Sixth Form boys were inspired by a talk from a rather special guest as part of their Movember Citizenship day this week. Old Bedfordian Bob Barrett (74-84), who plays Dr Sacha Levy in the popular TV soap Holby City, came back to school to talk about mental health and how important it is to open up about our feelings. Bob’s talk was in the wake of a recent storyline, which saw his character Sacha, taken to the brink of suicide.

Bob’s talk was open, personal and extremely honest, and he was able to hook the boys in immediately when he spoke about his time at school, which he recalled fondly. He spoke about a close friend who went by the nickname of ‘Fug’ (they were good at giving nicknames back in the day he explained), who was a happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life boy who everyone loved and loved being around. Fug would be the one who could get away with cracking a joke, and the teachers turning a blind eye as they too would be chuckling. Bob kept in touch with Fug for a short while after school, but then the demands of busy lives meant quite a few years went by when they were not in contact.  A few years ago, something triggered Bob to look him up, to re-connect. After a little searching, Bob was devastated to discover Fug’s Eulogy. Fug had taken his own life. Bob has thought about Fug every day since. He also explained that sometimes this is the case: that the funniest people are often secretly sad.

“Sometimes the funniest people are often secretly sad.”

This is also true of the character that Bob portrays in Holby. A lovable man with a jolly facade, adored by everyone, who was also secretly battling with depression. It was when the charity MIND approached the writers of Holby City that the storyline ramped up a level, culminating in a dramatic roof-top scene where his character attempted suicide. As part of Bob’s preparation, he worked with real life paramedic, Ishmael, who himself knows what it is like to struggle with depression while working in the front-line of the NHS. With suicide being the number one killer in men under the age of 45, MIND wanted to tell Ishmael’s story through the medium of acting. What better way than through the adored character of Sacha, who can tap directly into a huge swell of people who have built up empathy with the character for the nine years that Bob has played him on screen.

Bob himself experienced extreme lows in the month following the storyline; the effects of such an emotional time took its toll. “I was walking around in a fog”, he explained, but he is thankful for that as it gave him a tiny window into what it must be like to live with depression. He also went on to say that during his time at Bedford School, he suffered a “nervous breakdown” when his mother died.  Bob remembers being in a terrible place and not being able to focus in class. It was only through talking to his classmates that he found the strength to carry on. 

Bob urged the boys that they must do the same: to talk about their feelings, to share their thoughts and be open. With so many stories of mental health issues in the press, “Now is the time to talk about it. You can’t see depression, but when it takes hold it will drag you under. It’s only if we talk about our feelings can we overcome them together.”

“You can’t see depression, but when it takes hold it will drag you under.”

After the talk Bob joined boys for lunch in our Dining Halls, where he was able to reminisce and share some of his stories from his time boarding at school. He vividly remembers seeing the flames sweep through the school on the night of the Bedford School fire in 1979. We were keen to show him The Quarry Theatre, of which Bob was quite in awe, and, by chance, was able to sit in on a rehearsal of The 39 Steps – the boys could not quite believe who they were performing in front of! However, perhaps the most sentimental aspect for him was a visit to our Old Theatre, where it all began. He recalled his old Drama teacher Mike Morrison, who he said inspired a generation of boys to go into acting, including Bob’s classmates of the time, Al Murray (77-86) and Martin Bayfield (80-85). Bob was delighted to get up onto the stage once again, evoking memories of plays gone by and inhaling the nostalgic smell of his surroundings – which he says are still the same!

It was a truly inspirational visit from a wonderful man. One of the Sixth Form boys commented (unprompted), “Bob’s talk was the best one I have ever heard at school and I had a great morning.”

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