No network, no problems

Sweeping sword-and-sandal epics seem to be all the rage, including The Tudors, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the forthcoming The Borgias, which airs this spring.

The effort

The effort

Sweeping sword-and-sandal epics seem to be all the rage, including The Tudors, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the forthcoming The Borgias, which airs this spring.

Galloping into the arena is The Pillars of the Earth, a $40-million, eight-part historical miniseries that begins on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC.

The international co-production was shot in Hungary and Austria and stars Canadian actors Donald Sutherland, Alison Pill (Milk) and Gordon Pinsent, as well as Ian McShane, Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell.

With today’s ballooning budgets, it seems to take the world to make one of these historical epics.

Welsh author Ken Folett wrote the wildly successful novel, which, given the Oprah Winfrey Book of the Month Club seal of approval, topped the bestsellers charts for weeks. Brit Ridley Scott (Robin Hood) is among the executive producers.

The mystery/thriller is set against a backdrop of war and religious strife. Set in the 12th century, it is essentially about an ambitious dream to build a cathedral in a forest during the Middle Ages.

The Pillars of the Earth is one of several new shows premiering next week on CBC, which in recent years has avoided the crush of fall shows from south of the border by saving its new offerings for January.

The new reality series Village on a Diet begins Monday, with the new spy spoof comedy InSecurity bowing Tuesday before Pillars.

CBC found a steady 700,000 to 800,000 viewers a week for The Tudors, which concluded a four-season run in the fall.

With CTV snatching up rights to The Borgias, a historical series starring Jeremy Irons as a notorious 15th century Pope (tentatively scheduled to begin in April or May), CBC hopes they’ve found their historical fix with Pillars.

Some Canadians, however, will have seen it before. The miniseries, partially funded by Montreal-based Muse Entertainment, aired last summer on the premium cable channels The Movie Network and Movie Central; it was showcased in the U.S. on the cable channel Starz.

The fact no big American broadcaster was involved was actually good news for Rufus Sewell.

“As far as I’m concerned, the idea of working for one of the major networks worried me,” he says on the phone from Italy, where he was at work playing a detective on another venture.

Sewell worried that a major U.S. network would be so concerned about offending all but the widest possible demographic that a lot of the edgier content — and there is plenty of that in Pillars — would get cut out.

He’s seen how advertiser boycotts have watered down projects in the past.

“It becomes slightly cowardly,” says Sewell, who suggests networks cave under pressure from special interest groups. “Nobody wants to lose the dollars of stupid people or even bigoted people.”

While notes did come from the Canadian, German and British investors in this series, the fact that it wasn’t controlled by one major source allowed more of the script that drew Sewell to the project in the first place to remain on the screen.

The British-born actor, who played Alexander Hamilton in the HBO production John Adams and also appeared in the short-lived U.S. network series The Eleventh Hour, has seen juicy scenes get snipped before.

“I knew if a scene was very interesting it was going to get less interesting the morning before we did it,” he says.

Sewell has previously strapped on the sandals in films such as A Knight’s Tale and Helen of Troy. He says he tries to avoid typecasting but “once you do one thing, people want you to do it again. The only way I can vote is by abstaining.”

He recently starred opposite Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist.

Sewell and the other actors spent five months in and around Budapest while shooting Pillars. The region works for these historical epics on many levels.

Crews work cheaper than in Hollywood, keeping production costs down, plus the rolling hills of the Hungarian countryside offer vistas mainly free of any modern buildings or other landmarks that would seem out of place.

The Borgias just wrapped their first season shooting on the same Hungarian studios and exteriors.

New technologies have also helped bring these period epics back in vogue. Modern hydro wires and other 21st-century giveaways can be digitally removed and ancient palaces — and in the case of Pillars, cathedrals — can be digitally inserted.

Sewell says being taken “completely away from my element” helps him find his character (Tom Builder, who oversees the construction of the cathedral) and also get into a 12th-century mindset.

The only thing he can’t escape is the hearty, modern food from the Hungarian craft services crew.

“It’s really fantastic, but not a plus when you’re trying to fit into the same suit every day,” he says.

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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