As a cathedral emerges, a fiercely protected dream comes to life in an epic adaptation of bestselling novel ‘The Pillars of the Earth’, coming to Channel 4, UK this Autumn
Cathedrals are places where stories find their meaning. Inscribed over the walls and floors of our cathedrals we find these stories, often ancient, often painful. Memories of knights, soldiers, wives and children. Tombs of priests, saints and kings. Lives well lived and lives lost. So many stories under one roof, no wonder that one day these stories would be told.
Ken Follett, was the novelist who took up the challenge to write a novel that would do justice to the sacrifice and determination necessary to build a cathedral in twelfth century England. Follett was already well established as a writer of thrillers like the best selling Eye of the Needle published in 1978. He describes what gave him the idea to write his cathedral epic;
‘The stones themselves reveal the construction history: stops and starts, damage and reconstruction, extensions in times of prosperity, and stained-glass tributes to the wealthy men who generally paid the bills. Another story is told by the way the church is sited in the town. Lincoln faces across the street to the castle, religious and military power nose to nose.’
‘The building of the medieval cathedrals is an astonishing European phenomenon. The builders had no power tools, they did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor: the richest of princes did not live as well as, say, a prisoner in a modern jail. Yet they put up the most beautiful buildings that have ever existed, and they built them so well that they are still here, hundreds of years later, for us to study and marvel at.’
Naturally his publishers were nervous, in a way Follett’s journey to bring his novel about required as much dedication as the cathedral builders would have mustered. His epic novel The Pillars of the Earth was written over a span of 13 years. Follett remembers his first attempt, and the moment when he realised exactly what he had taken on;
‘Looking back, I can see that at the age of twenty-seven I was not capable of writing such a novel. I was like an apprentice watercolour painter planning a vast canvas in oils. To do justice to its subject, the book would have to be very long, cover a period of several decades and bring alive the great sweep of medieval Europe. I was writing much less ambitious books, and even so I had not yet mastered the craft.’
The Pillars of the Earth was eventually published in 1989 and has been a worldwide hit ever since, Follett describes the novel as the one people always want to talk to him about;
‘It is my most popular book. It’s also the book I’m most proud of. It recreates, quite vividly, the entire life of the village and the people who live there. You feel you know the place and the people as intimately as if you yourself were living there in the Middle Ages.’
The Pillars of the Earth is a majestic novel. Follett throws the reader instantly into the cold, damp, difficult and bloody life of a central character, Tom Builder, as he tries to keep starvation from the door of his family. Although penniless, Tom harbours a life-long dream to put his talent for building to work on the most ambitious project available to a man of his time; the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge, Follett’s fictional town set in a beautiful corner of South West England.
Follett took his inspiration for his cathedral from Wells and Salisbury, explaining that in its architecture the finished Kingsbridge Cathedral is like Salisbury, with rows of narrow, pointed “lancet” windows. As The Pillars of the Earth became an international best seller, Salisbury Cathedral noticed more and more people who had been inspired to visit by the book, from the UK but also from America, Germany and many other countries.
The same is true for the real-life ancient market town of Kingsbridge, located in South West England. Kingsbridge Tourist Information confirms that people from all over the world come to Kingsbridge looking for its cathedral. In real life, the history of Kingsbridge bears a striking resemblance to that of its factional counterpart. The modern town is made up of the Mediaeval towns of Kingsbridge and Dodbrooke, originally a quarter of a mile apart. Kingsbridge and the lands around it passed into the possession of the Abbots of Buckfast Abbey some time after the Norman Conquest. The Abbot of Buckfast was granted the right to hold a market in Kingsbridge in 1219, his monks selling their produce of honey, fruit, vegetables and thick cream, and so began the tradition of Kingsbridge as a market town, which continues to this day.
As The Pillars of the Earth unfolds we are taken deeper and deeper into the reality of this twelfth century where Abbots, Bishops, Kings and Lords held sway over their people. We are invited into the personal lives, the power struggles, the battles, the failures and successes of several families, prominent and otherwise whose destinies intertwine around the stones of Follett’s cathedral.
Follett is a master of the small detail and lays bare not simply the facts of life during these times but, more intriguingly, the motives of men’s hearts. The story becomes a thriller of large proportion as we realize that the narrative really lies in a fight to the death between the people building the cathedral and those who want to destroy it.
So had this book captured the imagination of people around the world that filming of an eight hour television adaptation is now complete. The eight-hour series assembles a vast array of veteran executive producing talent in various guises, three-time Oscar® nominee Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, American Gangster), Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3)- both Golden Globe® and Emmy® Award winners, Rola Bauer (Ring of the Nibelungs), David W. Zucker (The Good Wife),Michael Prupas (Human Trafficking), Emmy® Award-winner David Rosemont (Steven Spielberg’s Into the West, Door to Door starring William H. Macy), Tim Halkin (Lost City Raiders) and Jonas Bauer(Impact) and is produced by Emmy® nominated John Ryan (Hitler: The Rise of Evil, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows).
Rich in historical architecture, beautiful castles and churches, the series was filmed on location in Hungary and Austria. The series will premiere in the UK on Channel 4 in the Autumn. A time when the evenings draw in, the curtains are closed and a good historical drama can be a welcome diversion. Well loved British actor Ian McShane, no strange to sinister roles, takes on the character of Waleran Bigod a powerful and conniving villain. The story has a wealth of intriguing, heroic and duplicitous characters for the cast of well loved actors including Donald Sutherland, Matthew Macfadyen, Rufus Sewell and Sarah Parish to get their teeth into.
‘It was always our intention to make Pillars fresh and accessible to modern-day audiences – nothing stuffy here,’ explains Executive Producer and Chairman of Scott Free Films, Ridley Scott.
Ken Follett is also happy with the results, he recounts his reaction to filming and being told that the series had found a UK home;
‘The attention to detail was staggering. I was thrilled because my readers expect that degree of detail from me in my writing and historically-accurate costumes, props and sets translate that detail onto the screen. ‘
‘I might be prejudiced, but finding the right network for Pillars in the UK was very important for me. Channel 4’s profile and image is a perfect fit for a story with such broad appeal. I know we are in good hands.‘
And so the story of The Pillars of the Earth draws to a close as the small village of Kingsbridge is transformed into a thriving community, now lying in the shadow and grace of its magnificent and finally complete cathedral. A fulfillment of fiercely protected dreams.
The light and the scene change one last time to show the modern world, still revolving around the single stable point of our story, a cathedral filled with light. A place where stories find their meaning.
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