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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What writers can learn watching The Pillars of the Earth

When Sue and I watched The Pillars of the Earth, the eight-part TV miniseries based on the novel by Ken Follett, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing: here was historical drama, done on a television budget of all things, putting similar Hollywood fare to shame.

The beauty of Pillars is that it paints a complex story of lives and loves in a way that’s at once both engaging and easy to follow. The 12th-century backdrop is turbulent, charting the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, but the central, smaller story is even more interesting. On the face of it, it’s about the building of a cathedral, which sounds rather dry, but this device is used as a microcosm to portray the dramatic doings of a large cast.

The sumptuous production values are one thing, but the quality of the character work is even better. It’s hard to pick a favourite: Ian McShane’s delightfully sinister villain is an obvious choice, but if anything the protagonists are even more layered and arresting.

Pillars is also notable for collecting together a number of fine actors who’d be at home as the protagonists of romance novels, historical or otherwise: Rufus Sewell, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Natalie Worner and Sam Claflin are all on top form and the series is well worth a watch for any of their fans.


Anonymous said...

Another one to add to my growing watching/reading list! I wonder if stories set in a distinctly 'other' era are easier or more difficult to stage? On the one hand, the setting conveys so much to the viewer, but on the other hand the writers must work hard to avoid stereotypes and pastiche... Interesting...

Graham said...

Thanks for your comment, Jo! I'd hesitantly suggest that stories from other eras are both easier and harder to write:

Easier, in that the 'otherness' of the era means you have a wealth of things to write about; gender issues, class, limitations of technology, different landscapes, etc.

Harder, in that you need a good imagination and you also need a ton of research to make it authentic. The latter's a bit of a pain!