Locked down in cold and dreary London for the pandemic, writer Matt Baker (Professor T) says he was inspired to lift people’s spirits and create “an escapist TV drama in a sunny and glamorous place.” The result: Hotel Portofino, set in 1926 on the Italian Riviera, a location with stunning vistas of flowering cliffs overlooking crystal-clear water. (Though many exteriors were shot in Italy, the bulk of the six episodes was filmed in Opatija, a Croatian resort town.)
The series revolves around the newly opened luxurious hostelry of the title, run by expat Bella Ainsworth (Natascha McElhone). The wife and mother “wants to escape the imposition of her assigned role in a middle-class British household,” says the Halo actress.“She embraces the risk of creating a new, uncertain life in Italy.”
Bella hopes the adventure will also heal the lingering effects of World War I on her daughter, Alice (Olivia Morris), a lonely widow with a child, and her son, Lucian (Oliver Dench), a handsome veteran still bearing physical and emotional scars. Meanwhile, Bella’s feckless husband, Cecil (Mark Umbers), will do just about anything to obtain the money needed to keep his ancestral property back in England. That includes marrying Lucian off to Rose (Claude Scott-Mitchell), the naive daughter of neighboring landowner Julia Drummond-Ward (Lucy Akhurst), both in residence at the hotel. Will the appealing new nanny (Louisa Binder) scotch those plans?
As for the other characters, they’re a diverse and unpredictable lot. (“Bella loves all her guests,” McElhone says, “even if some are more trying than others!”) There’s imperious Lady Latchmere (Anna Chancellor), her cowed niece (Imogen King), a dashing Italian count (Daniele Pecci), a free-spirited American entertainer (Lily Frazer), and her slippery husband (Adam James), who gets involved in Cecil’s scheme to sell an alleged Old Masters painting.
What happens next lends a bit of Agatha Christie mystery; local fascists from the country’s new ruling party add some darker moments too. Still, “comic and quaint” are Portofino’s watchwords, McElhone notes, and if you enjoy that, Season 2 is coming: “I’m packing my suitcase as we speak!”
Hotel Portofino, Series Premiere Sunday, June 19, 8/7c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)