The debut of World War I drama The Passing Bells reminded viewers of the calm before the storm. Before the 4 August 1914, before the stomping of boots and the barking of orders, there is a simplicity and naiveté among British and German communities, blind to the horror that awaits.
Tony Jordan’s adaptation of the war that shook the world presents the lives of two young men caught up in the conflict. The lost-in-love Michael (Jack Lowden) must leave his life, and lover Kate (Sabrina Bartlett), in Germany to join the fight, whilst Thomas Edwards (Patrick Gibson) abandons the pleasures of the English countryside to sign up. Neither is aware of the gravity of their decision, but is fuelled by the simple motive that they must fight for their country.
The Passing Bells showcases both sides of the trenches, neutralising the hostility to reveal the humanity behind the uniform. Jordan, keen to emphasise the youth of Michael and Tommy, shakes and breaks these characters, with the promise of rebuilding and developing their outlooks as the war progresses.
The first instalment perfectly captures the comparative bliss of peace, where innocence fostered love, and the unknown was too distant to be feared. There is a strong resistance among mothers on both sides to dismiss the war, and the possibility that it could claim their sons. Above all, Jordan depicts the every-day views of each nations’ citizens in the build up to war: it won’t affect us; it will be over in a month.
These views evolve as the young men of Britain and Germany seize the opportunity, with girlfriends beaming with pride at their heroism and mothers encouraging their sons to stay out of trouble. Jordan is careful not to retain ignorant bliss on the home front, but convincingly conveys the war as sinking into the hearts of all.
The drama keeps pace with the sudden shift from excitement at home to the filth and fury of war. Poppies hint at the bloodshed to come, the young men quickly comprehend the ugly face of warfare.
The historian may keep a wary eye on this romanticised portrayal of a highly complex conflict, The Passing Bells is a refreshing addition to the representations of a historical event that will forever linger in our memory.