On the set of The Good Karma Hospital there are two different types of catering. Come lunchtime the majority of the British cast and crew head across the road to a nicely appointed hotel for “western” food. Round the back of the set, in a field-come-parking lot, there is a canopy under which the rest of the crew have local, Sri Lankan food. In the middle of them, eagerly tucking in to her rice, dahl and green-bean curry – and only just stopping short of eating with her fingers like the men surrounding her – is Amanda Redman.
Her blonde hair glistens, her turquoise eyes are offset by her light-blue cotton dress and her skin is radiating with a golden glow as she enthuses about the love she has developed for the country she’s been living and filming in for the past four months.
“Being picked up at four o’clock in the morning, when it’s just starting to get light, the sky is an exquisite indigo, the palm trees are etched against it and look like a painting, then the fruit bats swoop across as we drive past the ocean. It is so beautiful, it honestly makes me want to cry. It’s definitely better than driving up the M40.”
Redman, probably best known for playing Sandra Pullman in New Tricks, adds, “I was talking to my husband [designer Damian Schnabel] the other day and he was telling me that when friends ask him how I’ve been doing over here he says, ‘She’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her.’ And it’s true. It is wonderful here. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
As Dr Lydia Fonseca in The Good Karma Hospital with Amrita Acharia as junior doctor Ruby Walker
There’s little not to love about Sri Lanka, in particular the southern stretch of coast in Unawatuna where Redman is filming The Good Karma Hospital, in which she plays British doctor Lydia Fonseca. A little confusingly, the drama is actually set in southern India but the monsoon season there meant that filming had to be moved.
Fortuitously, the drama’s title and the fact that filming took place in Sri Lanka made the project all the more appealing.
“I was on holiday here, having a great time with my husband, daughter [Emily, whom she had with first husband Robert Glenister], her boyfriend and my parents-in-law, when I got a phone call to say my mother was very ill,” recalls the 59-year-old Redman.
“For the next two years, it was one disaster after another.” In 2014, in the space of six months, Redman lost a close childhood friend, her mother Joan and her co-star from At Home with the Braithwaites, Lynda Bellingham.
“They were the most hideous two years that I have ever experienced. Really, really dreadful. When this came up, I know this sounds silly, but I said, ‘Given what it’s called, maybe it’s cyclical. Just maybe this is where this terrible time ends, in exactly the same place it all began.’ And I actually feel that’s the case. It’s like I’ve come back here and the circle of crap is complete and I am so much happier.
At Home with the Braithwaites
“There’s a fantastic acceptance and positivity here surrounding illness and death. It just is what it is. Death is always around the corner and these people accept that and just say, ‘You’ve got to get on with life.’ That’s a wonderful attitude to have. We’re too spoilt in the UK. Here you can’t take it for granted that you’ll live a long life and that you’re entitled to good healthcare.
“I’ve never been particularly spiritual. I have had moments when I’ve felt certain things, but here I feel… it. I feel a quiet and a calm that I haven’t felt in a long time – despite long hours filming and the noise and the hectic way of life. I know some are going to say it sounds ridiculous, but there really is a good karma around the set and the show. I can’t explain it but it’s really true. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
There’s another reason Redman suspects she feels so at home with the spicy heat and sunny shores of Sri Lanka. “I’ve been to India loads of times because of mum. She was actually born in Quetta in what is now Pakistan, before Partition. Then she travelled around the country because my grandfather was in the British Indian Army during the Raj. My mother was Indian in her soul. In fact, the very first time I went to India I said to the people we were staying with, ‘I feel like I understand my mother for the first time.’
“And perhaps that’s also part of why I’m so happy here; I feel very close to her here. It was the anniversary of her death on Thursday and I was really glad I was here because I felt so close to her. I think India – and Sri Lanka – gets into your soul; it gets under your skin. It certainly has mine. If – knock on wood – the series were to be recommissioned I think I could cope with having to come back here every year!”
Combining the escapism of Death in Paradise with the grit and warmth of Call the Midwife, there’s no reason why The Good Karma Hospital won’t prove popular. Set in contemporary India, the drama centres around a cottage hospital run by Dr Fonseca and a small team, who struggle to cope with limited money and dated facilities. It is a situation Dan Sefton, the drama’s writer, is more than familiar with. Sefton is an NHS emergency doctor, who went to South Africa to work in a similar hospital when he first qualified.
I’ll tell you,” Redman says sternly, while scooping up another mouthful of dahl, “I read a lot of scripts! So when my agent phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve got a new series and it’s set in Sri Lanka,’ I thought it was bound to be s**t because that would be too good to be true. But then I read it and I was on the phone back to her immediately.
“Dan is actually a doctor, who is still practising and has also experienced working in a cottage hospital, so he’s had all the experiences he’s writing about – running out of money for basic drugs, working without fancy machines – it’s all real and truthful, and that to me, is everything.
“I was reading the last two episodes in bed and sobbing. I’ve never read anything like it. Look, I’m going now, even thinking about it! It’s beautiful but not mawkish. Because actually the minute you get sentimental it becomes soapy and that’s not something I would be interested in playing.”
Aside from recently looking after her mother, who was in and out of hospital before her death, Redman has personal experience of being treated by doctors. She has never shied away from showing the scars down one arm – the result of spilling boiling soup over herself as a child. Redman was in hospital from 18 months old until the age of five. As a result, like the programme she describes, she is tough, proud of her scars and in no way sentimental or squeamish.
“I don’t think I’d have been able to live my life if I’d been squeamish about anything. I’m so used to hospitals, I pretty much lived in one as a child. So filming in one and dealing with blood definitely doesn’t worry me. I’ve got to remove a spleen tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait to get my hands on that spleen!”
And in that, and many other ways, Redman is very similar to her new character. “Lydia is a stunning part – she’s witty, passionate, strong, she has compassion but doesn’t put up with any s**t – she’s everything I admire in women. And probably the closest to me that I’ve ever played.
“You don’t normally get such interesting characters for women my age, and that’s the truth. There really aren’t very many good roles for women in their 50s and 60s. When you get a bit older, once you get to the bonnet brigade, you’re fine, but the years in between are the worst.
In my downtime here, I’ve been catching up on The West Wing and House of Cards, both of which have brilliant roles for women my age, as do Nordic dramas – it seems it’s just us in the UK who don’t represent my age group on screen and I really don’t know why because 52 per cent of people watching television are women and there are so many interesting life experiences to explore as we get older – it doesn’t make any sense… Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox now!
“But I’m very lucky. I made the decision a while ago not to do anything unless I really wanted to. So I don’t have anything lined up after filming here finishes… What I’m going to do is this: we were out of our house for 18 months because it was being renovated and we only moved back in a week before I came here, so I can’t wait to experience my home.
“And I’ve bought tons here to take back with me – silks, furnishings, clothes, jewellery, so I’ll have a bit of Sri Lanka with me in the UK. And I’ve already got a dinner party with the rest of the cast arranged for the first Saturday we’re back, at my house. I don’t cook but my husband does and they’ve given me the recipe for this dahl – isn’t it just beautiful?”