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The Pillars of the Earth

July 2010

Props and costumes

Above: Special Effects Supervisor Paul Stephenson discusses special effects in the production, and especially smoke

As a writer, I know just how important props and costumes are to the telling of a story. They give context, atmosphere and texture to a narrative. Their presence in a scene can be worth a hundred words of text or feet of film – as long as they are just right. If a prop or a costume is wrong, even if it is only slightly, it can draw the attention of the reader or viewer away from the story and break the spell which the author or director is working so hard to cast.

Accuracy is especially important when filming stories set in a specific historic period. I was very impressed with the attention that the Director of The Pillars of the Earth, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, paid to the detail of the thousands of props and costumes used in production. He found some marvellously appropriate items, like the loom in Aliena’s workroom, to dress his 12th century sets.

Whilst watching Pillars being made, I learnt that this loom, (which I referred to in my first blog) was not really a prop – just a piece of set dressing. This is because, unlike the dyeing vats which also stand in Aliena’s workroom, it has no active role in the telling of the story. The vats, in one important scene, to provide action for our eyes to follow whilst our ears pick up the developing plot through the dialogue.

A prop can also be used to focus the audience’s attention and reinforce the message of a busy scene. Take the apple that Regan Hamleigh peels whilst scheming with Waleran and William. The apple is a vivid red – the colour of blood. The knife being used to peel it is shiny steel – just like a sword. The bright colour and the flashing implement provide a counterpoint to Regan’s dialogue, which is, as usual, about advancing her family’s fortunes at the cost of someone else’s life or limb.

Actors like good, historically accurate, props because they help them to interpret the characters they are playing. But, in order to do this effectively, they have to know how to use them. So, as The Pillars of the Earth is about building a medieval cathedral, the actors playing Tom, Alfred and Jack were taught to carve by the professional masons who did much of the stone-dressing for the set. Not only did the actors learn how to carve, they also managed to devise a way of using their mallets and chisels noiselessly to allow them to speak their lines whilst working on the stone. This greatly added to the authenticity of the scene.

Authenticity was emphasised in the fight scenes too: medieval swords were heavy and clumsy and considerable skill was required to wield them. The fight between Richard and Walter at the gates of Shiring Castle goes well beyond the usual banging of blades and features several deft manoeuvres taken straight from the pages of period fight-manuals.

There were props of all shapes and sizes on the Pillars set. One of the smallest was Waleran’s prayer-book. This is sometimes used in the series to indicate his presence before his character actually appears on screen. My favourite amongst the larger props was a tread wheel crane, equipped with a human-sized hamster wheel, which Tom Builder’s son, Alfred, used on the cathedral set.

The small part I played in the series had no props. But, as an Anglo-French merchant, I did have a costume. This, the actors told me, was an even more powerful interpretive tool. After struggling into a pair of tights; a thick undershirt; a brown woollen tunic; an elaborately decorated leather belt and long leather boots, I knew what they meant.

The weight of the garments, (especially on a boiling hot July day), made me change the way I walked, sat and stood. I realised why the actors said that feeling the constraints of a corset, the pinch of suit of armour was just as important as getting the tilt of a nineteen thirties hat or the cut of a sixties suit right in the creation of atmosphere and character.

This is exactly why the research for the costumes used in The Pillars of the Earth was so detailed. Costume Designer, Mario Davignon, used a wide variety of sources: carvings, effigies from tombs and pictures from books and scrolls of the time. The armour was particularly well done. At Jack’s trial, the guards wear old-fashioned disc-and-leather hauberks, whilst he is clad in more conventional chain mail. I noticed that several of the soldiers were sporting a feature I mentioned in the book but did not really expect to see in the film: a ‘ventail’ or a flap which laces over the lower face to give more protection.

In Pillars attention is also paid to the colour of the costumes – a pleasant change from the “murky Middle Ages” look that has dominated many of the period films made over the past forty years. Once again, accuracy is all important. So the sturdy woollen tunics worn by the skilled Tom Builder are dyed and stand out against the plain homespun ones worn by ordinary labourers.

Some of Tom’s tunics are blue, dyed by one of the best known plants in England, woad. However, it lacks the intensity of the dark blue of Empress Maud’s gown which owes this to an expensive import, indigo. The deep red robe worn by King Stephen’s also owed its lustre to another costly import – ‘kermes’ or cochineal. The locally produced dye, madder, could not manage more than a serviceable, but unimpressive, russet – the colour of the tunic my merchant was wore.

Cut, like the choice of fabric, is a good indicator of social status and both can give an insight into the age and character of the wearer. Ellen’s fur and leather suggest that she is capable of fending for herself in the forest whilst Regan’s square gowns and headdresses emphasise her uncompromising character. Philip’s grubby habit is appropriate for a monk whose order enjoined him to “shave, cut his hair and, if necessary, take a bath twice a year at Easter and Micaelmas”.

But the bright red trim on the sombre black garments worn by Waleran indicate that he is not as humble as he claims. The patterned cloth used to make the “bliaut” or formal tunic worn by William Hamleigh at his wedding reveals his wealth and status. Its short hem shows that, unlike King Stephen who wears ankle-length robes, he is an active young man who relies on himself rather than on his servants.

Make-up is another, essential, part of costume. Just like hair styling. I spent an hour getting my face and hands covered in the murky grime appropriate to a medieval merchant who spent much of his time on the road. Like the other male actors, I was told not to shave the day before my scene and dirt was even placed under my fingernails. My hair was a bit of problem. “Too modern” the stylist said as she gave me a fetching twelfth century fringe.

When it came to jewellery I learnt a little more about theatrical classification on the set. A ring, for example, is generally part of a costume. But, if it plays a major role in the story, like Jack’s Phoenix ring in The Pillars of the Earth, then it is classified as a prop.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing my time on the set. It was wonderful to see the people and things that had previously only existed in my head being turned into flesh, blood and stones. It even made the medieval fringe worthwhile!

See you next month.

— Ken Follett

July 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/