Meet The Good Karma Hospital writer who gave up surgery for screenwriting
Dan Sefton – writer of the ITV drama along with Trust Me, Delicious and Porters – explains why he was forced to give up being a doctor last year
If you want the perfect example of someone who has become the victim of their own remarkable success, look no further than Dan Sefton.
He’s the man behind ITV medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, BBC thriller Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, Dawn French’s Delicious and Dave comedy Porters. All four shows were hits last year, all four were recommissioned.
Result: Sefton has been writing so much he’s had to give up being a doctor. “It wasn’t my choice,” says the 46-year-old, who until recently had spent most of his professional life working for the NHS.
“I wasn’t doing enough hours to keep my licence to practise, so I gave it up just before Christmas. And I’m really, really upset about that. I was surprised how upset I was. I perhaps didn’t realise how big a part of my identity being a doctor was.”
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The obvious solution would be for Sefton to increase the hours he works as a doctor and cut down on his scriptwriting, a skill he’s been honing since he took an £80, one-lesson-a-week screenwriting course in London in 1999 to see if he would enjoy it, and almost instantly landed work on the BBC1 drama Doctors.
But in the short term he’s too fundamental to the programmes for which he’s responsible to do that. “I think the shows I write would suffer. No matter what I do, somebody is going to be upset.”
It’s the patients at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset, who are now suffering, denied the expertise of a man who’d have been more than happy to put in a weekend shift in A&E after a busy week of scriptwriting.
“There’s a lot that experienced doctors like me can contribute to the NHS,” says the father of three daughters, aged 11 to 15. “I understand there are rules in place to protect the public and, on the whole, they’re admirable, but quite a few doctors think they don’t work quite as well for people like me who want a limited, part-time role.”
Sefton’s departure from the NHS has reinforced his feelings of guilt at not doing what he was trained to do. “I felt – and still feel – that I owe the country because my training as a doctor was subsidised by the tax payer. I think I’ve paid back quite a lot over the past 20-odd years but that feeling of guilt remains.
“When I turned up on a Saturday at A&E, having spent the week writing for television people would say: ‘What are you doing here, you must be minted?’ I was there because I felt very guilty. It’s why I kept on going and why I’d still be going in if I were allowed to.”
Sefton, whose wife Louise is also a doctor, specialising in children’s cancer and child protection work, can take some comfort from the fact that there’s a public service element to his work as a writer, even if it’s about lightening our hearts rather than keeping them beating.
That applies in particular to The Good Karma Hospital which returns this week, having first aired on ITV last year and gained an audience of over six million. The sunny medical drama, which is set in Kerala in India but filmed in Sri Lanka is also drawn from his own experiences.
As a young, newly qualified doctor, he spent a six-month stint at a hospital in a deprived part of South Africa in 1997, which opened his eyes to a world beyond British NHS medicine, the kind of world where ad hoc, on the-hoof treatment – as we often see in Good Karma – was commonplace.
“I was removing bullets from bodies and carrying out surgery as part of my regular work because if I didn’t do it, nobody would have done it and people would have died. I had to learn quickly, just like Dr Ruby Walker [played by Amrita Acharia] has to in Good Karma.”
Amanda Redman’s character, Dr Lydia Fonseca, is also a product of Dan’s past. “There was a South African doctor who worked in Guy’s Hospital in London when I was a student there. She was very forthright, especially for someone working in obstetrics and gynaecology, where people could get very precious about the way they wanted to have their babies.
“She would just rush all over them and say: ‘If you do this, you risk a dead baby.’ It sounded awful but she was so on it, people would just go: ‘OK, fine, that is what we must do.’
“We don’t have so many of those big personality doctors in the NHS any more. They, ironically, were trusted more, and I think people miss their family doctor, too, the person who would tell you what’s what.
“That is why Dr Fonseca liked what she found at the Good Karma Hospital, because she could be at the heart of the community in a way that, as a doctor, you can’t be back in England.”
Sefton is the son of a doctor mother and a civil servant father, and his prescription for improving the NHS includes an acceptance of the fact that the system is not perfect and that funding for it will have to keep increasing.
“Even as recently as 1995, when I first qualified as a doctor, to treat someone over 80 years of age was quite a thing,” he says. “Now people aged 80 to 95 are commonplace and they need a lot of care when they are older, which requires a lot of money. Somebody has to bite the bullet and understand that it is likely that the amount of money needed to provide healthcare in this country will rise for the foreseeable future.”
There’s also, he says, a damaging misperception of the NHS. “People think it’s the best in the world and it’s not. There are better standards elsewhere but they cost a lot more money. This gap between perception and reality is a problem because people are upset when the NHS doesn’t measure up. They are disappointed, for example, when they can’t get a GP to come out and visit them.
“It may also be the reason why people are suing the NHS a lot more because they’re expecting an incredible level of care, which it is struggling to provide. The cost of legal actions is going up and up, and that in turn is putting pressure on resources that are supposed to finance the care in the first place.”
Sefton isn’t ready to give up his career in medicine just yet, though. He’s putting in place the building blocks that will enable him to take a step back from writing by getting others involved in the process. The creation of the next series of Delicious, for example, will be a team effort involving him, a completely new writer and two more, who worked on series two.
And while it sounds like he may be doing himself out of a very lucrative and successful job, it would mean that he’ll be able to return to his first love and fulfil his hopes of rejoining the medical profession, once the demand for his talents as a writer are less frenzied.
“I already miss being a doctor,” he says, exasperated, “but I do hope to return to being one within a year or two.”
By Tim Oglethorpe
The Good Karma Hospital is on Sunday 9.00pm ITV