirage Enterprises and Cinechicks production for the Weinstein Company and BBC1. It airs on BBC1 over Easter weekend.
Timothy Bricknell: My tricks of the trade
A beard. It's not really a trick of the trade, but it appeared after a run of particularly early mornings and maintains a strong grip on my jaw to this day.
A mobile phone. Isn't it wonderful that you can be almost anywhere in the world and pretend you're sitting in the office in Belsize Park?
Good caterers. Part of a producer's role once you start a shoot is to look after your team. A great caterer - in this instance Lynn Matthysen - is half the battle.
Alka Seltzer. Often early mornings were preceded by late nights...
An iPod, especially when camping in the Kalahari with 100 crew. There are some things one doesn't need to hear.