Writer John Mortimer took a vacation from thinking up new plots for Mystery!'s Rumpole of the Bailey to write Summer's Lease, a four-part Masterpiece Theatre entry about an English family's holiday in Italy. Lease is a low-key farce that follows Molly and Hugh Pargeter (Susan Fleetwood and Michael Pennington) as they try to revive their dull marriage by vacationing in a romantic villa in the Italian countryside. But rekindling romance isn't easy: Privacy is scarce, since the couple has brought along their three daughters as well as Molly's nattering father (John Gielgud at his mostly blissfully dotty). Then, too, Hugh spends much of his time writing postcards to his mistress back home in London, while Molly gets involved with solving the murder of a local man.
Mortimer's script juggles moods. There are lots of silly-tourist jokes, and even the murder mystery is handled airily, as if it were a complicated jigsaw puzzle to be assembled before summer's end. But the wreckage of the Pargeters' marriage, as well as the gloomy air that surrounds many of Gielgud's wry comments, gives Summer's Lease a melancholy tinge.
Director Martyn Friend deserves credit for summoning up the hot, languid atmosphere of this Italian villa. By the time this Lease is up, a month from now, we'll be on the verge of summer, but you may feel as if you've already lived through it. B+