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The Pillars of the Earth, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Pillars of the Earth, Channel 4

The Pillars of the Earth, Channel 4

Ken Follett's Middle Ages: English history shot in Hungary and funded by Americans

Ian McShane's eyebrow work in 'The Pillars of the Earth' is dastardly to a tee

It’s taken 20 years for Ken Follett’s doorstopping saga to storm the little screen in the corner of the room. According to Rufus Sewell, playing a stonemason who knows about these things, it takes only 15 to knock up a spanking new Gothic cathedral complete with the latest in flying buttresses. Not that it would be fair to compare The Pillars of the Earth with the pillars of any of the great churches erected in England in the period under observation here.

You don’t get lifeless gargoyles of this quality in the Middle Ages.

In the restless pursuit of authenticity, a British cast has been hired by an American company to recreate English history on a Hungarian film set. It began a week ago with a giant-whopper double-helping bumper edition of... of what? It’s not quite right to call The Pillars of the Earth historical drama. On either count. There’s about as much history in it as in my Common Entrance examination paper. Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste/ Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three - I forget how the rhyme listing all the English monarchs from 1066 onwards goes after that, but this one’s about Ste, as in Stephen, who usurped the throne from his younger cousin Maud and now uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Royal County of Magyarshire, a Welsh monk played with a miraculously straight face by Matthew Macfadyen is planning to raise a cathedral to glorify God and replace the knackered old one, which a selectively mute sculptor (it’s complicated) played by Eddie Redmayne has torched. An extended family led by Sewell will knock it up, and various interests headed by Ian McShane will do their damnedest to knock it down again. Or something.

SarahParishasReganHamleighDavidOakesasWilliamHamleigh-18McShane plays an archbish operating on the very outer reaches of uni-dimensional sniggering-behind-the-sleeves-of-his-chasuble wickedness. Contracted since time immemorial to play hoods and heavies, McShane always gives good spiv: he can phone through a study in charmlessness as easily as the next man. Word to the wise, when McShane gets cast as someone with the faintest glimmer of a beating heart, it’ll be very early April, some time fairly adjacent to the end of the world as we know it. But here he’s totally got the tone right. Handed a script with a high-heaven reek of bombast and humourlessness, McShane is the only one who seems to have fully grasped that The Pillars of the Earth has the moral complexity of The Wacky Races. His eyebrow work is dastardly to a tee, the detail on the lip curls wrought with filigree skill, and he laces every threat with award-winningly camp menace.

So it's not historical. Is it dramatical? No. It isn't. Follett’s narrative style is addicted to plot in every sense. Aristocrat A is plotting to thwart Prelate B, who is scheming to foil Wench C, who is plotting to thwart Peasant D, who is scheming to foil Nag E, who is plotting to thwart Dog F, who is... You're supplied with twists as if it's crack. Everyone wears brown. Or off-brown. Often you can’t see the characters for the trees. Imagine various members of Spandau Ballet acting out the more medieval Monty Python sketches on the tour bus. Sarah Parish, playing Lady Someone-or-Other with a very odd scar, is treating it as a panto gig as she rummages among the private parts of her slightly weedy son (Parish pictured above with David Oakes).

The highlight of ep three was the beheading of that very epitome of English earldomness, Donald Sutherland. Just prior to that someone else in the stocks had his hands lopped off. (A behanding?) This script feels as if it was typed out by someone who had recently undergone a similar procedure. “How much further?” sighed a mounted King Ste as a royal entourage made its way to inspect the cathedral foundations. “My piles are murdering me.” You should try sitting through The Pillars of the Earth, Your Highness.

McShane is the only one who seems to have fully grasped that The Pillars of the Earth has the moral complexity of The Wacky Races


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In the middle of all that historical liberty-taking, the "piles" comment was oddly apposite: King Stephen is reputed to have died of "the emeralds" (as haemorrhoids used to be known)...

Maud aka Mathilda was not Stephen's younger half-sister. She was his cousin. Their Grandfather was William the Conqueror. Adele was his daughter and Stephen was her son in the same way that Mathilda (Maud) was the daughter of William's son Henry. William the Conqueror was succeeded by William Rufus who died childless. He was succeded by his brother Henry I. When his only legitimate son was drowned on the White Ship Henry ordered his daughter to be made his successor. Her cousin Stephen went along with it and swore fealty to her, then when Henry died he usurped the throne. That was what the whole battle between them was about. An elder brother, even a half-brother, if legitimate, would have automatically been heir. If he were illigitimate, he would not. Why does it take a Yank to teach you English history?

I confess it's been a while since I studied that period, Susan. In fact I suspect it's been a while since any English schoolboy has studied the period. I must have nodded off in that bit of exposition. Me, I'm more of an Owain Glyndwr man these days. However I stand very much corrected. I'll change the reference in the review and your comment will stand as an everlasting rebuke to my cloth ears. I note that neither you nor JM Watson have taken issue with anything else in the review.

Wow aren't you the cynic Jasper It was and still is a great series. The cast was superb, so was the script. We saw it in Canada and couldn't wait for Fridays

Jasper. I'm afraid I disagree entirely. I think the series, so far, has been extremely well done. There's always a few things that you can fault here and there with series like this..... but why do that? It's great to see someone is at least making it, as opposed to churning out another cop/ hospital/ victorian half baked number that suits everyone and no-one at the same time. Perhaps for those people who don't have an interest in the period the series is set in, or the genre of drama, nothing like this is going to get you to change your mind. But that's fine - there'll be something else that will appeal. As for Americans, hiring Brits - GREAT! Let's have more of that please. And working in Hungary...... the locations are there. And a very experienced crew.

I have not read the book but have cheated and read the Wiki summary. I am enjoying it, taking it on face value but am irritated every time Sarah Parish is on screen. She should be physically horrid but either her ego, bad casting or a big slip in costume/make up department has her with a splodge of jam on one cheek and modern eye make up. Daft and to make it worse the camera angles work overtime avoiding the jam splodge. Apart from that I like the location and 'feel' although its always freezing cold and the other female leads are excellent as are most of the cast

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