Last night's viewing - Mummifying Alan: Egypt's Last Secret, Channel 4; Young Apprentice, BBC1
Shame I'm not going to be around to see it, isn't it?" said one of the contributors to Mummifying Alan: Egypt's Last Secret. "I quite like documentaries." I think he'd have loved this one, because Channel 4's film about an attempt to re-create the mummification process turned out to be completely engrossing.
Alan's problem, though, was that he wasn't simply a contributor to the documentary. He was also its main raw ingredient. A Torquay taxi-driver with terminal lung cancer, Alan had replied to an advert seeking volunteers for an experiment designed to assess the theories of an archaeological chemist called Stephen Buckley. Stephen, who has a home-made mummification lab in his garden shed, was keen to step up from testing his ideas on pig's trotters and try out a whole human. And Alan – a game sort of chap, by his wife's account – agreed to provide the body. "It's not going to go away, is it?" he said about his impending death, in a sequence filmed before he met the final eligibility criterion.
The next time we saw Alan, he was on a pathologist's trolley with a tag around his toe, and, to be frank, he wasn't looking great. At least not by comparison with the living Alan, though these things are all clearly relative. The pathologist and mortician who were to tackle the next stage thought he was in great shape: "He's thawed out quite well, actually," said the man whose job it was to eviscerate him in classic 18th Dynasty style. Good taste turns out to be a relative affair too, because the film that followed was an odd mixture of the unblinkingly grisly and the decorous. "Yep... I can get my hand in," said the pathologist as he rummaged around in Alan's torso feeling for his liver. "Question is, can I get it out again?" But when he tugged Alan's lower intestine out through the narrow slit he'd made, the screen was tactfully fogged. Either that or the camera operator had simply fainted.
Apparently, there is no hieroglyphic version of "Embalming for Dummies". The Egyptians left no written record of the recipe because the process was simply too sacred and secret to be bandied around. So Buckley had worked out his process by careful analysis of existing mummies, convinced by recent findings that every schoolboy's favourite fact about the procedure (that the brain was hauled out through the nose with a hook) isn't actually necessary and also that the finest mummies had probably been desiccated in a salt solution. So, after a quick varnishing with resin and sesame oil to protect his skin, Alan went into the brine for 35 days, prior to being pulled out again and left to dry. Nobody pointed out that this sounded horribly similar to the way in which you cure a side of bacon.
Alan's wife, who seems to have had time to accommodate herself to his unhysterical view of death, said she thought that her feelings would have been much the same if he'd been buried or cremated. But in neither of those cases would she have been able to visit three months later and hold his hand, as she did here, pinching his flesh through the linen wrappings. Sensibly, I think, she didn't stick around for the final unwrapping, when we got to look Alan in the face for the final time. All those involved declared themselves well pleased with the results. I thought he'd put on a bit of weight, myself, but there was no question that "Torquay's Tutankhamun", as he'd described himself before death, had made it to mummy status. And the film that would have been impossible without him proved to be memorably strange – part memento mori, part history lesson, part study in human curiosity. I wish Alan could have seen it too.
The girls' team won in Young Apprentice, largely by modelling their ice-cream business on Ryanair. They made their customers pay for the cone as an extra and looked very much as if they'd have liked to add a Scoop Labour Surcharge as well.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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