In love and war – Glass talks to Sabrina Bartlett about her role in the epic WWI series – The Passing Bells


Actor Sabrina Bartlett graduated from the Guildford School of Acting only last year but she’s already notched up an impressive resume appearing in Doctor Who, Suspects, and Holby City. The London native was raised in a household of artists and originally trained as an dancer before pursuing acting.

Sabrina BartlettSabrina Bartlett. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

She can be seen starring in the BBC One five-part series The Passing Bells  set during World War I. Marking the Centenary, The Passing Bells is different from typical depictions of war on screen where, as writer Tony Jordan says, “There are always good guys and bad guys.” The story is told from the perspectives of both the German and British sides showing the same human struggles that each side had to endure. Sabrina plays Katie, a young woman in Germany on the home front as her beau, played by Jack Lowden, is away fighting on the front lines.

Sabrina has several upcoming projects. She has joined the cast of the Starz/FOX series DaVinci’s Demons and will appear in an upcoming episode of ITV’s Midsomer Murder.

You graduated only last year from acting school.
I’ve learned a lot in the year out that I’ve had. I feel very blessed as well to have been in the projects I’ve been in because it is difficult as actors to work. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn as I have with the jobs I’ve had so far. I graduated in July and it’s been a busy year so far. I’ve been very lucky and everyone is excited.

Sabrina Barlett, Justin van VlietSabrina Barlett. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Your upcoming role in the The Passing Bells sounds like it was a huge undertaking.
It’s set during the first world war and focuses on two characters, Thomas and Michael, young boys who enter the war. Both enter World War I having come from normal humdrum lives. Michael is a German soldier and Thomas represents the British troops. It’s interesting that although they are fighting on opposite sides, they are both very much the same in what they are experiencing. Moving away from home and their families, love at such a young age, coming to terms with killing a grown man for the first time and that grown man could easily be the same as them but from the other side. I think it’s going to be something that viewers can watch and hopefully be moved by.

We’re all very proud to represent something that was such a big part of our history. I play Michael’s (Jack Lowden) love interest. We’re the love of each others’ lives. We see how the war impacts my character, a countryside girl. They meet and fall in love and he goes away to war. She has to grow up very quickly and you see how she goes from being a girl to becoming a woman. The war impacts everybody whether they are fighting in the trenches or at home waiting for news.

Sabrina BarlettSabrina Barlett. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Your character, Katie, is from the German side. How did you prepare for the role?
In casting, the director Brendan Maher said that he didn’t want the fact that we were representing the German side to really be something that was a significant factor because at the end of the day, these kids are all the same even if they speak a different language. They are all ultimately thrown into their war together and what’s heartbreaking is that they are all going through the same thing.

There is a famous story on how on Christmas day, they all came out of the trenches and all played football on the one day there was no fighting. Brendan didn’t want the German side or the British side to be the fixation and wanted us to really connect and show the relationships. I didn’t feel that Katie’s character being German was a defining factor when I got the part or when we were filming. Aside from the makeup, costumes, and set being German, we were really looking at the characters and their relationships.

Although, we do look rather very German, my hair is in this rather despicable clasp and the costumes were absolutely amazing. The makeup and sets were awesome so that really helped getting in to the German feel of it.

What kind of research did you do?
When I got the part, I wanted to get into the character so I watched a lot of documentaries about World War I and German life in the countryside during that time. I also watch a lot of films and read history books about that period about what they would’ve eaten and worn. The most significant research was a book of poems written by World War I soldiers in the trenches lent to me by my dad. I found that extremely moving. In the series, I await news from Michael and I wait for these letters to read.

At first, he pretends that everything is alright but by the end of the story, he is telling me what is really happening and more often than not, it’s very difficult to read. There are scenes where Katie is reading these letters and it’s heartbreaking. When I read these poems, I found it to be very useful research because I was really was experiencing that feeling of reading something which was so alien and appalling. It was horrible what these young boys had to deal with some of them are very poetic and beautiful. Some are written in the last moments of these soldiers’ lives and it was very provoking.

There is a scene with Michael where he talks about never being able to know when your number is going to be up – seeing the last blades of grass for the last time and how it’s so much more vibrant because you don’t know if that’s the last time you see it. So I think there is a lot of poetry within The Passing Bells that the audience could hopefully pick up on. It’s quite beautiful and ugly in a strange way.

Sabrina Barlett, Justin van VlietSabrina Barlett. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Where was the filming?
We filmed in Warsaw, Poland. I had never been to Poland before so that was an adventure. We were all there together, a very young cast, so there was a lot of energy and excitement to be there. I struck up a really lovely friendship with Erika Karkuszewska who plays the other female lead, Joanna. We’ve become good friends. She comes over to London and stays with me and when I was in Poland, she showed me all the cool places to go to in the city. Warsaw itself is very beautiful.

What was it like working with a young cast?
So much fun. Amy Hubbard and the whole team did such a great job casting. It’s a very strong cast. Everybody represents their character really well and there is a lot of up and coming talent. I really enjoyed working with Jack Lowden. He’s tremendously talented and I think our pairing worked really well. We had a real chemistry. I hope we represent what a couple in those days would’ve gone through in the war.

This marks the Centenary so it is a big deal.
Yes, I think there is a lot of responsibility that comes with a project like this so when I got the part, I felt not only over the moon but humbled. It represents so many people. They lost so many people in the war. My family is very proud that I’m representing the war in that sense and I think a lot of people can identify with it. We have to handle it in the right way and I think Tony Jordan is such a talented writer and what he’s written here is very unusual because with a lot of war dramas it looks at the adults and I think what is so poignant about The Passing Bells is that it’s basically putting children in an adult situation, giving them guns and saying, “Be a man.”

At first, there is the bravado of the uniforms and the guns, then they are in the trenches and they are seeing friends dying in front of them. They’re cold and exhausted and the glamour of the uniforms are gone. It’s absolute horror and trauma. And as for the families waiting back home, everyday is like treading on eggshells. You don’t know when that letter is going to come to the door. There is constant dread and worry that you’re never going to see them again. They also suffered with the rations and people were ill. There is a line that Michael’s mother says, “There were 20 boys in the class at school. There are now six.” and how she feels guilt because her son is still alive and so many people had lost their sons and you feel isolated as one of the surviving mothers with a son that’s actually fighting.

What are some upcoming projects you’re working on?
I’ve a got few things coming up. I’ve done a series called Poldark on BBC One, which they did a few years ago and they reprised it with a new cast. I play a character allied Kerin who is a gypsy girl in a traveling acting company. I come in halfway through the series when everything is settled down and peaceful and my character comes in and messes everything up and ruffles everyone’s feathers. She’s very wild and sexy and a bit of a devil. She knows exactly how to manipulate people to get what she wants. That’s been a really exciting role to play because I went in straight into that after The Passing Bells after playing Katie, who is very sweet and pure.

And Kerin, in contrast, is this manipulative actress. You kind of hate her but you love her wickedness at the same time. It was great to work with Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. Will McGregor, the director, has amazing vision. He’s making waves. That will be airing in January next year. I’m currently in DaVinci’s Demons as a series regular. I just joined the cast and it’s been amazing. But I’m not allowed to say who my character is yet and have to keep that under wraps for now.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a massive chef fan. I love cooking more than life itself. My idea of chilling out is to cook. I love Jamie Oliver. Every Christmas, I’ll ask for cookery books. I just adore food and love experimenting, having my friends around and cook up a feast.

I also love to draw as well. My family are all artists. My dad is an artist, my mom is an artist, my sister is a writer, my brother is a composer, my sister is an interior designer. So we’re all kind of mad. I was brought up with a lot of painting and crazy things.

by Lisa Kim

Photographs by Justin van Vliet

The Passing Bells  premieres on November 3 on BBC One

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