The Passing Bells review: Patrick Gibson & Jack Lowden shine in Tony Jordan’s serviceable war drama

by Matt D
Passing Bells Ep1

Passing Bells Ep1

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.

Passing Bells ep1

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.

The Passing Bells ep1

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.


  1. Peter Dunseith on November 3, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Is The Passing Bells specially adapted for sight-impaired viewers? Is this the reason for the annoying voice-over that details every action in the film that is not supported by dialogue?

  2. Rowan on November 4, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    Peter, I think you must have accidentally watched a version for the visually impaired – no voice over in the version I watched (annoying or otherwise).

    Good series so far, agree with the Reviewer’s comment about feeling a bit lightweight due to being a 7pm slot.

  3. Your Mum on November 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Rubbish. That about sums this up.

  4. Robert on November 6, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Sorry to say this but this series is so historically incorrect it serves as a terrible warning for playwrights to do their research.It is an utter disgrace to the memory of those who served on both sides.Just goes to confirm people who wright soaps are inept useless no marks much in the same way as x factor is so un no real. This is utter rubbish shame on you beeb for wasting my money.What next.. The Muppet WW1 movie Kaiser Kermit vs Lloyd fozzie bear George .Get real you are so bad.

  5. Ziggy on November 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I guess Robert missed the point of this series; I’m an ex veteran, so I don’t care if historically it’s incorrect. The important point to this drama, it show the terror for all young soldiers whether they’re friendly or foe. For me, I can personally relate to these young men.

  6. Rowan on November 7, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Great point. Like the production of the series and it’s screenplay or not (and my family and I really do like it), it deserves some praise for presenting a balanced view focussing on ‘the enemy’… Not faceless extras in German uniforms, but boys with backgrounds and personalities just the same as our boys, fighting for the same reasons.

  7. Sylvia on November 7, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Loved loved loved this series. It was sensitively portrayed from both sides. Sad sad sad ending as I fell in love with Tom and Michael. How many more there were….

  8. Maggie on November 7, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    I thought it was excellent. The whole point was that it didn’t matter which side you were on, families at home were suffering, and by the end the people at the front on both sides didn’t want to be there. One of the most poignant scenes was the break in fighting to allow each side to retrieve their injured and their dead………….but then the killing starts again. And the absolute futility of the fact that men were killing and were killed right to the very end, even though everyone knew it was over, is shocking. Obviously the confusion one felt as to whether one was looking at Germans or English was deliberate, designed to underline that futility.

  9. Mike on November 9, 2014 at 12:37 am

    The series was very well acted, especially by the two lead actors, no criticism there, it was very sanitized(because of the early time of showing) but ultimately unsatisfying and for me devoid of emotion. When the German lad escaped, and the British lad let him go, you just knew our Tommy was going to get killed by the lad he allowed to escape, and the actual ending was obvious and predictable from episode three and eventually bordered on the ridiculous. The final episode was so cliche riddled, it was difficult to watch, and it was difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons……the cliche’d images of poppies, the cliche of the doomed hero volunteering for the easy job instead of the scared bloke, the little bird on the barbed wire(lifted from All Quiet on the Western Front,) our two main leads killing each other at the very moment the Armistice took effect, the pulling back shot revealing rows of crosses(lifted from Oh, What a lovely war) and then all the dead get up and smiling happily meander off arm-in-arm into the sunset that was just too schmaltzy for words………The final few seconds of Blackadder showed how it should be done, the ending of the Passing Bells was truly awful……..

  10. David Higson on November 10, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Excellent series. Good that the BBC cut the excessive gore and profanity rather than giving in to the predictable lack of subtlety shown by many modern writers. Not everyone wants this kind of overkill on TV and the writer has shown admirable restraint, whether limited by the watershed or not.
    The Passing Bells was a joy to watch and a sad reminder of the way in which an entire generation was sacrificed to the meat grinder of the Great War.
    Yes, there were cliches and factual fudges but overall it was a fitting remembrance to those (on both sides) who fell in the “war to end all wars.”

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