All the Raj in Malaysia

Sunday Times
Published: 9th August 2015

Re-creating an era: the locations behind Indian Summers (all4.com/indiansummers)

Despite the title, Channel 4’s Raj-era drama Indian Summers is filmed at the top of Penang Hill, in Malaysia. Here, among the butterflies, mosses and ferns, are the bungalows where colonialists came to escape the fierce heat of George Town below. When Paul Rutman, the series writer and creator, first saw these houses, he realised that they replicated what had been in his imagination all along: from the cottage with the white picket fence, where Dougie and Sarah live, to the old Crag hotel, transformed for the show into the Royal Simla Club, presided over by Julie Walters.

It takes about 15 minutes by fast funicular to reach the 2,723ft hilltop. Romantic as this green-lawned time warp may be, there is a precarious sense that civilisation could easily crumble back into jungle. They were filming the second series when I was there — due to air next year — and some of the sets had trails of sulphur around them to keep out the snakes. It’s not like that at Shepperton Studios.

Near the top station, I ate a fine cottage pie at David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terraces, overlooking George Town and the Strait of Malacca (penanghillco.com.my). I felt at one with the British of the past, who were trying to re-create their country abroad.

 The E&O hotel

The E&O hotel

The owner of the restaurant remarked: “In the old days, the British knew how to be fussy. The way they laid out their food and napkins, the way they cleaned their carriages. Everything was comfortable and punctual.” Some of that spirit, which was born when the English Captain Francis Light acquired Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786, has survived.

The Eastern & Oriental hotel, aka the E&O, where Julie Walters stayed during filming, is a grand white edifice on the waterfront. Famous guests include Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward, and it serves an impeccable afternoon tea of scones and jam. Details like this make Penang feel oddly familiar, and it’s no wonder that some British visitors stay for months at a time.

The other draw is the mix of cultures. Take Little India in George Town. One steamy evening, as I ate coconut ice cream at the junction of Penang Street and China Street, I saw an Indian fortune-teller whose assistants were two green parrots. I paid my money and, with an air of discernment, one of the psychic parrots stepped forward, plucked the number 15 from a pile of cards and passed it to the fortune-teller. The number corresponded to a written horoscope, which informed me that: “The time to script your success story is now here.” I was also told that I would live until I was 93, which was good to know.

The Chinese culture is one of the dominant ones in Penang. Wooden jetties stretch their fingers far out into the water at Weld Quay. Although the stilted 19th-century shanty towns look shabby, their colourful temples stand as a testament to a culture of ancestor worship that has been all but wiped out in modern China.

Penang is serious about its street food. Stalls in the Red Garden food court advertise dishes such as “Penang famous curry fish head”, “ginger spring-onion eel” and “fried oyster omelette”. I skipped the “claypot frog porridge”.

George Town has a contemporary energy, too, with street art that commands attention. At the China House, Penang meets Shoreditch in a music venue/art gallery/cafe/restaurant mash-up. Try the crispy wasabi-chrysanthemum battered enoki mushrooms in the daily bento box (£5.50; chinahouse.com.my).

 Julie Walters in Indian Summers (Joss Barratt)

Julie Walters in Indian Summers (Joss Barratt)

After the exuberance of Penang came Langkawi Island, a 35-minute flight away. The grandes dames of the colonial era would have adored the celebrated Datai, if it had existed then. The hotel offers rainforest luxury on one of the loveliest beaches in the world. Julie Walters has stayed during breaks from filming, and what a place to recover in. If I had a year to live (when I’m 92), the Datai would be on my bucket list. I would take a beach villa, with its own butler, private pool and gate to the beach. I would ask Irshad, the resident naturalist, to take me on a rainforest walk to look at the sea eagles and the kites. And I would swim in the Andaman Sea and watch the ghost crabs scuttle over the sand.

The Brief

Sally Emerson was a guest of British Airways Holidays, which has five nights at the Eastern & Oriental hotel in Penang from £999pp, B&B, and seven nights at the Datai Langkawi from £1,389pp, B&B, including flights. Book by August 19. It also offers stays at the Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur and the Pangkor Laut Resort (0844 493 0787ba.com/kualalumpur)