TV review: The Pillars of the Earth
The Pillars of the Earth is lavish, preposterous and incomprehensible. I'm loving it.
The Guardian, 18 October 2010
Hairy boots are the new sandals, mud is the new dust, a vast stone cathedral – the first to be built in the new gothic style with pointed arches and flying buttresses – is the new forum. Because 'The Pillars of the Earth' (Channel 4, Saturday), a super-lavish adaptation of Ken Follett's epic historical novel, is the new Rome.
We're in the mid-12th century, a period known as Anarchy in the UK because of all the pogoing and gobbing going on in the forests of England. Johnny the Rotten and Sid the Vicious are fighting for control . . . sorry, I don't know what I'm talking about, though England was indeed rotten and vicious, and it really is known as the Anarchy. First cousins and worst enemies Stephen and Maud are squabbling for the crown after the death of Henry I. Stephen wins, but his reign is beset by civil war and unrest. And all this ill-will and mardiness trickles down from the king through the social hierarchy, from the nobility and church to the man in the street. Men such as Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), with his dream to build a great cathedral, and humble Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen).
There are stars wherever you look – Donald Sutherland, Sarah Parish, Hayley Atwell and Ian McShane, who, as the parasitic cleric Waleran, tries to get his hands on everything, and succeeds in stealing the show.
The cast is so vast that to begin with I have no idea who's who. Or what the hell is going on. It slowly becomes clear that pretty much everything is going on – politics and deceit, battles and power struggles, jealousy and revenge, all of which Follett will have experience of from his dealings with the Labour party. There's love, too, and lust, witchcraft, even some goodness and honour. And gradually, out of the medieval murk, the picture comes into focus. Just as slowly, from the fictional town of Kingsbridge, Tom Builder's great cathedral will rise.
And the clearer it gets, the further in you get sucked. There are a few dodgy lines, some confusing accents – Scottish, something else (Welsh-ish?), and in most cases the default pirate/ West Country farmer one actors automatically adopt as soon as a jerkin goes on. I wondered why, in the crowd scenes, the crowds are so small. Perhaps so much of the $40m budget went on the stars that there was nothing left for the extras. Or maybe in medieval times, 12 people really was a crowd. Otherwise the scale is grand to the point of pomposity . . . Yes, that's it, it's not punk at all, in a game of If It Was a Music Genre What Would It Be? It's obviously prog rock, with the same mix of folklore and preposterousness. 'The Pillars of the Earth' is a double Genesis album, in TV form. It is also fabulous, once you know what's going on.