Television Production Values: Tomb tale cursed by fear of fact

C4's visit to the Valley of the Kings showed how to bury an interesting archaeology story under layers of jokey flam, writes Jim Burge
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The fascinating thing about archaeology is that it can reveal evidence not only of past artefacts but also of the conflict and strife that surrounded them. Channel 4's new factual series, To the Ends of the Earth (Mondays), started with "Return to the Valley of the Kings", a programme about archaeology. It was also itself archaeology: close examination has revealed that it contains the fragmented remains of not one, but three separate programmes.

The surface layer appeared to be a strange-but-true documentary about the "curse of Tutankhamun". Creepy music covered the present Earl of Carnarvon telling us how not only did his grandfather die suspiciously soon after entering Tut's tomb but, back in Scotland, his dog keeled over at the very same moment.

At this stage the commentary referred, po-faced, to the curse as if it was an undisputed scientific fact. There is nothing wrong with pretending that a falsehood is true - this is the stuff of daydreams, thought experiments, and literature - but it is perturbing when it is the flat, authoritative voice of the commentary that presents cobblers as wisdom. A second viewing showed that the commentary was heavy with irony, but the reading didn't bring this out.

The next scrape of the trowel revealed a docusoap about an aristocrat on a jaunt to Egypt. Geordie (Lord Porchester), great-grandson of the archaeologist Earl of Carnarvon, was going to the Land of the Pharaohs to try out the curse for himself. He was accompanied by family business manager Adrian Wylie, who dreamt up the whole idea in order to sell more knick-knacks back at the ancestral home. Wylie himself gave a perfect performance as that stock docusoap character, the person you love to hate. He plainly didn't give a monkey's about archaeology and a fine televisual moment found him sneaking away from the dusty dig for a cool can of lager. His only encounter with the natives was to reply with upper-class outrage when one of them asked him if he was German.

We could not reasonably expect the future earl to be struck down on camera during his visit to the tomb of Tutankhamun, so the programme makers had to rely on his reacting to it in an interesting way. He didn't.

The pair were accompanying Nigel Strudwick, an archaeologist who, as a sideline, looks after the Carnarvon collection of Tutankhamuniana. Nigel has been excavating the same tomb for years. The trowel struck its third genre: the scientific detective story. Suddenly there were serious archaeologists trying their hardest to find out about the distant past.

There was no treasure, but some realistic footage of breakthroughs into new chambers and intriguing hieroglyphs meant that, in the three-horse race, archaeology was well able to keep up with creepy story and docusoap. The creepy story was plainly not viable over the distance because of the lack of dead aristocrats; the live aristocrats were passingly amusing but did not add up to a full comedy. This left the archaeological story to fulfil the viewers' need for mystery and enchantment.

This was taken care of by Nigel's archaeologist wife, Helen. We found her underground in the tomb, seated by a skull and some crushed bones, and securely sheltered from the other genres. Her interview provided the programme with its only genuine glint of gold: she talked about the empathy she felt with the people of the past and how at ease she felt with their remains. She was not only telling us why people study archaeology but also the raison d'etre of any programme about ancient Egypt.

The series goes out at 8pm, the slot once occupied on BBC2 by the augustly authoritative Horizon, but times have changed. When we got to the jokey post-credit sequence where Geordie tried his hand at shaving in the way that carried off his ancestor, I began to wonder if I wasn't witnessing a failure of confidence in the whole idea of a factual programme, or perhaps just a failure to grasp what people want out of it.

The author is a programme-maker