The Weekend's TV: The Pillars of the Earth, Desperate Housewives

A histrionic take on the 12th century

Oversexed monks! Death by lampreys! Lovejoy with a tonsure!

Barely a minute of The Pillars of the Earth passed without an exclamation mark. If the all-star transatlantic cast weren't raping and pillaging, they were giving birth or dying, or burning or screaming, or self-flagellating or, you know, urinating on the bishop.

You can't blame Channel 4 for chucking everything, and then a bit more, with added CGI, at its new Saturday-night drama. Scheduling a 12th-century saga opposite the 21st-century emotional epic that is The X Factor, offering up cowls rather than Cowell, is a bold move, by anyone's standards. Consequently, the histrionic factor was high, stopping just short of having X Factor's shouty voiceover man announce the characters as they galloped, with deafening clippy-cloppy hooves, on to the screen. Prior Philippppp! Tom Builderrrrr! King Stephennnn!

The Pillars of the Earth is Channel 4's big ticket for the autumn, a six-part, eight-hour mini-series based on Ken Follett's thousand-page medieval bestseller. Having aired in America over the summer, it arrives here with all the fanfare a £25m budget, the production backing of Ridley and Tony Scott and a host of famous faces (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Donald Sutherland, to name but three) can muster. For all that, it started rather shakily with lyrical animated opening credits pitched somewhere between a David Starkey graphic and A-ha's 1985 video for "Take on Me". There followed a bit of clumsy scene-setting, locating us in The Anarchy, a period of tumult that followed the death of the only heir to the throne in a suspicious shipwreck (cue burning galleon!) in 1120. Around this larger struggle for succession and an almighty battle between crown and church, Follett's epic weaves the stories of a priory of penurious, scheming monks and a master builder on a mission from God to build his own cathedral.

If that all sounds a bit History Channel, it wasn't. More Caligula than Cadfael, this was historical drama in the mould of HBO's Rome. Racy elements – Witchcraft! Incest! Arson! Massive swords! – were thrown in at every possible opportunity. By the end of the relentlessly pacy opening double bill, all of these disparate elements had sort of fallen into place, ready for further bloody ructions and whispered intrigue.

Ian McShane is particularly enjoyable as the linchpin bishop, a black-eyed spider spinning furiously at the centre of a complex web of favours, obligations and secrets. And Sewell – for once not playing a smouldering baddie, or at least not yet – brings a quiet, green-eyed fervour to Tom Builder. They're all good, in fact – Hayley Atwell as a radiant aristocrat in exile, steely Alison Pill as the warrior Queen Maud and Matthew Macfadyen as the pious prior. Not allowing the excellent Eddie Redmayne to speak for two hours, though, was a criminal waste. Hopefully, he'll find his tongue for the remaining five episodes.

It's all rather cheesy and at times downright crude, but, The X Factor permitting, The Pillars of the Earth shows every sign of being as big a hit as Rome or The Tudors, which is surely what the programme-makers intended. I couldn't help wishing that its blockbuster budget and the Brothers Scott had been put to better, less old-fashioned, use. The sex-and-sandals epic is in danger of becoming the new bonnet-and-bustles period drama, a default setting for British television-makers, endlessly churning out historical smut and gore across the globe.

Talking of endlessly churning things out, the seventh season of Desperate Housewives started last night. It's now been around for so long, it appears to be gradually circling back to the beginning. Perhaps, with time, we too will find ourselves back in the days of a pre-surgery Teri Hatcher, when Eva Longoria Parker was plain old Eva Longoria... Anyway, once again we watched as model housewife, and disembodied voice of the series, Mary Alice Young shot herself in the head in her chintzy kitchen. Then we watched, bemused, as her husband, Paul Young, the friendly neighbourhood murderer from way back in season one, made plans to move into his old house on Wisteria Lane.

In a further example of television eating itself, this season's new housewife (there's always one), Lynette's vixenish college friend, Renee, "all botulism from the nose up", turned out to be played by Vanessa Williams, aka Ugly Betty's nightmarish editrix, Wilhelmina Slater. Even Carlos's beard – now absent – got its own explanatory footnote.

As usual, the series opener set up a number of jeopardy-filled storylines – the glamorous interloper, a baby swapped at birth, the threat that Paul would be dead within six months – but the surrealism and mystery of the early days has largely disappeared. It's down to Bree (immaculately porcelain Marcia Cross) to deliver the best lines. In this episode, having stripped wallpaper "like a puma", she dreamed of wild, new design scheme – "maybe a nice, deep beige" – and turned down her decorator's suggestion of a red wall in inimitably snooty style. "I'm going to be serving dinner in this room, not sailors." For her alone, it might be worth sticking it out – just for one more series.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all