Tag Archives: Guy Burt

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.”

samneillfaces

 

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 digs into Ancient Egypt

While US cable channel Spike gears up for the launch of its Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut (July 19), UK broadcaster ITV has announced that it too is planning a Tutankhamun-themed drama. ITV’s production, however, will focus on the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon. Starting in 1905, four episodes will trace Carter’s early expeditions around Egypt, leading up to the big discovery in 1921.

Guy Burt's previous ITV credits include The Bletchley Circle
Guy Burt’s previous ITV credits include The Bletchley Circle

Tutankhamun will be written by Guy Burt, an ITV favourite who is also penning a reboot of classic horror story Jekyll and Hyde for the broadcaster. Previous collaborations between ITV and Burt include critically acclaimed scripted series The Bletchley Circle, which told the story of a group of female code-breakers during and after the Second World War. (See Burt talking about season two of that project here.)

Something of a writing prodigy, Burt first attracted attention when he published his debut novel After The Hole (later adapted into a movie called The Hole) aged 18. After writing two more novels and securing a first in English at Oxford University, his career moved in the direction of screenwriting. Aside from the above-mentioned projects, he worked on the likes of Murder In Mind, Wire In The Blood and Kingdom. Latterly, he collaborated with Neil Jordan and David Leland on period drama series The Borgias, joining the project at the end of season two and writing four episodes in the third and final season.

And Then There Were None scribe Sarah Phelps
And Then There Were None scribe Sarah Phelps

The new Tutankhamun drama was ordered by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea and will be filmed in South Africa next winter. Executive producers include ITV Studios’ creative director of drama Francis Hopkinson, who says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, whilst the adventurous and extrovert aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

In an unusual alliance, but one hinting at the future of content rights management, US cable network Lifetime has come onboard a BBC1 drama based on one of Agatha Christie’s best-known works, And Then There Were None. International sales of the three-part miniseries will be handled by A+E Studios International, which is keen to beef up its drama portfolio.

The writing job has gone to Sarah Phelps, whose early career took her via the Royal Shakespeare Company to BBC soap EastEnders, where she wrote more than 50 episodes. A prolific radio and theatre writer, her other TV credits include The Crimson Field, a short-lived drama about the lives of medics and patient at a First World War field hospital.

Jonathan Nolan
Jonathan Nolan has co-written screenplays such as The Dark Knight

 

Phelps has also proved her novel adaptation expertise with previous projects such as Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) and The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling). The latter was also an Anglo-American coproduction (BBC/HBO) and came in three parts, securing an audience of 8.8 million for episode one, dropping to 5.95 million for episode three. In all likelihood the new project will go into a similar Sunday evening slot with transmission intended for autumn or winter 2016.

The BBC’s decision to greenlight the miniseries is linked to the fact that this year is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth. It is also planning an adaptation of another of her novels, Partners in Crime, although there are no details as yet.

HBO’s star-studded remake of classic sci-fi movie Westworld is gradually moving forward. The project, which will feature the likes of Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton, has just added Borgen star Sidse Babbett Knudsen to the cast.

Lisa Joy broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies
Lisa Joy broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies

Scheduled to air in 2016, Westworld is from JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, plus Warner Bros TV and Jerry Weintraub Productions. Writing duties will be shared by husband-and-wife team Nolan and Joy.

Nolan, who will also direct the reboot, is the brother of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. He created crime drama Person of Interest and has co-written screenplays such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar with his brother. Joy, meanwhile, broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies, before going on to write some episodes of Burn Notice. Aside from Westworld, IMDB credits her as writer on an “untitled female superhero Spider-Man movie,” scheduled for 2017. There were also reports in 2013 that Legendary Pictures had paid US$1.75m to secure the rights to a sci-fi movie script by Joy entitled Reminiscence.

Still in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, there are reports that Luther creator Neil Cross is remaking Sapphire & Steel, a 1970s series about a pair of interdimensional crime fighters sent to Earth to investigate strange happenings. Speaking to the Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast, Cross called the Sapphire & Steel characters a “proto” version of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, and said the show was close to getting a commission from a UK broadcaster. Cross, whose other credits include Spooks and Doctor Who, said he is also working with Darren Aronofsky on HBO scripted pilot River View and on two new one-hour episodes of Luther.

Dan Franck created and wrote Marseille
Dan Franck created and wrote Marseille

Finally, Netflix has confirmed that Gérard Depardieu will take the lead role in its first original French drama. Depardieu will play the mayor of Marseille in a series of the same name. Produced by Paris-based Federation Entertainment, the drama will also star Benoît Magimel as a young politician aiming to depose Depardieu’s character.

Shot entirely in France, Marseille is created and written by Dan Franck, writer of La Separation and Les Hommes de l’Ombre and co-writer of Carlos, which won a Golden Globe for best miniseries. Explaining why he took on the project, Franck says: “Creating a series for an enormous audience and without any constraints will let us push to its limits a story about the Shakespearean theatre of politics, in a city where Alexandre Dumas and Jean-Claude Izzo, among others, have planted many spears.

“Netflix has given us a blank page to create a House of Cards in French that breaks through unspoken hypocrisy. This is a writer’s dream and a great opportunity for French producers and creators to enter a new world.”

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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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