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The Pillars of the Earth

September 2009

It’s a tense moment when the author arrives on the set. The cast and crew are afraid he will be picky and say: “That character has brown eyes, not green – you’ve ruined my masterpiece!” The author worries that the producers may have changed the story too much, perhaps transposing it from medieval England to the Wild West.

I’m happy to report that director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan and screenwriter John Pielmeier are working miracles in recreating “The Pillars of the Earth” faithfully for television.

For twenty years, Kingsbridge has existed only in the imagination – mine, and that of millions of readers. But today it has been built, on two huge lots on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary. Here are the dirty medieval streets, the hovels the people live in, the bakeries and smithies and wool stores – and, of course, the half-finished cathedral.

Everything is lovingly made and painstakingly detailed. I was astonished to come across a medieval loom that seemed to me to be completely authentic. People kept asking me: “Do you like it?” Of course I like it. I dreamed it, and now it’s real.

Most thrilling of all is the cast of first-class actors, many of whom I have seen and admired before. Prior Philip is played by Matthew Macfadyen, whom I last saw as Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” at the Royal National Theatre in London. Philip’s nemesis, the manipulative Bishop Waleran Bigod, is Ian McShane, unforgettable in “Deadwood”. Jack is played by a young actor everyone is talking about, Eddie Redmayne, and his great love, Aliena, is Hayley Atwell, who was so wonderful in “The Duchess”.

I could go on for pages, because the cast is very distinguished, but there is one special actor I must mention even though he really is not very good at all. I mean myself. Yes, I have been cast as an Anglo-French merchant in Cherbourg, a friend of Jack’s long-lost, red-haired family.

Even before I arrived I was ordered to stop shaving. Few medieval men shaved every day, so most of the male cast have beards or stubble.

I was fitted with some of the medieval clothing I have often written about but never actually put on: an undershirt, hose, boots, and a heavy overtunic of brown-and-green wool. By the way, the temperature in Budapest was thirty degrees Centigrade, so we were all sweating like medieval pigs.

My hair was condemned as “too modern”. I must remember to tell my hairdresser, Matthew at Nicky Clarke’s – he will be pleased. But for the film it had to be combed forward and curled under in a style that would definitely cause me to be refused admission to any decent London club.

In the make-up trailer I sat next to Matthew Macfadyen, who was being made to look seventy years old in preparation for a scene set late in the story.

Although I was playing a very small part, my make-up was not simple. I got a slightly blotchy tan, the reddened cheeks of a man who does business in taverns, and some grubby smears because medieval people did not wash much. My hands and wrists were similarly made up, and I even got some artificial dirt under my fingernails.

My scene was with Aliena and Jack – Hayley Atwell and Eddie Redmayne – and Jack’s grandmother, Piroska Molnar, plus numerous Hungarian extras, all with red hair. My role was to reveal part of the mystery of Jack’s past. The scene was short – it will probably be less than a minute of screen time. It took two and a half hours to film.

For the first time I realised how hard it is to remember your lines and act them at the same time. But I noticed director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan smiling, so I can’t have been too bad. And, after all, I was telling a story, so I only had to be myself.

— Ken Follett

September 2009



The TV series official site

See the Tandem/Muse/Scott Free website for the production, for information on the filming, cast and crew news and Ken’s blog… www.the-pillars-of-the-earth.tv/