Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is one of the great stories of archaeology. It’s got everything: buried treasure, international intrigue, irresponsible speculation, a spurious story about a curse. It’s got everything but a love story.
Or perhaps I should say that it didn’t have a love story until ITV got their hands on it.
Tutankhamun (the TV series, as distinct from Tutankhamun the person) is a four-part miniseries that follows the adventures of Howard Carter (Max Irons) from the 1900s through to the beginning of his partnership with Lord Carnarvon (Sam Neill) and then to his discovery of the tomb in 1922. To its credit, it then pushes on with the years of excavation and post-excavation work until the dig finally ends in 1930.
This does mean that visually things are a bit odd: Max Irons is in his early 30s, which is about right for Carter in the early 1900s. But Carter was 48 when the tomb was found and well into his 50s by the time the excavation wrapped up. This leads to a much younger, more heroic-looking Carter on screen than existed in reality.
That may be because Tutankhamun is very focused on its love stories — one between Carter and a lady named Maggie Lewis (Catherine Steadman), who I believe is fictional, and one between Carter and Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn (Amy Wren). I am given to understand that the idea of a relationship between Evelyn and Carter is something that has long been rumoured, although I don’t know of any reason for it other than that neither of them were married and they spent a lot of time around each other. Perhaps there’s more to it; I’m not an expert.
Actually, let me correct myself here: the love stories aren’t the main narrative focus of the show, something I realised as I was writing the previous paragraph. They just stand out because they’re the things that aren’t a more or less straightforward retelling (condensed and hyped up, of course) of the process of discovery. Everything else is exaggerated: for instance, the story starts with Carter just straight-up punching a tourist, which is not what happened, I don’t think. He actually just took the side of site workers against the tourists in an argument. Again, perhaps there was more to it: I’m not an expert. But the point is that it’s a sexified version of something that genuinely did take place. There are lots of other instances where complex situations are rendered simple; that’s pretty common in historical TV but it can lead to characters seeming a bit dimmer than they ought to sometimes.
One thing that Tutankhamun does that’s quite good is give some impression of the political and social context of Egypt in the 1920s. Again, it’s not a perfect portrayal, but it does avoid some of the worst problems: this kind of exploration story can easily drift into colonial-adventure narrative, so it’s nice that this one does do something to locate its setting within its colonial context, even if it’s a little simplistic.
You could say that for the show overall, really. Many of the relevant points are sketched in, and it’s nice that some of them are addressed that often aren’t in shows about archaeology, but it’s a little too realistic to have a satisfying central conflict and a little too melodramatic to be completely educational.
So Tutankhamun is … not bad. It’s well-made and the parts are adequately to well acted. I think my favourite appearance was Rupert Vansittart as Flinders Petrie, who is only in one scene but completely steals it. It’s not terribly innovative and the dialogue is occasionally clunky, but overall it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, and if you’re already knowledgeable about the story I doubt you’ll learn much. I learned a certain amount, but I am not sure people share my habit of watching historical TV while obsessively looking things up to fact-check. Shame, really; sometimes I think that’s the best way to do it.