The first series of Indian Summers was Channel 4’s most successful new drama series in years. Sure, there was a starry cast, led by Julie Walters. But there was also something so seductive, at the dog-end of a grey British winter, about all those scenes of sweltering days and balmy, cicada-buzzing nights. With the whole series filmed on location, it’s sweet torture to imagine sipping cocktails on the veranda in Simla – but you’ll have to go to Malaysia to find it.
The Indian hilltop town that became the summer capital of the Raj had become too modernised, it turned out, to stand in as a 1930s imperial outpost, so the film-makers considered Sri Lanka. But after that proved unsuitable, executive producer Charlie Pattinson found Malaysia’s Penang Island at the very last minute. “I went up Penang Hill [the central peak of the island] and breathed a sigh of relief,” he says.
“These properties were in a time warp: they absolutely summed up the idea of the British transporting their identity to a foreign land.” Simla’s main street, the Mall, was re-created in Armenian Street in George Town, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site. Distinctive extra buildings of the period were added via CGI. Like most of the island, the street’s bustling and cosmopolitan, with a rich tradition of inventive foods on offer thanks to the mixed population of Chinese, Malays, Indians and westerners.
“The cast’s favourite place to eat is this shack on the beach where they grill fresh seafood with salt,” says Amber Rose Revah, who played mission school assistant Leena Prasad in the first series. “So you sit on the beach with half a kilo of prawns, eating with your hands. It’s lovely.”
Royal Simla Club
Most of the gossip in Indian Summers takes place at the Royal Simla Club, whose landlady, Cynthia Coffin, is played by Julie Walters (above). The club was filmed at what was once the Crag Hotel, perched on top of Penang Hill with its spectacular views and water-powered funicular railway, a real relic of empire.
Crag Hotel was one of several 19th-century hotels, including Singapore’s Raffles, owned by an Armenian family, the Sarkies. After the Second World War the Crag Hotel became a boarding school, and it was used as a set in 1991 film Indochine, but after that, the jungle claimed it. Developers are lined up to convert it back into a luxury resort hotel.
“The crew call the whole place Julie Walters’s bungalow,” Walters laughs. “I’m too old to be going up and down the hill, and I have a lot of changing and a lot of wigs, so they fitted me out one of the rooms as a dressing room.”
Woodside Bungalow, the old colonial house on Penang Hill that doubles as Chotipool, home of civil servant Ralph Whelan and his sister Alice (above), was semi-derelict when the crew stumbled across it. The astonishingly detailed renovation job – including the creation of manicured lawns – impressed Penang’s chief minister, says Pattinson: “He knew some of the properties from his childhood, so he became personally invested in the project.”
The producers hired most of the crew locally and also made 90 per cent of the costumes in Penang – including shoes by a local man whose father had taught Jimmy Choo his first lesson.
“Woodside has a unique atmosphere that is quite odd,” explains Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who plays Ralph. “It’s a bizarre encampment of period living, with this view that is entrancing – it’s apart from the rapidly expanding, modern Penang. It’s like a snow globe.”
The imposing Viceregal Lodge of Indian Summers is at the heart of British rule in Simla – and appropriately Suffolk House (left), in George Town, where filming took place, was once at the heart of British rule in Malaysia. It was built as a pepper plantation house by the dashing Captain Francis Light in 1786, then served as the home of the Governor of Penang for nearly a century.
The Methodist Church ran a boys’ school there until the mid-1970s, but it’s now a museum and restaurant operated by Badan Warisan Malaysia, the equivalent of English Heritage. There are guided tours or you can just wander in the house and grounds.
“It’s impossible not to feel you’re part of the period here,” says Jemima West (Alice Whelan). “The architecture is just perfect. The boys even had a game of cricket – Brits v locals – on the lawn, which felt utterly right.”
If anywhere sums up the fascination of Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman with the empire’s young Brits staggering through the heat, it’s Ivy Cottage, home to missionary Dougie Raworth and his wife Sarah. It looks as if it could be nestling in the Surrey hills – the country garden is straight out of Gardeners’ World. Yet it, too, was filmed in Penang. It’s a private house, but the owners are happy to show people round.
“It was eerie,” says Craig Parkinson, who plays Dougie. “We got the train up Penang Hill in the blazing heat, to this English country garden in the jungle. It was weird, but perfect. It certainly beat filming in a car park in Stockport.”
The second series of Indian Summers begins on Channel 4 on Sunday 13th March at 9.00pm
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