Tutankhamun – ITV 1

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Word PressThe (real) story of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb really is amazing. It’s like … I was going to say G A Henty crossed with Indiana Jones, but that makes it sound as if everyone was having a load of James Bond-esque brushes with death and it wasn’t quite that dramatic! But all the tombs that had been found had been looted and desecrated, and the chances of ever finding one that hadn’t been looked remote, to say the least. In the middle of all this – how gloriously Edwardian and 1920s is this? – you’ve got a Jolly Determined British Chap (Howard Carter) who’s convinced that there is definitely something to be found, and an eccentric aristocrat (Lord Carnarvon) who’s prepared to fund him. Just as the said eccentric aristocrat is about to pull the financial plug, Carter’s team find Tutankhamun’s tomb, virtually intact and full of ancient treasures.

It’s an amazing story as it is, but, needless to say, ITV have sexed it up for the Sunday 9pm Downton Abbey slot. Of course, Highclere Castle, the home of the Carnarvons, is Downton Abbey J. The eccentric Lord Carnarvon of the Tutankhamun excavations, who spent a lot of time racing fast cars (until he crashed one) and breeding racehorses, was married to a woman who was supposed to be the daughter of an army officer but was actually the product of her mother’s affair with one of the Rothschilds. They’ve got a lot of money.  He’s played by Sam Neill, and Carter is played by Max-son-of-Jeremy Irons. Carter is young, good-looking and dashing in this, which he wasn’t in real life.   So far, he’s spent a lot of time having an affair with a female American archivist, whom ITV made up, and he’s now about to have an affair with Carnarvon’s daughter, which may or may not actually have happened.

He spends so much time on his love life that I don’t know how he finds time to do any work, TBH. Most of the actual work seems to be being done by his Egyptian staff. There’s a lot of political stuff going on over the position of the British in Egypt, and their relationship with the Egyptians. First of all, Carter’s work was interrupted by the First World War. He was very chuffed when the war ended, because it meant he could resume digging – he didn’t seem very bothered about the war or its end otherwise. Then came all the issues over the British protectorate established in Egypt. I assume we’re now up to 1922, as they’re about to find the tomb, but we’ve only just had all the unrest, and that took place in 1919 … er, so something seems to have got very muddled and inaccurate somewhere. Hmm. And no-one’s mentioned tea, which is a shame. Whatever else went on during the British protectorate, someone did an excellent job of inculcating the art of British tea-making into Egyptian culture. The tea there is superb; and I’ve never got over being presented with a china teapot, a china cup and saucer and a china milk jug at a little beach café near El Alamein, when I was expecting a polystyrene cup. Very impressive.

The first episode also featured Lord Ashfordly from Heartbeat wandering around an archaeological site with no clothes on, playing another Eccentric Briton, this one by the name of Flinders Petrie, the grandson of the bloke after whom the tennis stadium in Melbourne is named. According to Wikipedia, Petrie, when he died in 1942, donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons of London. The head was stored in the college basement, and the label fell off so no-one knew whose head it was. Although they found out later. Unfortunately, Petrie seems to have vanished off the scene since his initial, clothes-less, appearance. BTW, I assume that Lord Ashfordly must have known the Granthams, because Downton Abbey and Ashfordly Hall are both in North Yorkshire and aristocrats are supposed to’ve done a lot of socialising on a country basis.

So we have lots of real drama, and lots of fictional drama. But it would be quite nice if, next week, Carter could actually stop chatting up women (I was going to say “chasing women” but, to be fair, it’s them chasing him) and slagging off the British officials long enough to focus on the fact that he’s making one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in the entire history of the world.  Maybe some tea would help?

Immortal Egypt – BBC 2

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Word PressThe damage done to the tourist industry is obviously hardly the greatest tragedy caused by the unrest in the Middle East, but it’s a tragedy nevertheless.  It’s particularly a tragedy in the case of Egypt, both for the Egyptians who depend on revenue from tourism and for those who would like to visit all the wonderful, amazing places which there are to see there, but wouldn’t feel safe doing so under the present circumstances.  I’m very grateful that I was able to go there in 2007, during a period of relative calm.

Egypt is fascinating.  You’re talking about a history which can be traced in some detail back to the 5th millennium BC, with the Great Pyramid thought to have been built around 2580-2560 BC and the Sphinx a century or so later.  Professor Joann Fletcher, the presenter of this new BBC 2 series on the subject, is also rather interesting.  For some reason, I tend to think of Egyptologists as being posh people from the inter-war period, dressed in white flannels and hats and gloves, so it was great to see an Egyptologist with unruly hair and a broad Barnsley accent :-); and she was so enthusiastic about it all.

The idea of this programme is to try to fit millennia of Egyptian history together, starting by going back almost 20,000 years to examples of early rock art.  We then moved forward through the development of Upper and Lower Egypt and their unification, and on to the era of the Pyramids.  She spoke about how Egyptian society prospered and there was plenty of food for the organised, employed workforce, and didn’t mention the great historiographical problem of ancient Egypt, i.e. the fact that most people are convinced that the Pyramids etc were built by slave labour because of what it says in the Book of Exodus.  You have to go with the archaeological evidence, and what written evidence remains, and what that says is very different from what the Bible says, but she was probably wise not to get into that argument.  Well, you can dispute the accuracy of many theories about Ancient Egypt, because there isn’t enough incontrovertible evidence to be absolutely certain of most things, but you can get a reasonable idea and experts can make reasonable judgements.

Ancient Egypt is not the most accessible period of history, but Joann Fletcher’s doing a pretty good job of making it so, without any of the silly dressing-up-and-dumbing-down stuff that we get on a lot of Channel 5 and BBC 4 programmes.  Really enjoyed this.