Published almost twenty years after his acclaimed novel The Pillars of the Earth author Ken Follett took us back to Kingsbridge for a tale of bloody (and Black) death, pendular loyalties and a country on the brink of war.
World Without End was adapted for television and is the whole series is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson, Peter Firth, Ben Chaplin and Oliver Jackson-Cohen lead the eight part series set on the eve of the Hundred Years war.
To get you fully immersed in the show we have a number of items of interest on offer. First there is an interview with the man himself, Ken Follett, who gives an introduction to the complex world of Kingsbridge 157 years since we were there last.
Then we have two interviews, one with Spooksman Peter Firth who plays Earl Roland and an interview with Oliver Jackson-Cohen who was seen recently in Mr Selfridge. There’s also a clip to further tease you.
Ken Follett Interview
Interview with Peter Firth – Earl Roland
How would you describe Roland?
He’s some way between a camp villain and a murderous social climber, and I erred more towards the latter – a man who will do anything to achieve his social elevation. That was obviously delicious to play because there are a few of those amongst us in society, particularly in politics, so there were some good examples to draw on in terms of creating a character. I won’t name any names, but I think they’re obvious to all of us – those people who will do anything to achieve fame.
Given the size of the production, did it feel like you were making a movie rather than a TV series?
In a way yes because it was a long shoot. Ordinarily with a TV project you don’t have the luxury of a long shoot and certainly not with the same director. Michael Caton-Jones took on this mammoth task; it’s like doing three or four films back to back with the amount of screen time he was doing.
Did you know much about the Middle Ages before you took the role?
I’m not a history student at all so no, I didn’t. But I don’t think that’s important for actors. It’s important that we learn the lines and hit the marks, but seriously what you discover is that nothing is new. Things have always been the same throughout history and we generally tend to repeat ourselves as human beings and make the same mistakes, which is profoundly disappointing actually. We can only learn from history and if we learn then perhaps we can better ourselves as a species, but we don’t tend to do that very well. We make the same mistakes and that’s illustrated by looking back. Not much has changed and there’s nothing new under the sun.
Did you read the book for inspiration?
If there’s a novel involved in something you’re putting on screen then it’s an invaluable source for an actor because it’s all in there – all the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. You’d be foolish not to pillage that.
Was it intimidating having Ken Follett visiting the set during filming?
No, because an author has to surrender a project when it’s being filmed or made into a TV series. If they try to hang onto it then they’re on the road to misery because so much of the material will change inevitably. Writers are very parental about their work, quite possessive, so it’s always a good idea for them to take the money and run, otherwise they’re in for heartache.
Do you do much preparation for a role?
For me preparation is always minimal because I’m an instinctive actor and I make it up as I go along. That lets me out of preparation quite a lot. But once you put a wig on and a fabulous costume and get on a horse and you’ve got a sword, there’s your preparation – it’s kind of done for you. I think the younger generation are more earnest and serious about their approach than people like me who have been doing it for 40 years. There’s a kind of wariness that goes with that. I’m not being flippant or dismissive of their approach but it’s certainly true that once you’ve been round the block you’ve been round the block.
Speaking of younger cast members, do you think you learn anything from having them around?
Actually yes, I do. It’s invigorating to see their enthusiasm and the freshness that perhaps has paled in one’s own life. It’s definitely refreshing to be around young people; we all know that. They keep you young, don’t they?
What did you most enjoy about the shoot?
I loved getting on a horse. Initially Oliver [Jackson-Cohen, who plays Ralph] was daunted by the prospect but he loved it in the end, and anything that’s to do with being a guy is fabulous. You get to live out your schoolboy fantasies and that’s always been true for me.
A lot of the locations etc were real rather than CGI. Do you see that as a good thing?
Absolutely. CGI is the death of modern filmmaking if you ask me. As soon as you can do anything with computers then it ceases to be impressive. American film, for instance, has gone from one dimension to three dimensions completely bypassing the second dimension. That’s a disaster in terms of the development of film as an artform, but we’ll get back to the second dimension once British cinema has its day again.
Isn’t TV where the best working is being done now anyway?
I think that’s true and it’s certainly true in America. American television has overtaken American film in terms of the quality of the work and the amount of talent that’s working in that industry. It didn’t used to be the case – American television used to be quite poor but look at it now. It’s the best in the world, whereas British TV struggles. What do we do? We do costume drama quite well but we don’t seem to be able to match the Americans when it comes to comedy. It’s the lack of money, I think, that’s the main hindrance to British television. We just can’t compete.
Can you compare the series to other historical dramas?
Hopefully not. Comparisons are always a little odious but if you think Pre-Raphaelite paintings – that’s the look that Michael was after. It’s a gorgeous period in art history, actually much later than the Middle Ages, but it’s a romanticised vision of what Medieval England looked like.
How do you account for the popularity of the historical genre?
We’d all love the opportunity to time travel, wouldn’t we? If you could choose to go back to a certain period just for a day it would be fascinating. The closest we’ve got to that is historical TV dramas because they’re a glimpse into the past. They don’t fully fulfil the fantasy but they’re really interesting.
Clip – I will have my Taxes
Oliver Jackson-Cohen – Ralph
How would you describe Ralph?
He’s Merthin’s brother. We start off the story as part of a strong noble family, then that’s taken away from us. Out of the two brothers, Ralph was always the more brutish one. He’s not shoved aside as such but he’s not necessarily cared about; he gets less love than his brother and it sends him off on this sort of mad quest to gain what was taken away from him. He goes down the route of doing anything he can to get where he needs to get or to get what he feels he needs.
Did you become adept at horseriding?
I guess so, although I was petrified of horses growing up. I’d never been on a horse before. They called me up and said ‘Can you ride?’ and I thought I should be honest and say no, so they took me to a stable in London for a month for some training. The trainer literally had to push me into the stable. When it came to filming I seemed to always be on a horse, which is quite ridiculous given my fears.
How does the epic scope of this project compare to other jobs?
It’s daunting going into something that is so big and has a huge following. But it was a joyous experience and it didn’t feel like this huge weight on my shoulders or anything. I was so lucky to have such a lovely cast around me, a great crew and a great production team. It was fun – the most fun I’ve ever had on the job so far. Filming on the Kingsbridge set with hundreds of extras was pretty pressurised. You’d think ‘If I mess this up…’ It would have affected so many people. They’re all in place, then you come forward and forget your line or miss your mark!
What was your favourite moment during filming?
On the call sheet one day it said ‘The Battle of the Somme’ and all the scenes went something like ‘Ralph kills this person’ or ‘Ralph gets on his horse and swings round’. I thought ‘This is the ideal call sheet’. If someone had given me that when I was seven years old it would have been the most ideal day ever. Mind you, I did fall over a load of extras. I stood there with my sword in the air, turned round and went flying. You know, it felt like that sequence took a year and a half to shoot because so much was involved. It took quite a while, with three days of night shoots and I was exhausted just from that. There was myself and 250 extras going through the water and it looks incredible. The extras, the make-up department and the stunt guys, everyone involved, was so incredible. You’d turn up on a battlefield and it actually looked like a battlefield. When you spend a lot of time on set then come out and see a car it feels so bizarre, or you see an iPhone. It’s like a jolt.
Is it true you once fetched a sandwich for Madonna?
I did. [Laughs] How the hell did you know that? When I was at school, which was a French school, they were very adamant about me not taking time off. I was signed to an agent, but all I was allowed to do was anything that didn’t involve filming so I decided to get a job as a runner. I did it on all these different TV shows and ended up working on MTV during the holidays. I covered all the music awards and I was assigned to Madonna one time. I can’t recall what was in the sandwich but she was very sweet. Compared to all these horror stories you’d hear, she’s a very nice woman. I was just a runner and I don’t think anyone really gave a s**t about me and why would they? But it was a great experience being around all that stuff. I think every actor should be a runner at some point because it helps you understand what goes on and how important it is. If they say ‘Now’ it actually means now, not in five minutes.
How was it having Ken Follett visit the set during filming?
I think it must have been very bizarre for him. I walked up to him and said ‘I’m playing Ralph and I’m probably not at all how you pictured him?’ It must be hard for him because he has this idea and it’s taken completely out of his hands. The book is fairly different to the script, then when you take it off the page it becomes something different, then in the edit it’s something different again. I imagine it’s quite an amazing thing to be him seeing that happen.
How was it working with seasoned actors like Peter Firth and Cynthia Nixon?
I had a lot of scenes with Peter and it was such a joy. You learn a lot from people like that. The thing that’s really interesting is that it doesn’t happen when you’re filming because if you’re studying another actor during a scene you’re not really in the moment, it’s between takes and watching people’s approach. I remember Peter saying to me ‘It’s like a springboard and if you miss the jump…’ It was amazing watching Peter and Cynthia, everyone. I think I learned more on this job than anything.
It has a very different feel to The Pillars Of The Earth…
We’ve all seen Pillars and it’s a great show, but Michael [Caton-Jones, the director] said ‘I don’t want to make this a sequel or anything like that, I want to make it so it stands alone’. So you’re right, it has a very different feel and I think that was the right thing to do rather than trying to make just a follow-up.
How did you feel about doing the raunchy scenes?
My day on the shoot the call sheet said ‘Ralph rapes Annet’ and I thought ‘Oh s**t’. But Michael was very good because he doesn’t put stuff in just to be gratuitous. It’s the same with nudity. A lot of these period shows have a ridiculous amount of nudity and a ridiculous amount of fighting for the sake of titillation. Michael is very clever about when he uses it. I did a fair bit of nudity but I’ve always turned down stuff that’s gratuitous, and with this it was always for the sake of the story.
World without End is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.