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The Pillars of the Earth

May 2010

Medieval Architecture — real and on TV, and at Salisbury Cathedral

Above: Stunt rehearsal

The post production phase of the television adaptation of The Pillars of the Earth is continuing at full speed as the first airdates rapidly approach. The series will have its world premiere July 23rd on Starz in the U.S. and will also go to air in Canada at the same time.

The stories that comprise The Pillars of the Earth are all connected, directly and indirectly with the Kingsbridge Cathedral in my book. But the cathedral is more than background or set. In some way, the Cathedral is a character, if by “character” I mean something whose existence propels the plot rather than just a stage on which the plot takes place.

The Cathedral’s existence, or at least potential existence, is an important influence on several characters: Prior Philip, of course, and Tom Builder and his sons Alfred and Jack. But it also affects Aliena, when she starts to recoup her fortune at the fleece-fair encouraged by the Cathedral’s construction. For different reasons, our villains Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh see the construction of a cathedral in Kingsbridge as a personal affront. Without the looming presence of this mass of limestone, each of them would have a very different interest in Kingsbridge, and maybe none at all.

I’m very grateful that the screen Cathedral looks just as good as the one in my imagination! I’ve seen it “for real”, during my location visits to Hungary. Much of it was plaster, wood and polystyrene, of course, but a considerable part was real stone, and that was enormously impressive. While modern power-tools were used in rough shaping for the sake of speed, a good deal of what you’ll see on-screen was hand finished real stone.

The finishing work has been done by a Budapest firm of stonemasons, Reneszansz Plc., who carry out this sort of maintenance and restoration on real historical buildings. They were also the trainers for our three principal “masons” in the cast, Tom, Alfred and Jack, providing training in how to handle the mallets, hammers, various chisels and all the other stone-working tools we see in use during the construction of the Cathedral. It’s a much more delicate process than just bashing away in a cloud of dust and chippings. Rough-shaping looks like that, at least to a degree, but fine carving of sculptures and gargoyles, or facing – the smoothing of exterior blocks – is more like persuading the stone than pounding it.

There are some things that do not necessarily change very much over time and many tools used by modern-day stone masons are an excellent example. Several are almost identical to the ones used in medieval times. The actors, Rufus Sewell (Tom), Eddie Redmayne (Jack) and Liam Garrigan (Alfred) took the training in their stride, though with some effort because real limestone is heavy. There were blisters and scrapes on their hands all through the shoot but they tolerated them and learned from them. They actually expressed a new and keen understanding of what these stone masons did and how strenuous and difficult it was.

The beautiful Salisbury Cathedral was one of the inspirations for the Kingsbridge cathedral in my book – its high lancet windows and lofty interior are very different to the low, squat construction of the previous tumbledown Kingsbridge cathedral church, and the light that they admit is an instant visual contrast with the dim, shadowy interiors of even King Stephen’s royal apartments.

I was delighted to learn that Tandem Communications and Salisbury Cathedral have entered into a partnership in which material from Tandem’s own “Pillars of the Earth” web site is now linked to the Cathedral’s official site. In fact, there was already a connection between Salisbury Cathedral and the “Pillars” production: David Oakes, who plays the villainous William Hamleigh, was educated at the Bishop Wordsworth School in the Cathedral Close, and his father is one of the Cathedral Canons.

Take a look at Salisbury Cathedral’s web site – and if you’re in the area, visit the real Cathedral, too. It boasts the tallest spire in England, and is absolutely magnificent. You’ll probably bring a camera, but you might also want to bring a pen and notebook, to write down your thoughts. After all, look where that took me!

See you next month.

— Ken Follett

May 2010

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/