So far, the BBC have done admirable job in providing a mixture of content celebrating the centenary of the First World War. From prime time drama The Crimson Field, to a number of hard-hitting documentaries, the BBC has made sure that everyone has been catered for.
My favourite World War One-related programme so far has been BBC Three’s Our World War, which used modern techniques and young protagonists to tell the story of the conflict in a way that would appeal to a teenage demographic…
Younger characters are also at the centre of this week’s five-part drama The Passing Bells, which follows teenagers Michael and Tommy as they both sign up to serve in the summer of 1914. However, writer Tony Jordan delivers a cunning twist halfway through tonight’s opening instalment, which goes some way to marking The Passing Bells out as a fairly unique World War I drama.
At first, Jordan lulls us into believing that Michael and Tommy are simply two English lads who have been tempted into signing up for the British army. Michael is initially presented as a young man who is simply interested in getting his end away, and the majority of this first episode sees him trying to get his girlfriend Katy to do the deed with him. In fact, it appeared that part of his impetus for signing up in the first place was to impress Katy, who claimed that all the other girls’ boyfriends were going to war.
Meanwhile, Tommy is certainly a more sensitive soul and is joining the army despite not being old enough to enlist. In fact, whilst Michael is busy trying to get his leg over, Tommy is interested in birds of the feathered variety. As you would expect, both boys also have worried mothers who don’t want their sons fighting a war, especially seeing as neither are particularly violent. However, their fathers are both proud that they’re representing their country and doing their bit for the war effort.
The big turning point in The Passing Bells came after a superbly edited sequence in which both Tommy and Michael signed up and went through their respective physicals. When both were presented with their uniforms for the first time, we learned that while Tommy was from Woolwich, Michael was in fact living in Quedlinburg, Germany. When I initially watched the scene in which both boys emerge to meet their townsfolk in their uniform for the first time, I had to rewind it…
I was more than a little shocked to learn that we were following young lads from both sides of the war, and I believe that The Passing Bells marked itself out as different by having a young German soldier share the spotlight with one of our own. From there on, the message of The Passing Bells seemed to be that all of the young men who participated in didn’t know what they were getting into, and that the German youngsters deserve as much of our sympathy as our boys do.
The rest of The Passing Bells was dedicated to seeing the boys in training, and as Tommy made friends with several of his comrades, Michael was put through a number of gruelling tasks by his commanding officer. A lot of these scenes were fairly uniform and were similar to those that we’ve seen in any number of war films. Before long though, both Michael and Tommy were being shipped out to France and found themselves in the trenches of the Western Front. It was here that Tommy’s new mates talked about what it would be like to be shot, while Michael was quite keen to hang on to the photo that he had reminding him of Katy.
The final scenes of the episode were incredibly well choreographed as both sides faced off for the first time. Although there were some casualties, it was obvious that Michael and Tommy were both going to be fine as the next four episodes will follow their progress throughout the war.
As I’ve said in some of my previous reviews, war dramas don’t really interest me all that much, but that being said, I approached The Passing Bells with no preconceived ideas. What I got was a serviceable look at what life was like for the young men signing up to be part of a war that most thought would be over by Christmas. Tony Jordan, who before now has scripted a version of The Nativity Story, is a reliable hand and has injected something new by making us sympathise with the German character of Michael.
However, as The Passing Bells is being broadcast at 7pm, Jordan couldn’t be that daring with the material on offer, and therefore the drama does come off as a bit lightweight. At the same time, he has created a war drama that I feel that young members of the family will be able to understand and watch alongside their parents. In Michael and Tommy, Jordan has created two likeable teenagers, who at the end of the day can’t really help which country they were born in.
Performance-wise, both Patrick Gibson and Jack Lowden, as Tommy and Michael respectively, perfectly anchored the drama and made us care about their characters. I do feel that Lowden had more to work with as Michael felt like the more rounded character of the pair. Despite that, Gibson gave the more sympathetic turn as the wide-eyed birdwatcher who felt like he needed to be part of something. The best attribute that both actors have is the fact that they just look like average young men, and I feel that that’s the message at the heart of The Passing Bells.
By showing a normal lad from each side of the conflict, I think that Jordan is trying to educate the masses to the opinion that there were no heroes and villains in the trenches. Ultimately, I felt that The Passing Bells had a promising start thanks to Jordan’s solid scripting and two likeable young leads. This opening instalment was perfectly paced and, although I wasn’t hooked throughout, it set up what I’m sure will be an enjoyable drama series.
What did you think to The Passing Bells? Will you be watching throughout the week?
Leave your comments below.