I just watched Indian Summers Episode 1. I was glued to it because it was not only beautifully shot, with a good looking cast, great costumes and hair, it was also filmed in my hometown and I could recognise a lot of the places. Penang Hill, the road leading up Penang Hill, Armenian Street in George Town, Botanical Gardens, Suffolk House, Artwork by Thomas Powell and some of the extras who were recruited locally.
With a £14million budget, Indian Summers is the most expensive drama ever commissioned by Channel 4.
“The island of Penang, off the west coast of Malaysia, may seem an unlikely home for a series set in colonial India, but the experience of empire is shared and ever-present, from the architecture to the history: the British used to retreat up Penang Hill at the height of summer, just as they did in Simla. Executive producer Charlie Pattinson recalls the moment of discovery. “Simla itself is now very modernised and built up, and the monsoon would have presented a problem [for filming]. So on literally the last day of my location scouting, having considered Sri Lanka and travelled around a lot of India, Singapore and Malaysia, I went up Penang Hill and breathed a sigh of relief. These properties were in a timewarp: they absolutely summed up the idea of the British transporting their identity to a foreign land.”
With location fixed and local government brought on-side (“Penang’s chief minster knew some of the properties we were resurrecting from his childhood, so he became personally invested in the project,” says Pattinson), the next stage was refurbishment. The properties down in Penang’s capital of Georgetown needed relatively little work, but the situation was very different on the hill. Sitting 718m above sea level, the Crag Hotel and Woodside were to become social hub the Royal Simla Club and the Whelans’ residence of Chotipool, respectively. Both were riddled with termites and rot, having long ago been taken over by the jungle.
“I’d worked in India quite a lot in the past,” says production designer Rob Harris, “and looked at a lot of pictures from the Raj and at the geography of Simla, collecting pictorial points of reference. We had to relay all the lawns at Chotipool to restore it to its English country garden glory, and the Crag Hotel had been derelict ever since [1992 Catherine Deneuve film] Indochine was shot there. The reclamation took three months, but bringing these places back to life and making them habitable was really enjoyable.” Most of the crew, from caretaker to set decorator, was hired locally and 80% of the furniture was made to order in Penang.
A six-month shoot of this scale and ambition was a new experience for an area more accustomed to adverts and films. “The major logistical difficulty was getting stuff up the hill,” says producer Dan McCulloch. “Access to the properties was only possible via a 5km-long single track road or a funicular railway that didn’t run all day, so getting food, water and electricity up the hill was a real mission in the heat.”
The humidity presented a conundrum for costume designer Nic Ede, especially in a country where, as he puts it, “synthetics rule”. “We had to use manmade fabrics as far as possible, or the clothes would have been unbearable to wear,” he continues. Once again, the diversity and expertise of Penang’s locals proved essential. Chinese traders supplied fabric for the Indian tailors who created virtually all the clothes to Ede’s designs, while some of the shoes were made by a man whose father taught Jimmy Choo his first lesson in shoemaking. “I fell on my feet!” Ede laughs.
“If you use costumes to imply characters and their positions in society, rather than spell it out, then you’re doing your job,” Ede explains. “Ralph is dressed in black and cream, as he appears to have very few shades of grey. Madeleine, as an American, is the only woman you see in trousers – she has innate good taste. Sarah has no money so her clothes are straight from catalogues, Alice has the air of an English rose and Cynthia has settled in 1920s clothes that she feels most comfortable in. She has a distinct identity, while for some of the characters it’s a bit of a uniform: as a civil servant, Aafrin only wears two suits in the entire series.”
Ede’s experiences as wardrobe master on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi gave him “the smell of India”. That intoxicating sensation infuses the whole production, agrees C4’s Deputy Head of Drama, Beth Willis. “We fell in love with Paul Rutman’s vision and his characters, his fresh approach to the costume drama and the family saga: Indian Summers brings something completely new, not just to Channel 4 but to television drama.” CHANNEL 4 PRESS
Home to Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, the Viceregal Lodge is an opulent building and a sign of British power in Simla.