We all suffer from literary guilt, some great unread classic. For many it’s Proust or Tolstoy or Joyce. For me, I blushingly admit, it’s Follett. I keep meaning to read him. Every time I am in an airport I think maybe a flight to Sydney is the time to open up to Ken, but then inevitably I get seduced by the gaudy covers of Dostoyevsky or Baudelaire. So you can imagine my excitement at the promise of a lavish adaptation of his masterwork, The Pillars of the Earth. A cast of thousands, the panoramic sweep of sublime vistas, high drama, spittle-flecked deceit, nipple-coy romance, valour and duplicity, all set against the Anarchy, as the 19 years of civil war between Stephen and Matilda is known. It is a viciously fascinating moment in English history, which is rarely taught. This mini-series was made with a Hungarian crew and presumably Hungarian castles and Hungarian mud. There is a starry cast of resting actors who turned up to pay their mortgages. It has already been shown in America, I expect to sustained incomprehension.
Like the civil war itself, this production could have gone either way. Just as it seemed to be turning in Follett’s favour, on strode Donald Sutherland. Oh my God, that’s it. It was all over. Donald Sutherland has become a legendary actor. He is death for any series he appears in. Producers pay him protection money not to audition. He can with one mad eye and a gravelly inflection reduce any scene to a chaos of sniggering nonsense. He is fabulously, fantastically awful. But put him in a costume and give him a sword and he grows to be transcendingly dire, a real pleasure to watch, a masterclass in melodrama, a riderless motor mower. And if that weren’t enough, there was also Ian McShane as some sort of camp prelate streaming old-man Steptoe crossed with Max Wall and Rasputin. Together they were the Beavis and Butt-Head, the Bradford and Bingley, the pushmi-pullyu of historical character acting.
No crenellated epic could stand against the combined antitalents of these two colossuses of upstaging pantomime, and Ken’s script didn’t even try. It was a thatch of illogical unbelievability, wrapped in cliché and incomprehension. The dialogue was kept sparse, but what there was was memorable, inspiring great splutters of mocking laughter. This is a really grand flaming pile of hysterically heraldic dung. You have to see it. It’s a collector’s item. And just in case they don’t get round to it, Maude wins and we end up with Henry II and the Plantagenets, and a good run-up to the hundred years’ war and proper English history. If Stephen had come out best, we might have got Eustace I, and that would have been so embarrassing, we’d probably have had no more history at all, like Switzerland. I really must read Follett.