The Pillars of the Earth, the tv miniseries adapted from the Ken Follett book, was shown on Channel 4 at the end of 2010. I enjoyed it, though it did drag on a bit. But it had a great cast – a range of characters and stories – heroes and villains. The main characters included Tom Builder played by Rufus Sewell who was in charge of building Kingsbridge Cathedral – and it was in that market town that the main dramas unfolded, although the story also flitted back to the Monarch’s court and the local Earl. Ian McShane was Waleran, a corrupt bishop who flagellated himself and was the best kind of villain to watch. Matthew McFadyen was a good monk. Donald Sutherland was in it for a bit. There was Hayley Atwell in it and Eddie Redmayne with ‘red’ hair. There were plots about corrupt monks, corrupt traders, corrupt earls and corrupt kings and queens. There was a witch trial. But mainly it was about the building of the cathedral.
I haven’t read Ken Follett’s books though I suspect I would probably enjoy them if I got round to them. Maybe more so than the tv adaptations. Channel 4 are now showing the follow up to The Pillars of the Earth, set a couple of hundred years later but still primarily based in Kingsbridge – World Without End. It still has corrupt monks, corrupt regents, corrupt earls and corrupt traders. It has already had a witch trial as well. But so far, after one episode, it doesn’t have the coherency or excitement that Pillars did.
Arguably it doesn’t have as high profile a cast, but there are a great deal of ‘names’ in it. Cynthia Nixon is a ‘villain’ – Petranilla – who in the course of the first episode kills her sister-in-law in order to be able to sell her house and live for free with her brother, the wooler, and then kills her other brother, the Prior, so that her son Godwyn can become Prior. She is the aunt of Caris, played by Charlotte Riley (who was in the tv adaptation of Wuthering Heights with Tom Hardy a few years ago), who is the main heroine of the piece. Forced into marriage to Alfred Builder, who later throws her out, she exchanges meaningful glances with Merthin, the son of the deposed Earl of Shiring, throughout the episode. She actually wants to be an independent woman – a doctor – as Mattie Wise is (played by Indira Varma). But Mattie is hanged as a witch at the end of the episode because the monk doctor, Brother Joseph (David Bradley), does not approve of her methods, she is half Moor, and she has a third nipple – ultimate proof of being a witch. Miranda Richardson is Mother Cecilia who seems to be ‘Good’. Ben Chaplin is Sir Thomas Langley, who takes sanctuary in Kingsbridge Priory because he knows the secret of how Queen Isabella killed her husband Edward II. He seems to be a ‘hero’. Peter Firth, aka Harry from Spooks wearing a bad wig, is Earl Roland and villain with a capital V.
The first episode starts in 1327. Queen Isabella has deposed her husband King Edward II and made their son King Edward III. He is an adult, but it’s basically his mother who is ruling the country. Even though Edward III is suspicious of his mother, killing her lover (by hanging – the go-to method in this episode) and accusing her of murdering his father, he still lets her have power. And she is incensed by Sir Thomas Langley’s blackmail demands to pay for his stay at the Priory to become a monk or otherwise he will tell everyone about her secrets. Isabella has Earl Roland as an ally though – who becomes Earl of Shiring by deposing the former Earl and sending one son (Merthin) to become a builder’s apprentice so he can romance Caris, the other (Ralph – who looks a bit like Jake Gyllenhaal if his face was stretched a bit) as his squire. Earl Roland hangs a bunch of people in Kingsbridge for being traitors to the new Queen and puts up taxes for all traders and the Priory. We are not meant to like him.
In Kingsbridge, Caris is the daughter of a Master Wooler, head of the trades’ Guild. I’ve mentioned that her aunt murders her mother (by poisoned cake). Earl Roland then breaks her father’s legs. Her aunt, Petranilla, then forces her into marriage to Alfred Builder to bring money into the household. Petranilla’s main motives in life seem to be to get her son to be rich and successful. At first she wanted him to go to Oxford to study medicine but he’s a wus and can’t really take the sight of blood. He’s a novice monk and then Petranilla decides that he should become Prior, as her brother is. They’re all shown to be corrupt monks in the Priory – Godwyn molests his own cousin Caris, is vain, and there’s plenty of nice food going round. Caris is learning how to be a doctor though from Mattie Wise. And after her husband rapes her and then is almost murdered by Merthin, he forces her out.
There are some other minor characters who presumably will come to the forefront in later episodes. Gwenda, the daughter of a French thief who sexually abuses her and then sells her for a cow. She’s run away from her husband though and has something going on with another Kingsbridge inhabitant. Ralph is infatuated with a girl with blonde curls and whips the crowd into a frenzy to agree to pay their taxes. The bridge into Kingsbridge is not wide enough or stable enough. Merthin has a talent as an architect and has plans to rebuild the bridge, but it’s too late as the bridge collapses during the witch trial. Mother Cecilia seems to be a good’un but it’s too early to tell – but there seems to be a tension between the nuns and the monks which will surely come to the forefront as will all the intrigue at court. Ben Chaplin is going to have do something more than just sit around looking pensive. He did get his arm amputated unnecessarily by Brother Joseph though who likes to bleed and balance the humurs and use cow dung as antiseptic (he’s old school like that) while the now dead Mattie Wise used surgery and herbs.
Not as exciting or enticing as Pillars of the Earth. I’ll carry on watching but not blogging about it – I might come back after the last episode though for an update on what happens to all our characters. It won’t be happy endings for them all, that’s for sure.