At St Agnes, a prestigious all-girls boarding school in the Midlands, a popular student is found dead at the base of the old mill. The police are quick to declare the death of Lexi Summerveld (newcomer Jane de Wet) a tragic accident but drama teacher Kate Ballard (Nina Milner from Troy: Fall Of A City) doesn’t believe it. The more she investigates, the more Kate realises that she didn’t really know Lexi or the school at all. Behind the imposing walls of St Agnes, Lexi’s killer won’t be the only person exposed…
The gripping murder mystery is a rare series commissioned, produced, written, directed and largely edited by women. Candice Fangueiro, Showmax’s head of content, was commissioning editor; Harriet Gavshon, Quizzical Pictures’ managing director, was the producer; 2018 SAFTA winner Catharine Cooke and 2017 SAFTA nominee Cindy Lee are the co-directors; five-time SAFTA winner Gillian Breslin is the head writer; and Aluta Mlisana, Marcelle Mouton, Natalie Varoy, Melanie Jankes Golden, and Mmapula Letsoalo make up five of the six editors. To put that in context, some of the cast, like Celeste Khumalo (The Queen), had never worked with a female director on a series before…
Strictly Come Dancing winner Zakeeya Patel (Isidingo) – who plays Sharon, the school matron – believes you’ll feel the impact of this female gaze. “I’m a raging feminist, so I loved the fact that it’s a female-driven story – one of the few. All the women have agency and are three-dimensional characters. Whether they’re antagonists or protagonists, they are light and dark, they have shades, they are nuanced. This particular show has such beautiful arcs for women. That for me is revolutionary.”
While Cindy is quick to point out that The Girl From St Agnes is first and foremost a “murder mystery drama that keeps you in suspense for eight hours,” Catharine adds that it’s also an investigation into “toxic masculinity, where it comes from and how it’s either consciously or unconsciously enforced. It’s about a history of violence that is taught within families and school environments, passed down from fathers to sons and reinforced at school among peers. It’s also about how women respond to violent environments, as teenagers, as mothers and as teachers.”
As part of their research, the filmmakers spoke to a range of private school students – black and white, girls and boys. “We listened and we heard and we tried to put all of their hurt and issues into this show,” says Catharine.
She’s quick to add, “These issues aren’t just in private schools; they are universal. The difference is just that with the money involved, they try hide things more at private schools…”
Cindy says working with Showmax means they didn’t have to tiptoe around the issues. “I really love that nothing is out of bounds with Showmax. I have sex scenes. I have swearing. I have nudity. I was like, ‘Really? I can direct all of this?’ Showmax just let us go for it; no one is holding back.”
As Jane, who plays the dead girl Lexi, says, “I think what makes The Girl From St Agnes so powerful is that it manages to weave these issues into an entertaining storyline, making it not only accessible for a much wider audience, but also more digestible. It’s relevant. It’s topical. It’s gripping. It’s what South Africa needs.”
Early reviews of the first two episodes sent to South African media are overwhelmingly positive: Htxt wrote, “The Girl From St Agnes has its hooks in us and we want more…”; Critical Hit echoed, “Who knew the Midlands, with its lush green pastoral backdrops, could have this much killer intrigue?; All4Women called it “highly addictive… the production standards are incredibly high and on par with (or, dare we say, better than some) international series…. a gripping eight-part murder mystery that’s thrilling, horrifying and will have you talking to your TV like it’s real life”; The South African added, “The story keeps you at the edge of your seat… Unlike anything you have seen on South African television… A truly binge-able experience… ” and Brent Lindeque from Good Things Guy tweeted it was “brilliant, bracing and completely binge-worthy! This may be one of the best productions South African has ever seen.”
Celeste, Jane, Nina and Zakeeya are joined by an impressive cast that includes internationally recognised South African talent like Robert Hobbs (Serenity, District 9), Tyrone Keogh (24 Hours To Live), Tessa Jubber (Wallander), Karl Thaning (Dredd) and Shamilla Miller (Troy: Fall Of A City) opposite local favourites like Makgotso M (Is’thunzi), Richard Lukunku (Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word), Graham Hopkins (The Lab) and three-time South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA) winner Jerry Mofokeng (Five Fingers For Marseilles), not to mention hot new talent like Paige Bonnin and 2018 Fleur Du Cap Best Student nominee Tristan de Beer.