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Summer’s Lease

Daily Mail, 2nd November 1989, Peter Paterson

No-one has a more acute eye and ear for the foibles of the British middle class than the rebellious product of that class, lawyer-turned-author John Mortimer.

The man that gave us ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ last night presented us with an equally eccentric but slightly more dangerous character in ‘Summer’s Lease’ (BBC2).

John Gielgud as a louche old journalist, Haverford Downs, steals every scene in ‘Summer’s Lease’, a formidable achievement given the competition he faces from such players as Susan Fleetwood, Leslie Phillips and Rosemary Leach.

Downs, whom one could easily imagine carousing with Rumpole at the end of a hard-fought libel action, is one of the old school: learned, witty, mischievous, but something if a freeloading old bore as well. Veterans of Fleet Street’s El Vino bar might recognise many characteristics of the late Maurice Richardson in Haverford Downs. The editor of ‘The Informer’, the weekly magazine for which he writes a Notes and Jottings column, tries to hide when this “aged street-walker in the Boulevard of Shame,” as he calls himself, visits the office, but lacks the courage to sack him.

Against the united opposition of his daughter Molly (Fleetwood) and her husband, Hugh (Michael Pennington), Haverford is determined to join them on a villa holiday in Tuscany, and once there, to write his column, no doubt hoping that his expenses will be defrayed by ’The informer’. Opposition collapses when he manages to suborn Hugh, having spotted him kissing his mistress in the street.

The old hack is, of course, a bad influence on the Pargeter’s three daughters (oddly given boys names by Mortimer), before whom he boasts of ancient sexual exploits (“it seems only yesterday that we hopped between the sheets together”), as well as an irritant to his own conformist, slightly downtrodden daughter, and a permanent blackmailing threat to his uninspiring son-in-law.

Clearly, the Tuscan holiday is to change the lives of the Pargeter family, particularly Molly, who settles in to the villa La Felicita with all the enthusiasm for going native which characterises the modern English middle class abroad. Not so Haverford Downs, who speaks far better Italian than his daughter but remains defiantly English wherever he is.

‘Summer’s Lease’, adapted by Mortimer from his best-selling novel, combines social comedy with a murder mystery. Regrettably, the first corpse is that of William Fosdyke, an eccentric ex-patriot from the “old country”, which meant whisking Leslie Phillips out of the story far too quickly.

His performance as a procurer of Marmite, fish fingers and shredded wheat to the visiting English was as delicious as the goodies he procured. I enjoyed every moment of last night’s opening episode (of four), and I have no doubt it will scoop up a hatful of prizes.

The Sunday Express, 26th November 1989, John Russell

The sight of John Gielgud lecherously launching into the night to renew an old relationship with Rosemary Leach and finding himself in the wrong four-poster will live with me long after the last award has been presented to the marvellous ‘Summer’s Lease’ (BBC2, 9.25 pm).

John Mortimer’s enthralling drama involving the English middle-class on the loose in Tuscany has been a television triumph.

The final episode saw Gielgud, as the aged but still serviceable Haverford Downs, launch not into an adventure of rekindled passion but into the bed of an indignant male aristocrat with maximum embarrassment all round.

Meanwhile Haverford’s curious daughter Molly (Susan Fleetwood) concluded her investigations into the whereabouts of her mysterious landlord, Buck Kettering.

Buck was traced down eventually in a seedy motel room in the sun-tanned shape Jeremy Kemp and Molly’s mystery was solved.

With that weight off her mind Molly mended her marriage to her hapless husband Hugh and everyone lived happily ever afterwards. Except for poor Buck, who was bumped off by a passing lorry.

‘Summer’s Lease’ never quite decided whether it was a thriller, a comedy or a travelogue and was perhaps all the more entertaining for succeeding on all those levels.

Wednesdays will seem empty now for weeks ahead.

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