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Why unearthing history was such a joy for Sam Neill

Northern Ireland-born Sam Neill and Max Irons, stars of mini-series Tutankhamun, explain how the saga captured their imaginations

By Staff Reporter

Published 15/10/2016

TOMB RAIDERS: Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon, Amy Wren as Lady Evelyn and Max Irons as Carter. Below: Neill with Catherine Steadman, who plays Maggie
TOMB RAIDERS: Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon, Amy Wren as Lady Evelyn and Max Irons as Carter. Below: Neill with Catherine Steadman, who plays Maggie

There is something endlessly tantalising about the Ancient Egyptians: the gold, the mythology, the buried magnificence of a civilization that crumbled, yet still built the pyramids. In a new ITV mini-series, it's the unearthing of the most famous Egyptian tomb of all, Tutankhamun's, that's in the spotlight.

"We forget in the mundane moments of our lives that these grand adventures happened, and this particular one is on another level," says Max Irons, who plays archaeologist Howard Carter in the four-parter, a man whose modern yet unconventional digging methods and difficult attitude saw him blacklisted by the majority of the archaeological community.

But the hugely wealthy aristocrat and amateur Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon, portrayed by Sam Neill (pictured), ignored the naysayers and decided to back him.

Together, they began an excavation of the Valley of the Kings, making headlines around the world when, in 1922, they discovered the intact Egyptian tomb of forgotten boy king, Tutankhamun.

"People thought he was nuts, especially for digging the way he was digging - it was a real long journey for him," says Irons of Carter, who spent around 15 years hunting tirelessly for Tutankhamun's resting place. "It all came down to him being a single-mindedly obsessive, stubborn expert who's incredibly good at his job - that's an attractive prospect for an actor."

The series - which tracks Carter and Carnarvon's dealings and discoveries - was filmed over nine weeks, partly in an old basketball court-turned-studio in Cape Town, while the exterior shots were filmed on the South African/Namibian border.

It was beautiful but "incredibly hot", says Irons (30) who's also appeared in The Riot Club and The White Queen.

"Put it this way, on our first day of shooting there, they had to fly in five or six extra trailers for all the people who had fainted."

"It was hot and windy," Neill (69), confirms. "We'd get back from work, red-eyed with tears streaming down our faces from the dust. Max Irons took the brunt of it. He really took a beating."

And if it wasn't the temperature and the dust they had to wrangle with, it was the local wildlife.

"Snakes, jumping spiders - nightmare!" says Irons with a shudder. "You'd imagine, if they're coming towards you, that they'd hop out of your way, [but] they hop on to you!"

Plus they bite - co-star Aimee Wren, who plays Lady Evelyn Carnarvon, suffered a potentially deadly spider bite and was rushed to hospital.

Luckily, explains Irons, she is "very, very tough, because she recovered in a single day".

Set designers mapped out the archaeological trenches like for like, while the attention to detail on the recreations of relics found in Tutankhamun's tomb was impressively done, unlike Irons' attempts at reproducing Carter's moustache.

"I hated it so much," he says, cringing. "This is embarrassing; it took me about a month [to grow one]. We jumped about 20 years, so you had to have the 40-year-old big thick moustache and then the early-20s pathetic moustache - that I can produce. So we had to stick various things on, but it was so itchy."

It was the first time Neill and Irons had worked together, with the younger actor rather wowed by the prospect.

"Oh he's great, [I was] pretty star-struck, but he's also one of the funniest men I've ever met," says Irons of the veteran actor, who's starred in the likes of Jurassic Park and The Piano. "He's got a real dry humour, so dry in fact, that when you first meet him, you think, 'Oh God, he hates me!' But then you realise he's just very funny and witty."

Neill adds plainly: "Max is a lovely fellow. I know his parents. A well brought-up fellow and a very good actor. We got on very well."

Irons admits he "knew nothing about Egyptian history at all" before signing up to the project, while Neill found the story intriguing but just had "basic general knowledge" of the period.

However, the concept of what happens when we die - an inevitability that preoccupied the Egyptians, who filled tombs with riches and possessions their kings would need in the next life - is something Neill finds fascinating, if not particularly convincing.

"I don't think there is a second life in any way we understand. I think we dissolve. Whether or not consciousness persists is an interesting philosophical question, because science doesn't understand what consciousness is," he says.

"Every atom of our being is as old as the universe, and every atom of our being we know will survive for all time. But you won't be assembled in the same way as you are now. I certainly don't believe in a Heaven that good people go to. And if there was, it probably would be a rather dull place. 'Look at all these good people. Where are all the interesting ones?'

"There's nothing I'd take with me if I'm going to somewhere the pharaohs are off to. I don't own anything that would be useful there. Don't bury me. I'll go to the wind."

In real life Neill's greatest discovery has been wine: "I've been drinking it for half a century, but discovering wine in a profound sense and growing wine has been an extraordinary discovery for me."

  • Tutankhamun begins on ITV tomorrow, 9pm

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