Tutankhamun On The Telly (2)

Hi everyone.

Here I am again with my second blog post about the recent ITV drama series Tutankhamun. If you’ve not read my first post on the topic, here is the link to it:


As I mentioned in my first post, I found the series to be somewhat careless with the truth or at least the truth as it is presented in the letters that Ethel North (Lord Carnarvon’s elder sister’s maid) wrote to my grandmother. And here is why.

Howard Carter, the famous archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, came over in the series as very serious and “po-faced”. Definitely not the sort of guy you’d choose as an amusing dinner party guest. However, in one of Ethel’s letters, she paints quite a different portrait when she describes to my grandmother a journey that she undertook with her mistress Lady Burghclere (Lord Carnarvon’s sister), Howard Carter and the Crown Prince of Italy during a visit to Egypt in February 1928.

Lady B, Mr Howard Carter and self were in a carriage together and we had to drive through streets lined with troops and have rousing cheers. Mr Carter made lots of jokes and so I was bound to see the funny side but I want no more trips with royalty.


Howard Carter in 1924. Photo credit: Chicago Daily News (CC)

On the other hand, the series seemed to have no problem at all with the idea that Howard Carter was able to find time during his hugely important archaeological work to jump into bed with two women (although not at the same time as even ITV didn’t go that far) one of whom was the daughter of an Earl. I must admit I found the supposed affair between Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn completely unbelievable. Of course, if it had been Lady Burghclere’s youngest daughter, also called Evelyn, as opposed to Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, that might have been a fraction more likely. Evelyn was a “bit of a one” where men were concerned and in one of her letters to my grandmother, Ethel has this to say about Lady B’s youngest daughter.

Wicked Miss E. left her husband a fortnight ago to go off with another young man, worse off than her husband and she has only been married a year. They have got her away from the young man now and she is going with Sir Geoffrey and Lady Fry to Venice for a while…Personally I don’t think it any use. She’ll do the same thing again I’m sure…These girls [Lady Burghclere’s daughters] were never meant for marriage. 

And don’t get me started on Howard Carter’s moustache. It could have had a series all to itself. In the scene in Tutankhamun where Carter (played by the actor Max Irons) is staring into the ante-chamber of the tomb to view all the treasures, his moustache takes up practically the whole TV screen. That amused me almost as much as the rather surprising (and completely unnecessary in my opinion) scene where the famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, whom I vaguely remember learning about at school, comes out of a cave to greet Carter wearing absolutely nothing at all! At least when he was on his deathbed after the fatal mosquito bite, Lord Carnarvon (played by Sam Neill) had the decency to wear a fetching pair of what looked like Marks and Spencer pyjamas.


Howard Carter’s House, Luxor. Ethel and Lady Burghclere had lunch there and Ethel describes it as “the most delightful of small houses”. Photo credit: Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz (CC)

Other elements of the series that I had problems with included the clunky dialogue such as Evelyn saying to Carter “Some people lose things all the time” in reference to Tutankahmun’s “lost” tomb. I was also amused by the sight of Carter’s bare back in one of the bedroom scenes which looked like it had been smothered in half a ton of baby oil and had never been exposed to the harsh Egyptian sun in its life. And as for the fleeting glimpses we received of Lord Carnarvon’s wife Lady Almina, who in real life was a considerable force to be reckoned with, she looked more like she was on her way to Ascot for the day, rather than going to try and rescue her ailing husband.

However for me, the most disappointing aspect of the whole series was the way in which the fabulous treasures and relics of Tutankhamun were portrayed. After all, those incredible finds were what the whole story was really about. I would have thought that in these days of CGI, the producers could have come up with something a little more spectacular to get across to the viewers what the “wonderful things” were that Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Evelyn saw when they first entered the young Pharaoh’s tomb after it had remained sealed for such an unprecedented length of time.


The moment Howard Carter opens the tomb. Photo credit: Harry Burton (CC)

In the fifteen page letter that Ethel North wrote to my grandmother from Egypt in 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere were shown round the Tutankhamun treasures in the museum at Cairo and the excavation site in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter himself, her lengthy and detailed descriptions of what she saw make fascinating reading. Here she describes going into the tomb.

We waited a little whilst the steel gates were taken down and then we were in the Tomb. The outer chamber first, now clear of the objects it once held. About 4 steps down and we were in the Chamber where the sarcophagus with the mummy is. All looked as though it had just been found. The gold was so shining that Mr C said it wanted toning down with a little powder.


The Mask of Tutankhamun. Photo Credit: Erik Hooymans (CC)

The great outer case is made of a lovely pink stone, quartzite or some name like that. It has a little crystal in it. It is a tremendous coffin. I believe the lid weighed several tons…At each corner of the stone are the four Goddesses, exquisitely graceful with wings outspread. At the north end are the golden oars for the king to row himself across the underworld. The walls of the tomb were painted with vignettes and inscriptions. These are not plain to see as the wonderful gold panels that formed the shrine are at present propped up against them. Such long panels of pure sheet gold and inlaid panels of brilliant blue faience [Egyptian self-glazing ceramic]. The extraordinary thing is, one feels at once that one is in the presence of the dead and yet 3,000 years have passed.


Wooden bust of Tutankhamun found in the tomb. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera (CC)

Of course, it’s very easy to criticise something and often less easy to find something positive to say about it. There were some parts of the Tutankhamun series that I enjoyed such as the (intentionally) amusing character of Herbert Winlock from the New York Metropolitan Museum and even I felt moved by the moment when Howard Carter shouted  “It’s an entrance” while all the Egyptian workers stood round clapping and cheering. Also, the South African scenery where the series was filmed was a spectacular and quite convincing substitute for the Valley of the Kings.

My overall view of the drama is that it was an enjoyable piece of hokum but it has also done me a favour. Quite a number of people who watched Tutankhamun have been asking me how I’m getting on with My Dear Elsie (the book I’m writing about Ethel’s letters) so that has spurred me on to try and finish it. In fact I’m going to go and work on it right now. So thanks ITV.  I owe you one!