Tag Archives: The Good Karma Hospital

A dose of Karma

British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.

Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.

Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.

Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.

The Good Karma Hospital stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.

Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”

Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”

Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).

Neil Morrissey plays Greg, who owns the local beach bar

As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.

Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.

“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.

“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.

To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.

James Krishna Floyd as Dr Gabriel Varma

Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.

The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”

The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.

But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.

Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.

Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”

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Just the medicine

Director Bill Eagles and cinematographer Michael Snyman discuss their work and partnership on ITV’s new India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, and reveal the challenges of filming on location in Sri Lanka.

For the cast and crew of a television drama, there can be worse places to spend a 12-week shoot than on location in idyllic Sri Lanka.

The island doubles for neighbouring India in The Good Karma Hospital, a six-part medical drama for UK broadcaster ITV. But while they were able to capture its luscious landscapes and striking sunsets, lead director Bill Eagles and director of photography Michael Snyman say filming in Sri Lanka posed a unique set of challenges.

“It was very exhausting,” Eagles admits. “The heat and the weather meant there were quite a lot of early nights but very early starts. The sun came up about 07.00 and went down around 18.00, so to get an 11-hour day we had to begin shooting at dawn. So we were up at 05.00 for hair and makeup and for me to prowl the set. By the end of the day, because of the heat and the rain, people were exhausted.”

The show tells the story of junior doctor Ruby Walker (played by Amrita Acharia), who leaves the UK to join the over-worked staff of the run-down Good Karma Hosptial. Led by eccentric Brit Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman), the cottage hospital is the beating heart of the community and soon becomes home from home home for Ruby.

The cast also includes Neil Morrissey, Phyllis Logan, James Floyd, Darhsan Jariwalla and Sagar Radia.

Michael Snyman (left) and Bill Eagles on set

Produced by Tiger Aspect, the series was created and written by Dan Sefton (Delicious), with scripts from Vinay Patel and Nancy Harris. Stephen Smallwood produces, with exec producers Will Gould, Frith Tiplady and Iona Vrolyk. Endemol Shine International distributes internationally.

“When I first got the script, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong guy!” jokes Eagles, who directs the first four episodes, with Jon Wright picking up the final pair. With a background in series such as CSI, Gotham, The Mentalist and Strike Back, he admits he has a reputation for blowing people up or setting them on fire – and there was none of that in the Sefton’s scripts.

“But it came from Tiger, who I’d worked for the previous summer on a low-budget but incredibly well-written ensemble cop show called Cuffs,” he continues. “I did the car chases in that and it played into my background as an action and crime director, but it also had quite nuanced dramatic scenes with really interesting cast members. Obviously Tiger saw something in the way I delivered that and thought, ‘Why not?’

“The last show I did before this was an episode of Gotham, so this was a breath of fresh air and I absolutely loved the script. To feel the quality of Dan Sefton’s writing – so economical, so dense in story but so rich in character… he knew that if we could get this right, it would play with the heartstrings and it would have you raising your hopes with the characters, crying with their despair but feeling a sense of new hope, a new dawn as they face their troubled lives and overcome emotional obstacles along the way. I was really impressed that Tiger came to me and it was perfect timing for what I wanted to do.”

Eagles says he was particularly drawn to the project by Sefton’s “sophisticated” scripts, plus the interplay between Redman’s eccentric matriarch and Acharia’s naive, wistful and optimistic stranger abroad.

The show stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

He continues: “If you’re shooting Casualty or a British hospital show, there’s only so many types of people who you can really bring in through the hospital doors. But, of course, if you set it in the backwaters of an Indian town, you’ve got a wonderful, rich array of characters, both rich and poor, European and local, with cultural issues and issues of custom and religion.

“Then, of course, it’s set in India. As a director, I have shot all around the world, a lot in Britain and the backstreets of LA but, actually, it doesn’t quite compare to the possibilities of a beautiful sunset over the Indian ocean, an epic vista from the top of a mountain over a jungle or having an early morning mist rise over paddy fields that seem to go on forever. These are landscapes to which any director would give their back teeth to point a camera at. The mission was to make it epic and make it feel like we were taking the audience on a journey.”

Unusually, Eagles chose to mix up the production by shooting episodes three and four first, rather than beginning with the first two, as might have been expected. But there was good reason behind his thinking. Often with a new series, particularly in the US, a single pilot is commissioned, meaning there is just one episode to set up the story. But with The Good Karma Hospital’s full season being ordered from the start, Eagles reasoned that by jumping ahead, the cast would have time to refine their performances and fully embody their characters before filming the opener.

“That really did play to our strengths and to our advantage,” he says. “Often you don’t get the chance because you have to shoot the first one to sell it to a broadcaster. But in this instance, it was great. And while we’re very happy with episodes three and four, we did learn along the way. So when it came to making the opening episode, which will make or break the series, we were so super confident about where we were with our characters and storytelling. What the audience will make of it, who knows, but at least we have no regrets.”

A scene set during the Holi festival required more than 1,000 extras

That process was made easier due to Eagles’ partnership with his director of photography, Michael Snyman (The Night Manager, Of Kings and Prophets). The pair had previously worked together in South Africa on Strike Back – Snyman was then a camera operator – so when they landed together in Sri Lanka, there was already a shorthand between them that meant they could hit the ground running.

“Mike is a consummate artist with light. He’s also incredibly inventive and he’s a wonderful force of energy on the set,” Eagles says. “He and I never go to a scene without both of us having read it, understood it and known what it’s about. He never offers up a shot that gets in the way of storytelling. The camera serves the action, the emotion and the meaning of a scene. Sometimes you will be offered a super-cool, creative shot by a DOP but actually it’s getting in the way of the scene. He totally gets it, so it was a joy to join forces with him. He keeps the energy of his crew high and he’s prepared to work fast on a ridiculously tight TV schedule.”

Snyman says the “big idea” behind shooting Good Karma was to embrace India through the show’s Sri Lankan location – a teacher-training college in Galle, two hours from the capital Colombo – and taking the camera outside as much as possible.

“A lot of interior scenes were moved outside just to get out of that hospital because, if you shoot two or three episodes there, you start to shoot the same rooms and beds over and over again,” he reveals. “Breaking that mould was very beneficial for us. So we moved a lot of scenes outside just to see the country because it’s so beautiful. It’s so green and luscious.”

Working outside in the heat provided its own problems, of course, but it meant the crew agreed to shift the filming schedule.

The Sri Lankan climate proved challenging for cast and crew alike

Snyman explains: “We started off shooting an 11-day fortnight but a lot of people weren’t able to sustain that pace. So we suggested we’d be better working a five-day week with 12-hour days, which makes up for that extra day – which the producers embraced, thank God, because it was getting very taxing. It was just too hot to work at that pace. You get in in the morning and by 06.30 you’re sweating, and you get home at night at 19.30 and you’re sweating. It was very difficult for a few people.”

Beyond the heat, there was also the issue of Sri Lanka’s near non-existent production infrastructure, meaning much of the crew with whom Eagles and Snyman worked had no experience in television. “It was quite interesting to see the crew develop through the show,” Snyman says. “How they took up the lead on things was just magnificent. By the end of the show, they were comparable to [production crews] anywhere around the world.”

Eagles chips in: “Making six hours of high-end European TV is not something anybody even remotely near us was used to, but we did take in a lot of local crew and it was great. Our gaffer was training some of the people on his team in electricity and cabling, and Mike and his camera department had people.

“Often we had 100 to 150 extras on set and none of them had ever done any extra work before. So just explaining why we needed them to walk from here to there and that they had do it again and again, and telling them not to bump into the cast or stand between the camera and the cast, that took a bit of time.”

The number of extras swelled to more than 1,000 during an episode that required a recreation of the Hindu festival of Holi, which Eagles describes as a “massive rave” featuring dancers, drummers and two elephants.

To meet the demand, production staff were sent out to nearby beaches to find holidaymakers who could join the festival scenes alongside the mass of locals.

“It was the most massive endeavour, and there was a certain amount of trepidation – how could we pull this off?” Eagles admits. “We had two elephants that day as well. It was quite late in the shoot and, even though we were dealing with 1,000 people, most of whom had not done any extra work before, it’s a spectacular sequence and it worked brilliantly. That was a tribute to everyone learning along the way and to working with people who were hungry to learn. It was an epic thing to pull off and very cool that we managed it.”

Likely to draw comparisons to BBC detective drama Death in Paradise, which sees a British police officer relocated to the (fictitious) Caribbean island of Saint Marie, The Good Karma Hospital promises to provide a burst of colour in the dreary winter months when it debuts on February 5.

“That’s what ITV are looking for – a show that will make you laugh, make you cry and send you home feeling warm and happy with the world,” Eagles surmises. “It’s a little bit of escapism but it’s an emotional treat with a bit of humour along the way. It was really fun to make.”

Snyman adds: “I think people will really enjoy it. We didn’t hold back, we did the best with what we had and the crew can be very proud of what they produced. Sri Lanka and its people did us proud. I was proud to be a part of it.”

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The horror, the horror!

Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road is being adapted as Haunted
Bob Cranmer’s book is being adapted by Fox as Haunted
With shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story performing so well, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to climb aboard the horror show bandwagon.

FX sister channel Fox, for example, has already backed Scream Queens and is now planning another horror comedy series based on Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road. Called Haunted, the new show centres on a military agent who is partnered with her demonologist ex-boyfriend to help a family overcome a demonic infestation at their house. William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has been signed up to write the project.

ABC Family, soon to be renamed Freeform, is also moving into horror for the first time with Dead of Summer, which is set in a doomed summer camp in the late 1980s. The network, which has given the show a straight-to-series order, is from Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Once Upon a Time writer Ian Goldberg.

Meanwhile, Syfy has advanced a horror project it first started talking about in the summer. Channel Zero is an anthology series developed by Nick Antosca (Hannibal). This week Syfy greenlit what is being described as two six-part seasons. The first is based on Candle Cove by Kris Straub, which originates from an online horror concept known as creepypasta. There is no news yet on the second batch of six, though the assumption is that it will centre on a different story.

Meanwhile, in the UK, broadcaster ITV has ordered a three-part horror miniseries called Him. Produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy with a hidden supernatural power inherited from his grandfather.

In the realm of sci-fi, one of the week’s most interesting projects comes courtesy of The CW, which is working on Cry, a drama about a doctor who works out how to bring cryogenically preserved people back to life. In an interesting twist on the Frankenstein myth, he starts by unfreezing his own father – but there are, of course, unexpected consequences. The show is being made in partnership with Paulist Productions, a Catholic-oriented company that makes shows exploring moral dilemmas.

Original cult sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot
Cult 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot courtesy of Netflix

Bigger news for sci-fi geeks is that Netflix is planning a remake of cult classic Lost In Space, which ran for three seasons in the 1960s. Created by Irwin Allen, the original story centred on an ordinary family called the Robinsons that becomes marooned in space along with the reprehensible Dr Zachary Smith. The franchise, which started life in a comic book, was brought back in 1998 as a not-very-good movie starring Matt LeBlanc. However it is probably better suited to TV. The challenge for writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless will be getting the tone of the project right. While it will need to be more plausible than the original to satisfy sci-fi fans, it would probably be a mistake to take it too far from the family-adventure feel of the original.

In the UK, meanwhile, actor Ray Winstone is to star as visionary author HG Wells in a new drama for pay TV channel Sky Arts. Called The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, the Clerkenwell Films drama will be an anthology series consisting of four stories about madness, obsession, hallucinations and horror (there it is again). These are based on Wells’ stories and will be adapted by Graham Duff. The series was commissioned by Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones, who says: “One of my earliest memories is seeing row upon row of blue-covered HG Wells books on my grandad’s bookcase and being fascinated by the strange and disturbing worlds inside them. The team at Clerkenwell has brought four fantastic Wells stories to life in a wonderfully realised, stunningly performed compendium.”

There’s also some buzz around medical series this week. After a strong opening on NBC for Chicago Med, CBS has now given an extended order to its own medical show, Code Black. Although the show has not rated well, it now has 18 episodes to prove its worth.

Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS
Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS to 18 episodes

In the UK, another ITV commission announced this week is The Good Karma Hospital. Set in Goa, India, this six-parter follows a team of UK and Indian medics as they cope with work, life and love at an over-worked, under-resourced hospital. ITV says: “Run by a gloriously eccentric Englishwoman, the Good Karma turns no-one away – locals, ex-pats and tourists are all welcome. With a stunning location, exotic medical cases and unforgettable characters, the series mixes the heartbreaking with the humorous, as the doctors, nurses and patients discover that the hospital is more than a rundown medical outpost – it’s a home.”

The show goes into production next year and is being produced by Tiger Aspect. It is created and written by Dan Sefton, whose credits include Death in Paradise. There’s some logic to this since Death In Paradise (about a British policeman in the Caribbean) is another show that uses the interaction of different cultures as a backdrop.

UK dramas that showcase the Indian sub-continent are in vogue at the moment. First came Channel 4’s Indian Summers (shot in Malaysia but set in India) and then ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Also in the mix have been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.

The Good Karma Hospital has been commissioned for ITV by director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea. November says: “Dan Sefton’s scripts are beautifully written and deal with themes we’ll all identify with – love, loss, relationships, family conflict, facing adversity and the importance of seizing the day. The Good Karma Hospital is a feel-good drama full of warmth and characters we will love.”

The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season
The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season

From Germany, news this week that ARD is producing a series based on the novels of Swiss author Martin Suter. Allmen, produced by UFA Fiction and Mia Film in the Czech Republic, is the story of a rich bon vivant who gets caught up in a murder after turning to crime to pay off his debts. Filming is taking place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic until mid-February next year.

Finally, there was bad news this week for showrunner Kurt Sutter whose medieval drama The Bastard Executioner has been axed after just one season by broadcaster FX. Having opened in September with an audience of four million, it fell away to 1.9 million by the end of its run. But this probably doesn’t signify the end of the sword and savagery genre. HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s Outlander and History’s Vikings continue to do well while the BBC’s The Last Kingdom has also received decent reviews. Also coming up is ITV’s retelling of the Beowulf saga, which should provide us with another indicator of the genre’s popularity.

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