Actress Sabrina Bartlett is reviving a part she feels she was destined to play – one that propelled her predecessor to Hollywood. As The Darling Buds of May gets a reboot for a new generation, Cole Moreton has one burning question: is she ready for superstardom?.
You’ve got to have guts to take on the role that made Catherine Zeta-Jones famous, but Sabrina Bartlett ‒ who plays Mariette in The Larkins, ITV’s new adaptation of The Darling Buds of May ‒ is up for anything. So much so that she even laughs about getting a black eye during filming.
‘There was a scene where I had to get in a fight and I absolutely loved it,’ she says. ‘They had to cover up the bruise and film from one side of my face. We just went for it. We were feral, it was absolutely hysterical. We got strawberries in places they shouldn’t go! The other actress whacked me with her elbow, I heard a popping sound and saw stars and thought: “This has gone a bit far.”’
The Larkins is 30-year-old Sabrina’s big break after a decade of supporting roles in Bridgerton, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. She is well aware that everyone will compare her to Zeta-Jones, who was first hailed as a star and propelled towards Hollywood after playing the same part in the 90s.
The revived series is a fresh take on the original HE Bates novels, with a more daring Mariette. Bradley Walsh plays the role of Pop Larkin – made iconic by David Jason in the previous adaptation – who, with his catchphrase ‘Perfick!’, is the gregarious head of a big family living an idyllic 1950s life in a Kent village.
Sabrina looks immaculate in a hot-pink sleeveless top and houndstooth skirt as we sit in a Hastings café drinking coffee. We’re not far from where she lives with her parents and it was they, she says, who first noticed the bruise.
‘I went home and they said, “Are you all right? What’s wrong with your face?”’ Other actors playing their first lead would have panicked, but Sabrina seems to have been delighted. ‘I was so proud of it. I showed everybody: “Look, I do my own stunts!”’ This is a nod to the fact that her sister Saskia is a professional stunt artist. ‘She basically sets herself on fire and does weaponry on horseback, it’s amazing.’ The Bartletts are a gifted bunch. ‘I’ve got a half-brother Ben who composes music for film and television; and Atlanta, my half-sister, is an interior designer who also writes books.’
Sabrina was born in Fulham, West London, but raised in a remote house on Romney Marsh by Sharon and Stephen Bartlett, both artists. ‘I believe the reason I got The Larkins is that my sister and I grew up riding horses in Kent like Mariette ‒ and she is from a big family, very much like me. Reading the script was like reading my childhood.’
The auditions happened while Sabrina was filming Bridgerton, cast as Siena Rosso, the opera singer and mistress of Anthony Bridgerton. ‘I was playing all these heightened romantic scenes with champagne and parties, then running off set, putting on my shabbiest jeans and an old jumper, working my hair into a bun and taking off my make-up to attend the auditions for The Larkins.’
Sabrina will not be in season two of Bridgerton because the plot centres on different members of the cast. ‘It’s not official, but they’ve left the door open for Siena to return in season three.’
At one point during the second lockdown Bridgerton was the most-watched show on Netflix with more than 82 million viewers in its first month, but Sabrina missed a lot of the fuss. ‘Living in Hastings and going for walks on the seafront bundled in a scarf, I didn’t really engage with the buzz of it.’
She remains close friends with the show’s leading lady Phoebe Dynevor and the pair of them set Instagram alight in August with images of a holiday they took together in Croatia. ‘The mad thing was that because both of us were working a lot, we literally decided the day before that we should go for a four-day holiday, just the two of us. It’s quite scary as an actor to allow yourself the time to say: “I’m not available. I’m going to sit by the pool, read a book and do something for myself for once.”’
The Larkins was filmed over five months this year on a working farm in Kent. ‘It was only when I got on set I realised how many people had watched Bridgerton, because everybody there knew who I was. I’ve never had that before.’ How did it feel? ‘So strange. My whole life I’ve longed for recognition, respect, acknowledgement. Deep down, it’s something all actors want. It sounds lame, but you work so hard and there are many horrible moments where you’re made to feel quite small.’
How does she mean? ‘Just in general with the casting process. You’re made to feel like you don’t matter. It takes so much self-belief and fantasy to stay connected to what you love to do.’
Before falling in love with acting, Sabrina was a ballet dancer, coming to it as a way of addressing a childhood diagnosis of dyspraxia, the physical co-ordination disorder. ‘Lots of things were hard for me, so the suggestion was made that dancing would help.’ She was sent away to Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. ‘Going through puberty and living in a dorm with six other girls was so intense, as was being the worst in the ballet class. I used to dance around to Michael Jackson in my bedroom, then I went to ballet school and saw identical leotards, hair buns all exactly the same, and I thought: “What have I done?”’
Sabrina eventually plucked up the courage to ask her parents to move schools and ended up at the Guildford School of Acting. After graduation she soon found work and appeared in Midsomer Murders, Holby City and Poldark. She also played Maid Marian in Doctor Who and a disguised version of the heroine Arya Stark in Game of Thrones.
Playing a lead role this time was a big step up. ‘You get to a certain point in a shoot where you are quite broken. You are getting up at 5am, you’re the first person there, the last to leave, you’re doing hugely emotional and physical scenes as well as comedy. You’re at the heart of the story. Exhaustion makes you do crazy things. It erodes your brain.’
Sabrina – who is presently single – has never seen the 90s version of The Darling Buds of May. Can she imagine getting the same kind of reaction as her predecessor, who was hailed as one of the most desirable women in Britain after playing Mariette? ‘Hell, no! It’s wild to me. I’m not very cool. I’m not very self-assured and sultry.’
Is she ready for all the attention coming her way? ‘I have wanted this moment for such a long time, but I also want to keep evolving. I never thought I could sing opera, and I did that for Bridgerton. I never thought I could gallop into a scene – and I did that for The Larkins. I’ve always felt like I don’t necessarily tick the box of being the perfect girl, the English rose. I’ve always thought I’ve got a funny nose, a weird voice, I’m a bit clumsy. So we’ll see.’
We will indeed. But it’s hard not to imagine Pop Larkin taking his daughter’s hand and saying: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be perfick.’
The Larkins will start on 10 October on ITV and via catch up on ITV Hub.
Picture director: Ester Malloy. Fashion editor: Sophie Dearden. Fashion assistant: Stephanie Sofokleous. Hair: Liz Taw at The Wall Group. Make-up: Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group.