Her nickname is ‘Nightmare’, but Amanda Redman has found inner peace on location for the hit ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital.
Amanda Redman has always been a head-turner. It is less to do with her fame and more to do with a combination of cat-like turquoise eyes, blonde hair, an earthy laugh and effortless sex appeal. When we meet she looks fantastic but shrugs off the compliment. ‘Oh, but I have to work at it,’ she says. ‘One of my great skills is being able to put on weight very fast, and I love to eat. I do between five and eight sessions at the gym every week. I stick to the 5:2 diet, so on a few days I can treat myself. But I absolutely loathe the gym – I have to force myself to go every single time.’
But it’s worth the effort because Amanda at 60 is living proof that women remain attractive, vital and in demand regardless of the numbers on their birth certificate. ‘No one likes the ageing process,’ she says. ‘I look in the mirror and groan at the lines on my skin, or I’ll call up my friends and say: “I’ve just seen my knees. What is going on? Have yours got wrinkles too?” But I also know deep down, despite all this, that I can just wear a longer dress or tights. I feel so much more confident about myself than I did in my 20s and 30s. I look at Helen Mirren [who is 72] and I think she’s one of the sexiest women on the planet. I appreciate life more than ever and I’m never going to stop making an effort. Why would I?’
Why indeed. Amanda is starring in the new series of huge ITV success The Good Karma Hospital, which hit our screens last year, winning audiences of nearly seven million and proving once more her appeal to British TV viewers. A former student of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she has an exceptional track record as an actress. At Home With the Braithwaites, in which she played the highly sexed matriarch Alison Braithwaite, was a top-rated drama between 2000 and 2003, and for ten years she led the cast of New Tricks – one of the BBC’s longest-running dramas – as the unlucky-in-love Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, leaving in 2013 because she wanted to ‘challenge myself with more work’. She also won critical acclaim starring in Sexy Beast and The Trials of Jimmy Rose with her good friend Ray Winstone. She was made an MBE in 2012 for her work running the Artists Theatre School, which boasts Russell Tovey and Lisa Faulkner as alumni.
She did not expect Good Karma to yet again come up trumps. In it she plays the strong-willed, flawed, brilliant doctor Lydia Fonseca, who runs a beleaguered hospital in South India staffed by talented doctors all running away from heartbreak. ‘I get a lot of scripts,’ she says. ‘And I reject a lot because once you get to a certain age all the parts are in the “bonnet brigade”: characters in hats who are clichés or side issues.
‘I won’t do those parts. And when I read the script for The Good Karma Hospital I was cheering. Lydia is a vital, attractive power of nature who leads the action. She is fierce, demanding and completely passionate about what she does – and she’s also a bit of a nightmare. I love her. She’s the closest person to me that I have ever played. My husband’s nickname for me is “Nightmare” because I do everything at top volume. I have no middle button. Everything is either “marvellous, marvellous” or it’s Armageddon. So Lydia was someone I already knew.’
In the series Amanda’s love interest Greg is played by Neil Morrissey in what Amanda refers to as ‘a genius stroke of casting’: Greg is an expat bar owner and a man behaving badly but with a heart of gold. Neil, 55, is an old friend of Amanda’s from parties and dinners over a couple of decades: ‘Acting is a small world – we always got on really well and I respected him as an actor.’
Their on-screen chemistry is palpable ‘because we are two old mates of around about the same age who love what we do and want to make it the absolute best’. She nods: ‘The pair of us are completely in sync. We are long enough in the tooth to have the confidence to go in and make changes to the scripts if we don’t think scenes are working and we’ll play off against each other because we’ve known each other for so long – incredibly we’ve never worked together before.’
In the last series, the show hit the headlines when Neil appeared semi-naked (from behind only), followed by another naked appearance from Game of Thrones actor Clive Russell playing an eccentric artist. Amanda just laughs: ‘Well, it makes a change from the men standing around fully dressed and the women having to be naked. I thought it was funny. And to be honest, after the first few minutes I completely forgot Neil had no pants on. He was wearing an apron so he did have something to cover his modesty.’
It did not bother her husband of seven years, mobile phone designer Damian Schnabel, who was 38 to her 53 when they married. Amanda, who married Robert Glenister (star of Cold Feet and Hustle) in 1984 and was divorced from him eight years later, met Damian through friends in 1999 and, after an on-off romance, began dating him seriously in 2006 with the full support of her friends and family – including her daughter with Glenister, Emily, now 30.
Amanda says Damian has been the making of her. ‘I never thought I would be with someone I would be completely happy with,’ she says. ‘I am difficult, I am dramatic, I am bossy and I am an appalling workaholic. If there is an age difference between us, it’s Damian who seems the older, wiser one. He treats me like I’m a child – he doesn’t let me chop onions because he knows I have a habit of being very careless with knives and not watching what I am doing.
‘But he makes me feel cherished. He tells me I am beautiful, especially when I am feeling rubbish. We speak two or three times a day while I’m away for work. We send each other silly text messages. He gives me absolute confidence. While filming Good Karma we are away in Sri Lanka for four months, which is a long time to be apart. Damian visited a few times. It was our seventh anniversary and we got a few days off to spend time together, which was wonderful.
‘He thinks doing Good Karma and being in Sri Lanka has been good for me and has made me a much calmer person. It’s an incredible place with wonderful, trusting people. Everything we throw away – cosmetic bottles and torn clothes – they make into something. And you never hear them complain. It definitely rubs off and you find yourself putting things into perspective. If a flight is delayed, there’s nothing you can do – just accept it and use the time to chat, read or sit and think.’
Another draw for her is the show’s unflinching view of real life. Set against lush landscape and tropical beaches, it is a cocktail of sunshine and classic cars, with a mix of established stars (Amanda, Neil and Poirot’s Philip Jackson) and young actors, including Amrita Acharia and James Floyd. But the show is written by former doctor Dan Sefton and amid the pictorial pleasures are gruesome concerns of blood, bones, death and surgical procedures.
‘Beauty and ugliness live side by side – that’s reality,’ says Amanda. ‘We don’t flinch from it and nor should we.’ Amanda has had her share of tough reality. Desperate to have a baby with Damian, she went through nine miscarriages and two ectopic pregnancies before she finally stopped trying at the age of 53. She lost her father Ronald when she was 23 and her brother Tim died in 2012 after a battle with alcoholism. And in 2014 her mother Joan died within 24 hours of her great friend – and At Home With the Braithwaites co-star – Lynda Bellingham.
Amanda – who was filming The Trials of Jimmy Rose at the time – admits her whole world fell apart. ‘October 2014 was a terrible time because I lost two hugely important women in my life.’ She put on two stone (since lost thanks to her diet and gym sessions), but being in Sri Lanka has, she says, helped her work through her grief for her mother, who spent her own early years as the daughter of a British soldier in the Indian army.
‘My mum grew up in India and I was weaned on curries, so working and living in Sri Lanka, I felt I was getting closer to her. It’s such a spiritual place – it gets into your soul, and there is such acceptance of life and of death. My mum was an amazing woman and I still miss her every day. I actually interviewed her about her life for Who Do You Think You Are? on TV and I watch that clip over and over again on YouTube, which makes me feel both happy and sad because she is still there.’
Amanda’s mum was always her rock. At the age of 18 months Amanda suffered massive burns when she accidentally pulled over a boiling pot of soup. Her burns were so severe there were fears she would die and she remained in hospital until the age of five, receiving multiple medical treatments and skin grafts. Her parents visited their only daughter every day (‘it was the days when you had to stick to strict visiting hours,’ she recalls) and moved house to Salisbury when she was transferred to a hospital there that specialised in reconstruction. It is a measure of the surgeons’ skill that Amanda was left with just one scar on her arm. In tribute to them, she became patron of the Guinea Pig Club, set up in 1941 by Second World War aircrew whose horrific burns were treated by pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. The specialists who treated Amanda were protégés of McIndoe.
Rather than forget her experience, Amanda prefers to remember it with pride and gratitude. ‘My parents both felt horribly guilty for what had happened,’ she says. ‘But it was an accident and I knew nothing different except being in hospital. I think it’s possibly the reason I became an actress – as a child in hospital I got a hell of a lot of attention. I was the star of the show, and when I came out I had so much energy that my mum enrolled me in dance classes – but I was horribly clumsy, so I went upstairs to the drama class, which I loved.
‘My mum encouraged me. She also never thought about covering up my scar [which is on her upper left arm], so I wore short-sleeved dresses because it was part of who I am. I’ve never felt self-conscious about it because of that. I have a friend who calls it my “manky arm”, which makes me laugh. I’d rather people ask me about it than pretend not to notice. Children always point it out and in Sri Lanka when we are filming they come over and have a good look and inspect it. They are far more used to seeing scars than we are. They can tell that I was burnt as a child because of the way the skin has healed – I love that. It’s just embraced and accepted as part of my story.’
Amanda’s sense of acceptance is part of her attractiveness. When her daughter Emily told her three years ago that she wanted to give up acting, Amanda was the first to support her: ‘She had done really well and was working at the National Theatre, but she told me she just wasn’t in love with it. I got that. My passion doesn’t have to be her passion. She’s now working in publishing and loves it.’
And when the menopause hit, Amanda went through it ‘cold turkey’ because she didn’t want to take HRT. ‘I used to smoke, which means I am not a good candidate for HRT, but regardless of that I thought I should go with the menopause, uncomfortable though it was. I’m glad I went through it even though it was horrendous at times – the hot flushes were the worst. I would feel as though I was about to melt, I’d be covered in sweat and I would have to stop filming – I was doing New Tricks at the time – which doesn’t make you feel great because it’s so public. But you do come out on the other side.’
Although Amanda admits she would love to have a breast reduction (‘They’re far too big’) she has no interest in cosmetic surgery because, she says, ‘Trying to change your appearance speaks of a sadness in here [she pats her heart]. And I will never have surgery on my boobs because my husband is dead against it.’
Ask Amanda what is next for her in terms of her career and she responds with a laugh and a shrug. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘But I don’t worry about it. I just think, “Amanda, enjoy life. Wait for something good and it will happen.”’ It is clear Sri Lanka has worked its magic on her. But it is also clear that women like Amanda Redman should not be kept waiting long.
The Good Karma Hospital returns to ITV this month