Tag Archives: Francis Hopkinson

Mummy’s the word

Guy Burt explores the discovery of the boy king’s tomb in four-parter Tutankhamun. DQ speaks to the writer and the show’s executive producers about retelling this famous story for a new audience.

As you might expect from its title, Tutankhamun is a historical series set in Egypt. But the four-part period piece might also be the unlikeliest buddy drama of the year.

Rather than the boy king himself, Guy Burt’s screenplay focuses on British archaeologist Howard Carter – the man who would become world famous with the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb on November 4, 1922 – and his partnership with aristocratic benefactor Lord Carnarvon.

The story opens as the hot-headed Carter’s licence to dig is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service. He then spends years ostracised, forced to sell ancient relics to buy food. But a chance meeting with Lord Carnarvon brings a change of fortunes and they begin an unlikely friendship that leads to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – against all odds and at great personal expense.

Max Irons and Sam Neill star as Carter and Carnarvon (pictured above left and right respectively) in the series, which is produced by Simon Lewis, directed by Peter Webber and executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield for ITV Studios. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing the show worldwide, with SBS in Australia having picked it up already.

Burt admits his inner eight-year-old quickly agreed to write the series when he was first sounded out about the project. “A lot of enthusiasm probably came through on the page because it is something I was obsessed with as a kid,” he says. “I think everybody knows the story a bit, and it’s a magical tale. It was a no-brainer.”

The writer, whose credits include The Bletchley Circle, The Borgias and Jekyll & Hyde, spent many hours researching Carter through the archaeologist’s notebooks and material from digs, as well as his personal archive at Oxford University’s Bodleian library and its centre of Egyptology, The Griffin Institute.

“As far as we could, we wanted to stay true to the history,” Burt explains. “The only significant piece of artistic licence is the portrayal of the romance between Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, which is one of those frustrating bits of history that is hinted at but nobody quite comes out and boldly states it – or at least when they do, historians argue about whether it’s true.

“In my mind there is one letter in particular from Carnarvon to Carter that doesn’t really make sense unless there is some kind of love interest. So the tricky bit for us was just threading our way through the history, making sure we were as accurate as we could possibly be while at the same time telling a story that is gripping as a quest for both treasure and love.

“It’s a fascinating, weird story, full of all the things that writers dream about getting into their scripts – reversals of fortune and moments where you think everything is coming right at last, only to have the rocks pulled out from under your feet. Those are the sort of things you usually craft in the course of a narrative, but here they actually happened.”

Tutankhamun
Production challenges included the need for ‘scorpion wranglers’ on set

Burt says he had a vivid picture of the show during the writing process but admits he has learned to scale back the number of notes he includes in his scripts. “You don’t want to alienate your director by telling them their job,” he explains. “I used to write scripts that were pretty fastidious in terms of what I wanted the camera to do and it took me a while to realise you shouldn’t do that.

“But Tutankhamun is surprisingly close to what I had imagined. The set design nailed it completely. The thing you always have to deal with is the actors don’t tend to look like people you’ve got in your head. So that’s always a bit of a surprise but that’s true on every project. So I have twin Carters and twin Carnarvons – the guys who were with me when I was writing and those on screen. What we got in the end was really impressive.”

Unable to film in Egypt itself due to insurance reasons, the series settled in South Africa where almost all the interiors were built and, most importantly, The Valley of the Kings was recreated.

“This is a production built on the production design department,” admits Oldfield. “They did a fantastic job for us. We couldn’t send a camera to the valleys to get some establishing shots, so they recreated the Valley of the Kings in this abandoned valley on the Namibian border in searing heat. Everything had to be shipped up there – it’s eight hours drive from Cape Town – but we got most of the extras from Springbok, which is only an hour-and-a-half away. On one day of shooting, there was a cast and crew of 350 people out there in the middle of nowhere.”

From the start, Hopkinson says he was adamant Tutankhamun should not be a “pretty period drama” and was encouraged by director Webber’s ambition that viewers should feel the dust and dirt inside the tomb.

“When we talked to Peter, he wanted it to feel quite claustrophobic and hand-held in the tombs and then he wanted to show more scale outside,” he explains. “He was very keen to make it look like old photographs where the colours are slightly faded. Because he’s got a lot of experience in cinema, he gave it the scale and sweep you’ve got to have in a show like this. That’s why we wanted Peter to do it.”

Burt adds: “The valley shots among the workers [uncovering Tut’s tomb] are all done with handheld cameras; they’re quite unsteady and there’s a lot of dust. But the Cairo moments when you’re in the big, old, established buildings are all very steady and framed. There’s a clear pattern to how things are divided. [Webber] also had clever ideas for inside the tomb, never letting the camera lens look back past where the wall would have been. So although you’re flying walls out in order to get your crew in, there’s still that sense of claustrophobia because the lens never pulls out. It’s like you’re in there with them, and it was tremendously gratifying to see that level of precision and skill brought to it.”

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With a budget boosted by tax breaks and a drop in the value of the South African rand, Hopkinson says there was more than enough money to ensure Tutankhamun carried the production values now expected of television series.

“I remember the producer ringing me up and telling me that, for just one day of shooting, the designer had built two streets on an old borstal in the outskirts of Cape Town,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I’m just going to warn you we’re building two whole streets for a handful of scenes we’re shooting.’ I just asked if we could afford it and he said yes. It was amazing. This story had to be done with scale. People also expect that now from television – for something like Tutankhamun, you need the scale and production values that cost money. It looks fantastic.”

That’s not to say the production was without some unique challenges – namely a risk assessment that was 40 pages long and led to three ‘scorpion wranglers’ being on set. Amy Wren, who plays Evelyn, was even hospitalised for 24 hours after being bitten by a spider.

“It sounded awful,” Oldfield says of the set. “It’s got spitting cobras, mambas, snakes, spiders, scorpions that will kill you. Every morning when you get up you have to shake all your clothes and hit your shoes together before you do anything. You have to check under your pillow and throw the sheets back to make sure there are no snakes in the bed. They were finding them every day and then moving them to a valley elsewhere. And the heat – I’ve never experienced heat like it.”

Once the biggest news story in the world, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is a story that still has the power to captivate – but how does this new dramatisation hope to attract viewers? “Tutankhamun is a name that will immediately attract people,” says Hopkinson. “I’ve been surprised how many people suddenly admit they are obsessed with Tutankhamun. Our head lawyer, who doesn’t usually do compliance of scripts, said he’d like to do this one because he remembered going to the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in the 1970s. So there are lots of people who are fascinated by the story, and it also has immediate recognition internationally.”

Burt adds: “We’re hoping we can lure an audience in on the promise of treasure in the sand, but by the end of the first episode I hope they will be watching for Howard Carter and he keeps you going through it all.”

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ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde: Striking a balance

Perhaps best known as a writer and star of sketch comedy The Fast Show, it’s unsurprising that Charlie Higson is adding comic relief to Jekyll & Hyde’s range of monsters and villains. He and the forthcoming ITV show’s exec producer explain why they believe they’ve achieved the right tone.

As Charlie Higson recalls, Jekyll & Hyde came about completely by accident. Called in to pitch ideas for a new ITV family drama that was quintessentially English but that would also appeal to an international audience, he suggested a series based on the iconic characters made famous by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novel.

At this stage, Higson hadn’t even read the original story about a lawyer who investigates the strange relationship between his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde. But to his surprise, he walked away with a commission.

Higson: 'We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music'
Higson: ‘We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music’

“I wasn’t even pitching an idea,” the actor and writer says, “but they said it would be perfect. So having gone to this meeting to tell them I didn’t have any ideas and couldn’t possibly do it, I came away with a commission. Then having written the treatment, I fully expected them to say ‘thank you’ and go elsewhere because I don’t have a long history of producing top primetime drama. But they wanted something different and were happy to take a punt with me.”

The resulting show, produced by ITV Studios, launches this month on ITV. The story, set in 1930s London, focuses on Robert Jekyll, the grandson of the original doctor, who comes to learn of his real identity, his family history and his curse. In Jekyll & Hyde’s opening episode, Jekyll is a newly qualified doctor living with his foster parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). But strange things start to affect him, and when he’s contacted by a lawyer in England concerning his family’s estate, he travels to London – where his past begins to catch up with him.

The series also features a number of spooky creatures, ghouls, zombies, werewolves and vampires as Jekyll faces a conflict between battling real-life demons and the monster within.

ITV Studios director of drama Francis Hopkinson (Lucan, Wallander) executive produces with Higson. The series producer is Foz Allan (Robin Hood) and its distributor is ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE).

Higson, who has acted as a showrunner on the series, writing about half the scripts himself, says he was inspired by the return of Doctor Who as the basis for a family drama surrounded by fantastical elements. “I grew up in the 1960s, which was a fantastic time for experimental fantasy TV – a lot of which ITV made, like The Avengers and The Prisoner,” he says. “There were some great shows that were quite out there but hugely popular. Then we hit the 70s and it all became realist, kitchen-sink drama.

Richard E Grant adds Hollywood clout to the cast
Richard E Grant adds Hollywood clout to the cast

“When I did Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), a BBC remake of the 1960s ITV series, I wanted to bring back that style of fantastical show. It’s not set in the real world on any level. But quite soon afterwards, Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who, which did everything I’d been trying to do. What he did very cleverly was ground it in a strong, recognisable family drama so it wasn’t just for 10-year-old nerds and sci-fi freaks. You cared about the characters.

“That was definitely the vibe ITV wanted for Jekyll & Hyde, where you have all the mad, fantastical horror elements but it’s rooted in drama.”

Reading the book, Higson says he was struck by its modernity. Rather than featuring the traditional gothic tropes of crumbling castles in medieval Europe and “mad monks and sinister, depraved counts,” Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde has a very contemporary idea at the root of its story.

“It’s about the fact that we all have dual personalities – the one we show to the world and the beast inside,” Higson explains. “We all have terrible thoughts and fantasies but we show a different side to the world. It’s a very modern psychological story about all of us.

“So much modern drama is based on someone presenting a respectable front to the world while doing these terrible things they don’t want anyone else to know about. That’s exactly what Breaking Bad and Homeland are. The Sopranos is just a a guy trying to preserve his ordinary family while nipping out to kill people.”

The writer, best known for his work on comedy sketch series The Fast Show and as the author of the Young Bond novels, also draws parallels with comic book superheroes: “There’s the idea of an alter-ego who does all the things you wish you could do and there’s a secret identity that nobody knows about. The Incredible Hulk is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Tom Bateman (centre) plays Dr Jekyll and his sinister alter ego
Tom Bateman (centre) plays Dr Jekyll and his sinister alter ego Mr Hyde

“I thought I could take this and push Jekyll & Hyde into a superhero story. I’ve created a world where there’s an organisation called MIO, a secret government network whose job it is to catch and destroy all monsters. But against them is Tenebrae, a group of monsters trying to regain their supremacy. Our central character, Robert Jekyll, is trapped in the middle. It’s a constant battle for his soul in which he flips both ways.”

Considering Higson’s television career, it’s no surprise that there’s also a plentiful helping of comedy in Jekyll & Hyde. “I like humour and it’s a useful way of telling stories, particularly if you’ve got quite daft things happening,” he explains. “Things like this don’t work when people are utterly serious and straight-faced. That’s why cheap fantasy and horror films are awful – everybody’s so terribly earnest while these ludicrous things are happening.

“As long as you’re not laughing at what you’re doing, people can have a laugh in it. Also, if you see some huge monster come at you, you might think, ‘fuck me’ and have a laugh about it.”

Though television dramas are becoming more serialised, Higson says he and the production team didn’t want the prospect of alienating viewers coming to the show halfway through its 10-episode run. As a result, the overarching story is complemented by an enemy-of-the-week format, with many of the creatures inspired by the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy.

With a brief to create a drama with wide appeal for a family audience, featuring a mix of genres (in this case action, adventure, fantasy, horror and comedy), Higson says the production of Jekyll & Hyde was “massive. It’s 10 hours, very big budget. We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations.”

Encouraged by ITV and ITVSGE to write a big and bold series, Higson didn’t think it would be made that way, perhaps substituting the mountainous scenes he had set in Ceylon for a location in Wales. But the broadcaster and distributor were true to their word, sending the production to film scenes in Sri Lanka.

The series features 'mad, fantastical horror elements'
The series features ‘mad, fantastical horror elements’

“They wanted it to look like money had been spent on it,” he says. “That was part of the appeal for me. Whatever you do on TV, it takes a lot out of you and takes a long time. It’s a large chunk of your life and uses up a lot of energy, imagination and ideas. At my time of life, if I’m putting this effort into something and it’s going to take a couple of years, let’s go all out for it. The stakes are high but, if it does well, everyone’s very happy.We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music.”

Executive producer Hopkinson says there are very few writers who are able to pull together shows of this kind, citing Howard Overman (Merlin, Atlantis) and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) as fellow exceptions alongside Higson. Moffat created another version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for BBC1 in 2007, the extremely dark Jekyll, with James Nesbitt in the title role.

“These family dramas have to be thrilling and silly in equal measure and take themselves seriously,” he says. “That’s quite a difficult balancing act to pull off and that’s what Charlie was able to do. He got the tone right.

“We’d been trying to develop something for ITV’s teatime slot, a slot that doesn’t exist anywhere except for Britain. In every other country, it would play at 21.00. We’d been looking for some time and talking to ITVSGE about what to do, as they were putting up some of the money. We had six or seven projects in contention but when I saw Charlie had written an Agatha Christie episode, I felt he could be the fresh voice we were looking for.

“And from the moment he said it was about the grandson of Jekyll, you could see he’d found a way to use the basic premise of the original novel but create something broader and more colourful. ITV commissioned it very quickly.”

Hopkinson describes his role in the series as the person stopping the show “getting too nerdy” and ensuring it can attract a broad section of viewers. “If I don’t understand something, there’s a whole swathe of audience who won’t understand it. I deliberately looked at it in a slightly different way from if I was doing a detective show. I was slightly more objective.”

'We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations,' says Higson
‘We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations,’ says Higson

Discussing the logistics of the production, he adds that filming in Sri Lanka gave him sleepless nights owing to the under-developed filming infrastructure in the country. “It was slightly unchartered waters,” he says. “On Christmas Eve I got a call to say the village set we’d built had been washed away in the monsoon.”

Jekyll & Hyde also uses large amounts of CGI, not only for Jekyll’s transformation into his alter ego but also to create the cast of monsters that turn up in each episode. “The difficult thing is watching something where you have no idea what you will be seeing at the end of it,” Hopkinson says. “The script says ‘creature who is half-man, half-dog,’ but all you’re seeing is a man in a green suit.

“One thing we all agreed on was that the episodes had to work in their own right without special effects, and if they did that, the special effects would enhance them. If we’d relied on the special effects to make it work, we’d have been in trouble. So everyone knew what they were getting and that it could work without special effects.”

Higson is also pleased with the cast that Jekyll & Hyde has attracted, pointing out the star quality of Richard E Grant (Downton Abbey, Withnail and I), Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones) and Natalie Gumede — best known to British audiences for her turn in ITV soap Coronation Street.

Casting the male lead to play both Jekyll and Hyde, however, proved troublesome until a young actor called Tom Bateman came to audition. “We saw just about everyone, every hot young male actor, including names I didn’t think would come in,” Higson says. “It’s not one great role, it’s two. But there were only a couple who convinced as Hyde. It’s hard to do posh and tough — you’re in danger of looking like a public schoolboy who’s got drunk at a party. But as soon as Tom went into Hyde, I knew this was the guy.

“It’s a very high-concept show and if you don’t buy into the central character, it all falls down around him. He’s been absolutely fantastic, incredibly energetic and enthusiastic and just spot on. You genuinely feel for him when things are going badly and he’s quite scary when he’s Hyde. That’s hard when you’ve got monsters arsing about all over the place and a lot of madness. It was important to us that people bought into it on an emotional and dramatic level and he’s got old-school leading-man, matinee idol appeal.”

Wth the show designed as a returning series, Higson is now preparing storylines for season two, having dreamed up ideas for three seasons ahead of his original pitch. Describing the show as an “all-year-round machine,” he adds that he’s adjusting to the demands of a huge primetime drama.

“I’d been out of heavy-duty TV for a while, concentrating on writing books and spending time with my family, but I really wanted to come back and do something big on TV,” he says. “It was the scale that interested me and it came together pretty quickly.

“It’s not just crazy monsters all over the place. They’re organically part of the world it is set in and at the heart of it are very real, physical stories and personal drama for the central characters. It’s been a lot of fun making it work.”

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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