WITH a thick mane of dark hair and girl-next-door looks, Sabrina Bartlett is a double for Catherine Zeta-Jones when she first appeared in The Darling Buds of May 30 years ago.
The Welsh actress became a major star after playing the role of Mariette in 1991 — and now Sabrina is taking on the same part in show reboot The Larkins, which starts on ITV tomorrow.
But despite her looks and appearances in a string of big TV dramas, the actress admits to having an inferiority complex which she believes may stop her reaching the same dizzy heights as Catherine.
Sabrina, 30, said: “I never feel like I am equal. I always feel like, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe I’ve got the job and I am working with these people.’ Especially if they are big names.
“I’m very clumsy, I am quite goofy and I find it really hard to express myself or sometimes to even get the words out. So I overcompensate. Sometimes it’s a bit of a panic.
“Especially when it’s with other people of such high calibre and you want to impress them or just do a good job and be liked.
“That gets a bit lost sometimes, I’m still working on it.”
The pressure is certainly on Sabrina as she takes on the central role of Mariette, the eldest child of Ma and Pop Larkin — played in the new version by Bradley Walsh and Joanna Scanlon.
Channel chiefs will be hoping the warm-bath drama will provide comfort for a Covid-weary nation.
‘You can be fired at a moment’s notice’
At the same time, purists will want to ensure it stays true to the HE Bates books the show is based on, while fans of the 1991 original will hope it has not changed too much.
On a personal level Sabrina, who was born and raised largely in West London and Kent, has major expectations placed on her already.
Her parents are both artists and her three siblings include a writer, composer and interior designer. She attended the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire whose alumni include Julie Andrews and Thandie Newton.
Portraying the bold but beautiful Mariette will be her greatest challenge, one that will inevitably draw comparisons with Catherine, 52, who went on to enjoy a hugely successful career in Hollywood.
Sabrina has big shoes to fill, but she can draw some confidence from successful roles in a string of TV dramas including Doctor Who, Game Of Thrones, Poldark and Victoria.
And her biggest high came last year when she landed a role in Netflix period drama Bridgerton playing Siena Rosso, an opera singer and lover of Viscount Bridgerton.
But she also hit rock bottom four years ago when she was sacked from the role of Princess Isabella on the History channel drama Knightfall.
Sabrina said: “You have to keep your feet on the ground because at a moment’s notice you can also be fired and replaced by someone else. Which is what happened to me.
“I was on this show and got a phone call saying they wanted my character to be older and they were unfortunately going to have to fire me and replace me with another actor.
“While, creatively, it’s understandable, emotionally as an actor, that was something I took really hard. I was devastated.
“At the time, you’re like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Of course, your ego is burnt. I had to promote this, I was flown to Cannes to promote this, I did all the photos, the press, I’ve been talking about it on Instagram.
“It’s taken a huge chunk out of my life and everything that goes with that. The biggest thing that popped up for me was humiliation and embarrassment.
“I think it was really good for me because it removes your ego.”
It’s also taught Sabrina another valuable lesson as she prepares to take on a role which is so huge it could be career-defining. She said: “The biggest thing I’ve learnt is you never, ever own a character.
“It’s never yours. You can be dropped at any point, and hired at any point, so you don’t own anything.
“There’s always a very good girl in the wings that is going to take your place, or could take your place.
‘I just felt I understood her world completely’
“So just being open and having a looseness with everything you’re employed in is healthy.
“Before I’d think, ‘This is my character, this is my role, this is my story.’ It’s not. It could be anybody’s.
“You just get to be lucky for a few moments if you get a piece of that. But you don’t own it.”
Despite this, Sabrina says she wants to make the role of Mariette her own and has not watched any of Catherine’s performances in the original Darling Buds Of May.
She insists she wanted to read the scripts and give her own interpretation of the character.
The fact that she spent a lot of her younger years in Kent, where the adaptation is set, also meant she could develop a unique spin.
She said: “I grew up in Kent riding horses with my big sister, so when I read the scripts I felt such a connection to the role and her environment, you know, riding horses and running around barefoot with my sister.
“And auditioning for it and reading for the role, I just felt I understood her world completely. And getting to do that on screen and being able to tell her story has been amazing. “Talking of horses, there is a lot of horse riding on this job, which I’ve absolutely loved.
“Prior to The Larkins, I took lots of riding lessons at my local school in London just because, for a role that requires so much riding, I wanted to feel safe and comfortable.”
Sabrina also relished playing a multi-dimensional character developed by screen writer Simon Nye, who also created The Durrells for ITV.
Sabrina said: “He’s empowered Mariette. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and she’s a robust girl who’s grown up lifting hay bales and mucking out the stables.
“One of my favourite scenes to shoot for The Larkins has been my cat fight with my love rival Pauline in the strawberry fields in episode four. We’d just had some cake during our lunch break, had cups of tea and we’re both going, ‘Oh, you know, let’s get a bit of energy up for this fight, yeah?’
‘By the evening, I had a black eye’
“Cut to ten minutes later and the whole thing was a blur, I don’t really remember it, although I suddenly remembered feeling this pain in the top of my brow. And, by the evening, I had a black eye.
“It was amazing, and one of the things that I’m most proud about in my acting career has been to achieve a black eye.
“We just took it into our own hands and we had so much fun. We’re using our elbows, using our hands, grabbing a hunk of hair, biting each other, it was brilliant.”
But Sabrina reassures viewers The Larkins is not filled with violence, gore or sex.
She said: “The Larkins is a dose of heart-warming wholesome goodness.
“In a world governed by iPhones, everything’s so quickly accessible to us these days.
“We can fly wherever we want, we can access amazing food, we have the internet and I think Larkin life depicts a much simpler, purer existence.
“The home, the family — there’s no internet, there’s no Google — and I think living somewhere like rural Kent and being in beautiful nature, surrounded by bluebells. It’s been really heavenly.”
- The Larkins is on ITV tomorrow at 8pm.
Warm hit was tonic we needed
WHEN The Darling Buds Of May was quietly unveiled on a Sunday night in the spring of 1991, no one expected it to become a ratings phenomenon.
The central star was David Jason, then 51, in his first big role since playing Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, which ended the same year.
He took the role of Pop Larkin, head of an eccentric family living in a village in 1950s Kent. The rest of the cast were far from household names.
Pam Ferris, then 43, played Ma Larkin, and a 22-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones took the role of eldest daughter Mariette while her love interest Charley was played by Philip Franks, then 35.
The drama was no surefire hit, yet it soon gained an audience of 20million viewers. Arriving just after the Gulf War and in the middle of a recession, its heartwarming storylines promoting family values and the idea of a simpler existence were a national tonic.
The show ran for three series up to 1993, after which some of the cast went on to bigger things.
Most famously, Catherine become a Hollywood star. After relocating to the US, she appeared in 1998 movie The Mask Of Zorro, 1999 thriller Entrapment and 2000 film Traffic. In the same year she married
Michael Douglas, 77, with whom she has two children.
She also landed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Velma Kelly in 2002 movie musical Chicago.
Pam also had success in Hollywood, starring in 1996 movie Matilda as the reviled Miss Trunchbull and Sir David further developed his acting beyond the confines of comedy, including the lead role in dark detective series A Touch of Frost.
Sir David was awarded an OBE in 1993 and a knighthood in 2005.