Hotel Portofino: Interview – “Oliver Dench”

Hotel Portofino Interview – Oliver Dench

Hotel Portofino, ITV1’s 1920’s set costume drama begins this February. Oliver Dench plays Lucian Ainsworth and in this interview he tells us about the wearing three-piece flannel suits in stifling heat and the struggles of his character’s PTSD.

How would you describe Lucian?
On the surface, he’s a carefree young man who has adapted perfectly to Italy. He seems very relaxed and seems to get on with everyone, but as time goes on you come to understand how PTSD has taken its toll on him, and how he’s hiding a lot of stress and fear.

It becomes obvious early on that something pretty serious happened to him on the Western Front.
Yeah, he has these scars on his back and is still suffering from shellshock to some extent. The psychological impact (of the war) on people’s lives is fascinating, because Lucian isn’t completely crippled by his PTSD, it’s more subtle than that. It’s interesting to look at how things like depression were treated, how mental health was viewed, felt and understood in the 1920s. I don’t think Lucian is fully aware that he’s feeling those things and wouldn’t class himself as a person who is ill, but in my mind there’s no doubt that he’s a depressed person.

Given it’s eight years since the war ended, would there have been people thinking: come on, pull yourself together?
Completely. And that’s what’s so nice about the interactions between Lucian and Cecil (Mark Umbers). They have a classic period drama father-and-son dynamic, but it resonates so much deeper because Cecil personifies that stiff upper lip when it’s obviously not possible for Lucian to do that. The vast differences in the ways the First World War and Boer Wars were fought mean that, although they have a lot in common in terms of their experiences, they can’t make the connection. They’re thwarted by that inability to discuss their emotions that so many men of the era had. And Lucian doesn’t get too much sympathy, because he’s outwardly so happy and relaxed. That’s true today: if you seem fine, I think people can be a lot less patient when you’re dealing with your own issues.

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How does he get on with his mother and his sister?
He has a super positive relationship with his mum, Bella (Natascha McElhone). She’s comparatively modern and definitely more emancipated than many of the other women in the story, more patient and emotionally aware with Lucian. But when it comes to Lucian’s alcoholism and the other ways his problems are manifested, she has to walk a fine line between supporting him and enabling him. He doesn’t have a great deal to do with his sister Alice (Olivia Morris), although sometimes she’ll mention feeling bitter about the way the family treats and has patience with Lucian compared to her. She lost her own husband in the war – how painful must it be for Alice that Lucian came back from the war and her husband didn’t?

What does Lucian make of the hotel enterprise?
Lucian is able to take advantage of it without taking any responsibility for it in terms of running the hotel. He doesn’t really help, he doesn’t entertain the guests, he has even invited a friend (Anish Sengupta, played by Assad Zaman) to stay for the whole summer. So he adores it, but he’s not really participating.

He’s obviously a talented artist.
Yeah. It’s great that he has that outlet and through his artistic leanings he can live out a few of his dreams out there. Italy around that time had such a dramatically exciting style of painting. Early modernism was so much more vibrant, colourwise and subjectwise, compared to anything that was going on in the UK.

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Where does Hotel Portofino stand in terms of genre?
It’s something we talked about a lot while we were making it. What made sense for me when we finally saw it was that it’s about characters and human stories. We can deal with all sorts of issues and touch on all sorts of things, and it does that very eloquently.

Did you research the era?
I knew a little bit about the rise of fascism. It’s really interesting how all of Europe around that time was so splintered. It’s not something that Lucian interacts with much, beyond a fairly childish ignorance, but that’s really exciting in the context of what we’re dealing with today: people are feeling disenfranchised and saying they don’t want to vote, when there are forces out there that should worry us all.

How were Natascha McElhone and Mark Umbers as your mum and dad?
They’re great. Mark’s my new best friend and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He was forever saying completely ridiculous things in between scenes, making up nonsense. And Natascha’s wonderful. In each of the first couple of episodes, we have a nice chunky scene where we get to just relax into each other’s company and work with each other. She’s very generous, so that dynamic was lovely to work with.

How were the costumes in an Adriatic summer?
The three-piece flannel suits were brutal. I think it’s the one period in history where men were dressed more uncomfortably than women. When we were filming in midsummer, it became very difficult indeed. Every bead of sweat you see is genuine, and the poor make-up team were constantly having to adjust things. But everyone was lovely, it was a total delight to work on.

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.