Our Girl is known for its glamorous, exotic locations. The international drama – starring Michelle Keegan and Luke Pasqualino – frequently jets off around the world and series three is no different. In the first of a trio of miniseries, 2 Section jet into Nepal to work on disaster relief following a huge earthquake. But while the BBC show spends much of its first two episodes based in mountainous Nepal, many of the scenes you see were actually filmed on the other side of the world…
In order to recreate Nepal, the cast and crew split their time between the country itself and South Africa (where much of the first two series were filmed).
The plot sees 2 Section deployed to a Nepalese village hit by a series of devastating earthquakes. The scenes themselves were shot in an area called Dolakha – 150km from the capital, Kathmandu – which had itself suffered the effects of the 2015 quake that killed nearly 9,000 in Nepal.
“It’s a village of 1,500 people and it had been absolutely devastated in the earthquake,” explains Our Girl producer Tim Whitby. “When we got there there must have been 30 or 40 big beautiful 18th and 19th century houses that are uninhabited because they are too dangerous to live in.”
The village itself – whose Nepalese name translates as The Village with the Temple – was used to film most of the key Nepalese exterior scenes but the crew faced a race against time to get everything they needed after a planned fortnight of shooting was curtailed by the first Nepalese election in 17 years.
“We had to squeeze in our filming because we had to be out of the country,” says Whitby. “It would have been impossible to film on [the day of the election] and people were fearful of violence.” In the end, it totted up to eight days in Dolakha and three in Kathmandu.
But in order to recreate the feel of the immediate aftermath to the disaster, the drama’s art department went ahead of the production and spent four weeks working to enhance the damage inflicted on the village. “It felt like a terrible thing to be doing because these walls that were knocked down in 2015 and then painstakingly reconstructed, we were turning up and tipping stones over the road and making it look like the earthquake happened yesterday.”
Everything was done with the agreement of the villagers. “We needed to make people understand that we were going to put it back and we were not going to destroy it further.”
The crew also employed local residents as crew and cast, including a young Nepalese girl (above) who plays the role of Tara – an orphan who becomes instrumental to the work of 2 Section. “She spoke very little English and had never been out of the village. We took her to Kathmandu and put her in a helicopter. We went to South Africa with her, it was really fun,” recalls Whitby.
“And we used local villagers both in the crew and as extras in background for all of those scenes because that’s a good way of ensuring the money is spent in the village.”
But although plenty of exteriors were shot in Nepal, most of the interiors were filmed in South Africa. At one point, we see members of the cast inside one of those damaged houses. “That was an original house and when you first see it, it’s in the state that the 2015 earthquake left it. But the interior is in South Africa and was built by our designer.”
2 Section experience a number of aftershocks while based in Nepal – and Whitby explains they were created in camera, as well as using CGI. “But in truth, sometimes it’s the old Star Trek – just shake a bit”.
The cast and crew also had their own experience of a minor quake. “I slept through it but Michelle definitely woke up at 4am feeling that life was a little peculiar. I think it was about 4 [on the Richter scale].”
While most of the action takes place in Nepal and – latterly – Afghanistan, the new series of Our Girl begins in Syria with Georgie (Keegan) and Elvis (Pasqualino) working on an extraction from Aleppo. Although, again, it was South Africa standing in for the war-torn city.
“We actually filmed it near Cape Town in a combination of two locations,” explains Whitby. “One was a deserted light industrial estate which had been ruined and damaged and therefore would double as the streets of a Syrian town that had been bomb damaged. And then we also shot in an area 10 miles away from Cape Town which looks very barren.
“But it is a combination of South African locations and CGI effects to enhance. And it’s partly the art department who do an awful lot of work smashing up buildings and adding bits and pieces and using CGI to add backgrounds and even an aeroplane at one point.”
Perhaps most interesting of all is how the team filmed scenes based in Georgie’s native Manchester, using Kuala Lumpur as a stand-in! “Moving a film crew around the world is very expensive and we were committed to filming in Nepal and South Africa and the cost of coming back to England and filming the few scenes was prohibitive because you have to fly your actors back as well as the whole crew or pick up a new crew. So in fact Manchester gave us more trouble than anywhere else.
“We filmed the British air base in South Africa and we filmed a Manchester cafe in Kuala Lumpur with a very vigorous rain machine.”
As series three moves into its latter stages, the action moves on from Nepal into Afghanistan – and for the crew, filming shifted out to South Africa’s Karoo Desert. “It’s two or three hundred kilometres from Cape Town. There were 290 of us to film and some of our crew ended up staying 50 kilometres from location because we took up every bed in the area.
“It was minus one in the morning and then up to about 22 degrees celsius by lunchtime.”
This article was originally published in October 2017