One of Oprah's Book Club's most popular selections, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, has been adapted into a sweeping, eight-hour miniseries that premieres July 23 on Starz. Now, Ken illuminates the architecture of Salisbury Cathedral, how it was replicated in the movie and what the cast learned from real-life masons.
The stories that comprise The Pillars of the Earth are all connected, directly and indirectly, with the Kingsbridge Cathedral in my book. But the cathedral is more than background or set. In some way, the cathedral is a character, if by "character" I mean something whose existence propels the plot rather than just a stage on which the plot takes place.
The cathedral's existence, or at least potential existence, is an important influence on several characters: Prior Philip, of course, and Tom Builder and his sons Alfred and Jack. But it also affects Aliena when she starts to recoup her fortune at the fleece-fair encouraged by the cathedral's construction. For different reasons, our villains, Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh, see the construction of a cathedral in Kingsbridge as a personal affront. Without the looming presence of this mass of limestone, each of them would have a very different interest in Kingsbridge, and maybe none at all.
I'm very grateful that the screen cathedral looks just as good as the one in my imagination! I've seen it "for real," during my location visits to Hungary. Much of it was plaster, wood and polystyrene, of course, but a considerable part was real stone, and that was enormously impressive. While modern power tools were used in rough shaping for the sake of speed, a good deal of what you'll see onscreen was hand-finished, real stone.
The finishing work has been done by a Budapest firm of stonemasons, Reneszansz Plc., who carry out this sort of maintenance and restoration on real historical buildings. They were also the trainers for our three principal "masons" in the cast, Tom, Alfred and Jack, providing training in how to handle the mallets, hammers, various chisels and all the other stoneworking tools we see in use during the construction of the cathedral. It's a much more delicate process than just bashing away in a cloud of dust and chippings. Rough-shaping looks like that, at least to a degree, but fine carving of sculptures and gargoyles or facing—the smoothing of exterior blocks—is more like persuading the stone than pounding it.
Rufus Sewell (Tom), Eddie Redmayne (Jack) and Liam Garrigan (Alfred) get a lesson in cathedral building