The Pillars of the Earth mini-series

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The Pillars of the Earth, an eight-hour mini-series based on the novel of the same name by Ken Follett, begins airing this month on North American television. Set in England during the 12th century, the story revolves around the building of a cathedral in the fictional market town of Kingsbridge.

Series Outline: The Pillars of the Earth begins with the public hanging of a mysterious man. About to meet his demise, he reaches out to a young pregnant woman in the crowd. As he hangs, the woman places a curse upon the three men responsible for his death: a powerful knight, a sheriff, and a young priest. This fateful event sets in motion the interconnected tales of Tom, master builder; Aliena, the noblewoman; the sadistic Lord William; Jack, the artist in stone work; and Ellen, a peculiar woman from the forest with an otherworldly background. At the heart of this grand tale lies Prior Phillip the benevolent leader of the diocese of Kingsbridge. His greatest adversary is Bishop Waleran, who threatens Phillip’s lifelong dream turned obsession of creating the most bewildering and magnificent church in England. The Prior and the Bishop become locked in an ultimate test of morals versus malice.

Series Background: Billed as the ‘epic event of the summer,’ Pillars of the Earth features a large cast including Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen and Donald Sutherland in leading roles. The mini-series, which cost over $40 million (US), revolves around the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. It takes place within the larger backdrop of England during the mid-12th century, when the country suffered through a civil war during the reign of King Stephen (1135–1154) and tumultuous times of Henry II (1154–1189).

At the beginning of “Pillars,” Kingsbridge is a village, but during the course of the story it prospers, thanks to the wool trade, and grows to be a medium-sized city – by medieval standards, that is. In those days typical cities had five to ten thousand inhabitants. Kingsbridge Cathedral is fictional, though as Follett was writing the story he had two real-life cathedrals in mind: Wells and Salisbury. In its architecture the finished Kingsbridge Cathedral is like Salisbury, with rows of narrow, pointed “lancet” windows.

Ken Follett, who published his novel in 1989,  said, “For 20 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.”

The author even makes an appearance on the screen, taking the role of a merchant. He adds, “People kept asking me: ‘Do you like it?’ Of course I like it. I dreamed it, and now it’s real.”

This Canadian-German project was handled by several companies, and among its executive producer’s is Ridley Scott, who directed films such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. The filming was done near Budapest, Hungary.  The series begins airing in the United States and Canada on July 23, 2010, and will also be seen in several other countries, including, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain.

Sharan Newman