Tourists loved the look of Greg McConnell’s Beach Bar. Strolling along Unawatuna beach, they would do a double take. “When was happy hour? Did they serve beer? When did this place open?” What they didn’t realise was they were in the middle of a film set. “There wasn’t a single ounce of alcohol in the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

When Lanka was Kerala

Local talent and landscape star in ITV’s new series, The Good Karma Hospital

The heritage bungalow in the south that was turned into The Good Karma Hospital. Pix courtesy Tiger Aspect Drama 2016

Tourists loved the look of Greg McConnell’s Beach Bar. Strolling along Unawatuna beach, they would do a double take. “When was happy hour? Did they serve beer? When did this place open?” What they didn’t realise was they were in the middle of a film set. “There wasn’t a single ounce of alcohol in the bar at all,” says Neil Morrissey, who plays Greg McConnell on ITV’s new series The Good Karma Hospital.

In the lead as Dr Lydia Fonseca, actress Amanda Redman could see what drew people in. The Film Team, who were the Sri Lankan production and location service company for the project, had found them an ideal spot. “We couldn’t believe it when we went to Greg’s Beach Bar, they’d built the whole thing and it’s the kind of bar I would love to go to every single night. It was so beautiful. We filmed a night shoot for a full moon party with fire-eaters, dancing, twinkling lights,which was just extraordinary.”

The audience watching the show are told the bar is on a beach in Kerala, India. But in reality, a raging monsoon there kept producers at bay, and brought them to Sri Lanka instead. Iona Vrolyk, a producer on the show admits they were concerned at first that they might not be able to pull off the switch. She says: “But when we visited Sri Lanka we all relaxed because the landscape was quite similar. Of course there are differences but in terms of a location and a place to film we felt we could quite easily match it.”

The story they were trying to tell opens with Ruby Walker, a young doctor who arrives in India, determined to escape from heartbreak. Ruby knows what to expect – she’s looking forward to picture-perfect beaches, and braced for Delhi-belly. What she isn’t quite prepared for, is how demanding her new job in an under-resourced, and overwhelmed cottage hospital will be. Amrita Acharia (Irri in Game of Thrones), who plays the young Dr. Walker, had some sympathy for her character: “Ruby is thrown into a culture, which technically she belongs to but knows nothing about. She has a very English mind-set in a world that is completely different to anything she has known before. She has a completely different moral and religious belief system that is perhaps the polar opposite to England in many ways.”

Waiting to greet Ruby is Dr. Lydia Fonseca, the beating heart of the local community. She ensures that no one is turned away from the hospital. The show has been billed as life affirming and optimistic, mixing the heart-break with the humorous.

Lankan actress Nimmi Harasgama who plays head nurse

The script’s success is anchored in the personal experience of its writer, say the producers. When Dan Sefton finished medical school he was eager to see the world, and applied for a job in South Africa at a cottage hospital outside a main city. “He said working at that hospital was the year in which he learnt the most as a doctor and the year in which he grew up the most as a man,” Vrolyk recollects, explaining that Sefton found himself in a country with few resources. “He said in our first meeting that on his second day in the job he realised that he may not have been the best doctor, but he was the best they had. That line has made it into episode one because it is the origin of the whole idea and was something that was really important to us.”

In the writing however, Sefton chose to set the show in India. Amanda Redman found herself fascinated by how Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity all became integral to the world Sefton created with The Good Karma Hospital. “Lydia is very aware of how careful she has to be dealing with the different cultures in order to win their trust. At the same time she’s a scientist, so there’s this fascinating balance between faith and medical science. She’s uncomfortable with it and I love the conflict that happens as a result.”

There’s no one who knows the world of the Good Karma Hospital better than Mari Rodriguez, played by Nimmi Harasgama. Nimmi recalls how Prasad Pereira, a close friend who knew they were looking for someone to fit the role told her: ‘This is a small role, machang, but there’s a lot to her and she reminds me of you – she’s bossy but she has a heart.’ It was the first job the actress had accepted since her son was born. “This was a big deal and I was as excited as I was nervous. I mean there were big players in this show, actors I had watched on the tele when growing up in the UK, and now I get to stand next to them!”

Nimmi took comfort from her friend’s words, keeping them in mind through the audition and into filming. “She (Mari) is a woman from rural Kerala who, through sheer grit and determination I think, has made a life for herself and worked so hard she is now the head nurse in the hospital,” the actress says. “Her passion is nursing but her obsession, if you like, is keeping this chaotic cottage hospital running smoothly.” Tackling her role, Nimmi knew how she was going to interpret her character right away. “Definitely, I was going to play the truth. The comedy is there, but the pain is there also.”

Joining Nimmi for 12 weeks of filming in and around Unawatuna was Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke. “My contribution in the show is small, a one episode arc in the pilot episode, but in terms of my little career it was a huge opportunity,” he reflects. The actor had to undergo a long auditioning process which included separate meetings with Stephen Smallwood, the producer and Bill Eagles, the director, before he finally landed the role of Raja Mehta.

“Bill encourages you to try things and come in with ideas for how to approach the word,” says Welandawe-Prematilleke. “I’ve been taught in the past that TV production is a running train and your job as a day-player or a guest is to come in and do your job, as quickly and painlessly as possible; The Good Karma Hospital was a process in unlearning that and allowing yourself to be free and play.” The actor had one big concern: “Working with an eleven day old baby who played my daughter was slightly terrifying simply because I was afraid I might break her – but I can happily report I didn’t.”

A perfect set: Greg McConnell’s Beach Bar on Unwatuna beach

There were many  reasons filming here was a challenge says Frith Tiplady, one of the Executive Producers on the show. “There are funny lines in the budget that you’re not used to seeing. Like seeing tuk-tuks, or elephant wranglers, snake wranglers. But that’s the excitement of going to Sri Lanka. The main thing is the unsexy stuff, it’s hard to shoot for 12 hours in that heat when we’re not used to it, how do we keep people cool and how do we keep the show looking good in that context,” he says. But being on this island also offered a succession of delights, from the extraordinary to the mundane. “On the other hand your tea and coffee table is a coconut stand, which serves you fresh coconuts every day. So for every challenge, there is something incredible in its place.”

The Good Karma Hospital  has been renewed for a second series.




Huge opportunity: Arun Welandawe Prematilleke

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