Hotel Portofino: Interview – Natascha McElhone

Hotel Portofino Interview - Natascha McElhone

ITV1’s glamour filled historical drama, Hotel Portofino, about a British family that opens a hotel on the beautiful Italian Riviera for wealthy tourists during the Jazz Age is back for a second run of episodes this February. Natascha McElhone plays co-owner Bella Ainsworth and here tells us all about Bella and what we can expect from the new season.

Who is Bella Ainsworth?
Bella runs Hotel Portofino, it’s her baby, so her role on the series is largely domestic. As much as you’re aspirational for your characters, I really wanted to try and keep Bella within the confines of that time. Quite often when we make period drama, we have unrealistic expectations for our characters: they’re all visionaries, revolutionaries and iconoclasts, when of course the vast majority of people weren’t like that. It’s important to tell stories about people who were a product of their environment and couldn’t see outside of the confines of that, so that the ones with transgressive traits will look transgressive in the context of the story.

Does Bella have certain modern traits?
She’s quite forward-thinking in terms of cuisine for example, encouraging the use of olive oil and serving Prosecco at the hotel. She’s Bohemian really, a slightly better-behaved version of the Bloomsbury Set. There’s a lovely element of improvisation in her life. I think many people who lived through the war were forced to improvise, finding the edges of themselves that they wouldn’t have had to venture into at any other time. Adversity is the mother of invention, and Bella is trying to create this new life, this new world for them all.

She clearly has a good eye.
Definitely – the hotel is her canvas and her form of expression. She was a painter or an artist at some point, and I wanted to amplify that aspect of her. It’s all about her taste and her abundant generosity – she has quite an egalitarian approach to the staff at the hotel as well. But the hotel is perhaps the only form of self-expression she could really have at that time. If you don’t express that part of you, then it will eat you up. This hotel that she’s all but designed, the interior which she would have handpicked, I think she gets a lot out of that when people appreciate it.

Her outfits seem to reflect her Bohemian attitude – how did you enjoy them?
They were wonderful. I abandoned the stockings when we decided that the postal service between cities and this place would have failed, so all the nylons would be threadbare at this point. Louize Nissen, the costume designer, did an incredible job. She was the taste barometer for the whole piece, really.

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Why has Bella set up the hotel?
More of that may be revealed in later seasons, but we know she came to the Italian Riviera on her honeymoon with Cecil (Mark Umbers), so there is a longstanding connection there. But the scale of the project, the administration of it, must have been extraordinary. Being in Italy, where you don’t speak the language particularly well and you’re in an old house – it must have been a Sisyphean task.

How is your Italian?
Hopeless! Bella speaking extremely rudimentary Italian came very easily to me. But I live in hope…

What is the state of Bella’s marriage with Cecil?
We worked hard to create a bit of ambiguity and complexity, so it wasn’t entirely about having rows over Cecil’s dishonesty and inability to manage money.There’s an unhealthy sort of co-dependence there, of turning a blind eye to this repeated behaviour she hopes will change, but Bella also has some correspondence going on with a man where they’re sharing poetry appreciation and baring their souls a bit. Cecil reacts very strongly to that, so there may still be a thread between them.

So was there genuine romance there?
I think so, but for some reason, perhaps the different ways they dealt with a bereavement they both suffered some years earlier, things have gone wrong.

Bella holds all the financial cards in their marriage, which Cecil chafes against. How comfortable is she about being in that position?
They married pretty young, so their personalities would have been quite formed by one another. I imagine she’d have been charmed by him, thinking he was rakish and fun before she discovered his addiction and money issues. But once a woman has had a child with their husband at that time, they had very little agency relative to the world today. So any control that she could have over purse-strings and running that hotel is incredibly energising and fulfilling for her, even if the price for that is still having him in the mix, depleting resources. It’s a burden, but rather than walk away as we might do today, she sees it as part of her lot.

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Her children have suffered in different ways from the war. How is Bella handling their trauma?
She has conversations with both of them about it, which is pretty unusual for a time when people really didn’t talk about their feelings. The problem is, if you open those cans of worms, there’s too much trauma to unravel and they don’t have that luxury. Bella is a practical, solution-finding character, who wants to steam through things and make them work.

Does that pragmatism extend to Lucian’s (Oliver Dench) marital status?
She’s ambivalent about the idea that he be married into a wealthy family. Lucian is loved so much by everyone around him. His friend loves him, these three women are obsessed with him in different ways… He’s even the focal point of his sister Alice’s (Olivia Morris) attention, even if it’s in an envious, competitive way, but that was true of the time – the son had so much power. I love the way that Olivia plays her frustration. Olivia felt Alice was incredibly sympathetic and irritating and interesting, but I think that embodied the predicament of a lot of women at the time – they didn’t count unless they were married and had a male representative. If you’re competent and able and disciplined, as Alice is, it must be so frustrating to watch your brother able to be idle while having all the choices in the world.

Are there aspects of Bella that you could particularly relate to? Do you throw a good party?
I do have people over to my house, but that was really born out being on my own for a lot of my kids’ childhood: it felt good for them to have a house filled with laughter and nonsense, and also for me to have a life other than motherhood, It was exhausting – I don’t know quite why I did it! But it was definitely a choice to be the host for a few years, doing the Bella thing.

What were the highlights of the shoot for you?
I loved working with our director, Adam Wimpenny. He was incredibly humble and open to other people’s input, when I think lots of people would have buckled under the responsibility of being the sole director. I don’t ever remember him losing his temper, and the whole thing was very collaborative. One of the lovely things about being on location is that it’s a bonding experience, quite like a circus troupe, and this was one of those occasions.

Hotel Portofino Starts 3rd February on ITV1 and ITVX.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.