The Pillars of the Earth Deserves More Credit

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We’re in twelfth century England as interpreted by that master of the historical saga, author Ken Follett. Here, his hefty tome is reframed as an easy-on-the-eye, eight-part drama The Pillars of The Earth. Channel 4 (Saturday, 9pm) hosts this splashy period piece with its expensive cast (Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell), and lashings of mud, loaded glances and backstabbing.

When a ship sinks off the English coast killing everyone on board, it emerges that one of the passengers was King Henry I’s only legitimate male heir. Cue an in-parlour debate: which of the monarch’s remaining relatives should take over when he dies? As you’d expect, his nephew Stephen trumps Henry’s young daughter and his bastard son. But 18 years later, which is where we hop to next, the King’s grown up girl child has something to say about that. A war is brewing, so try not to get too attached to anyone.

Scheming on the sidelines of the royal kerfuffle is a malevolent monk (McShane), who has his eye on a promotion and all-round domination. With his grown-out monastical bowl cut, regulation bald patch and sinister brows, McShane billows evil without even trying. He’s not on screen much but it’s impossible to look away when he is. Meanwhile, in the kindly avuncular old fool role is Sutherland. He looks like Medieval Santa Claus and wants Henry’s daughter to be queen so things don’t go especially well for him.

And in a parallel plot, which arguably takes a little too long to converge with the dominant storyline, frustrated mason, Tom Builder (Sewell), roams from parish to parish looking for work. His children trundle behind him, starving and keen to get to the part of the story where they’ll get more individual camera time.

There’s some nicely flippant phrasing and little by way of clunky faux medieval talk. Though, why some characters have broad Norfolk accents, another is probably Glaswegian and the rest sound like they just stepped out of a Notting Hill boutique is confusing. But daft vernacular discrepancies are perfectly in keeping with a proudly brash adaptation where birthing scenes get an Enya (or similar) backing track and the good guys are stoically handsome and incorruptible.

The opener has the tiring job of introducing a huge cast and knitting together multiple storyline, so in parts it’s sluggish and meandering. But keep with it because from episode two, it’s explosive action all the way.

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