Part 3 – Dramatic Explorations
Review by Andie Byrnes
Engagingly presented by Debbie Challis (the Petrie Museum) and John J. Johnston (University College London) this session looked at how British television has interpreted Egypt for the benefit of its viewers. We are all used to seeing Egyptian themes in a variety of entertaining television and film contexts. Wherever they appear there is always a sense that the unfathomable and long-lost arcane knowledge of the Ancient Egyptians and their gods will overcome the sound logic of scientists, detectives and archaeologists. It is the sort of power that no amount of goodness, common sense or scientific rigour can overcome. Debbie and John split the material into three categories – Gothic, costume drama and science fiction. Together they display a remarkable series of contrasting styles and themes from different periods of Britain’s televisual past.
The opening clip, starting off the Gothic section, Mystery and Imagination: Curse of the Mummy (1970), was a remarkable piece of work based on a Bram Stoker story, showing a murder set to music, without speech, an extremely loose representation of ancient Egypt, all bald heads, gold paint, hieroglyphs and a lot of over-acting. The impossibly well-preserved corpse of glamorous Queen Tera was missing its right hand, and the severed limb was freshly red and suitably grizzly. In the next clip the scene switched to a Victorian setting, where impassioned dialogue suggests, without much subtlety, that evil has travelled from the tomb to the drawing room and that the daughter of the house is about to transform into a reincarnation of Queen Tera. The clips demonstrated, as the presenters explained, themes that recur frequently in the portrayal of Egypt on television. Throughout, the imagined arcane knowledge, glamour and beauty of Egypt are set in threatening opposition to the dull but worthy Victorian rationalism. Rationalism, by closing its mind to the possibilities of the arcane, is itself a vulnerability, a potentially fatal flaw.
A shorter clip from Sexton Blake and the Demon God (1978) is very different in both tone and style, with humour and much less hyperbole, but is a good illustration of the recurrent theme of conflicts between the rational modern world, again sein in the Victorian era, and the influence of the arcane and threatening ancient Egyptian past.
The Gothic component of Egyptian-themed series in contemporary television was discussed by the presenters, who highlighted the strong emphasis on death, reversed moral values, gory body parts and fetishism. The idea of conventional beliefs being challenged and overturned is dominant in this and other clips, modern science being no match for the occult.
I, Claudius, based on the novels of Robert Graves (1976), The Cleopatras (1983) and Rome (2007), fulfilled the costume drama section of the session. Although very different in character, all three series were richly imagined, extravagantly financed and visually remarkable. I Claudius was included to give an example of a successful and well executed historical costume drama, and the clip was an excellent illustration of this. The producers of The Cleopatras had hoped that it would follow in the footsteps of I Claudius, but was a failure with both critics and audiences. As the presenters emphasised, in The Cleopatras the various Cleopatras and the accompanying Egyptian paraphernalia served to suggest that the impact of Egypt on Rome was both seductive and corrupting. This was particularly obvious in the clips of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony, where the decadence of Egyptian culture and of Cleopatra herself contagiously undermined the superior and noble values of Roman military fortitude and virtue. Mark Antony was sucked in. Rome, whilst self-consciously updating the Egyptian themes (Cleopatra had short spiky hair) similarly contrasted the decadence of Egypt against the moral angst of Mark Antony.
Changing both pace and tone, and taking a poke not at Egypt, but at the many cinematic interpretations of Egyptian costume themes, the short and famous Morecambe and Wise clip, Antony and Cleopatra, with actress Glenda Jackson (1971) has survived the test of time. Although there were frequent chuckles at some of the terrible acting and the outrageous interpretations of Egypt’s past in some of the clips (the inability of the dead Queen Tera to keep her eyes still causing many giggles and the Egyptians-versus-the-daleks fight later on in the session producing gales of laughter), it was great fun to see a complete spoof, based on the Wilson and Keppel 1930s set piece, done just for laughs and without any attempt whatsoever at anything remotely approaching authenticity. It does, however, reveal how powerful an impression ancient Egypt had made on British audiences, the time-honoured themes of Antony and Cleopatra by now instantly recognizable.
Apart from a clip from a 2009 episode of Primeval (hopelessly inaccurate but very entertaining) the science fiction section was dedicated to Dr Who, which has had Egyptian themes running through it for decades. Inevitably in episodes like The Daleks’ master Plan (mid 1960s) the Giza pyramids were full of hieroglyphs, and the ancient Egyptian motifs were used with cheerful abandon, but emphasis was more on action than archaeology. In the clip of Tomb of the Cybermen, an episode clearly influenced by footage of Egyptian exploration, we saw something of how British television saw archaeologists as explorers and treasure seekers. Most of the Dr Who episodes were cheerfully threatening but far from frightening. An exception is the truly startling scene between Tom Baker and a character named Sutekh (aka Seth) in the episode Pyramids of Mars (1975). The head of Sutekh is a mixture of Pharaonic and Predynastic and the result, superbly amplified by Sutekh’s actor Gabriel Woolf, is terrifying. The myths of Horus and Seth are transformed into a convincing horror story, a juxtaposition of good (the Doctor) and evil (Sutekh), with the latter seeing good only in the form of annihilation and destruction, overturning the natural moral order of the world. Combining Gothic fetishism, costume drama and the usual Dr Who themes of good overcoming bad, order overcoming chaos, all in one remarkable clip, this is another example of how Egypt often becomes the antithesis of modern values in television productions. The rest of the episode, watched after the event, lacked the intensity of the clip, but included some wonderfully peculiar ambulatory mummies and a fabulous mixture of Victorian Gothic trappings, ominous organ music, the inevitable damp British woodland settings of so many 1970s and 80s British sci-fi productions and a lot of tremendous ancient Egyptian kitsch.
To wrap things up John and Debbie brought up a photograph taken from Dr Who, Series 5. The episode The Wedding of River Song shows a viaduct leading into the Great Pyramid, with a green steam train rolling into the gaping mouth of the imagined entrance. Debbie Challis saw it as a type of violation, but I have to say I loved it. The combination of the futuristic world of time travel and the archaic technology of steam was quite delicious. But at the same time Debbie’s comment reminded the audience that no object, be it monument or artefact, is pristine in our minds, and that it is important that there are those who take the time to recover and promote the pristine view.
It will be most interesting to see the February screening of Caesar and Cleopatra at the Petrie, in light of the Dramatic Explorations session, knowing that with John J. Johnston as presenter there will be the chance to explore more of this session’s ideas. For those wishing to pursue the theme of Dr Who in Egypt, the BFI is presenting Dr Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen on February 9th at 1430. As John Johnston said, there’s not an Egyptian motif in sight, but is very obviously based on the Egypt landscape and western ideas of Egyptology – and anyway, it’s a terrific piece of entertainment.
In conclusion, the entire event, consisting of three sessions, was a great success. The format, with archaeological experts introducing and linking together television clips to make up a coherent presentation, worked superbly. The clips were all very well selected, and the presenters offered different styles and approaches, giving the entire event a fresh and varied feeling, which was particularly enjoyable for the large number of us who stayed for all three sessions.
I very much hope that Dick Fiddy from the British Film Institute feels that his time, and that of his excellent technicians, was well spent. As the lady sitting next to me said, it was something of a marathon to engage with all three sessions over a six hour period, but the atmosphere was friendly, the seats the most comfortable I have experienced in any sort of theatre in years, and the expert presenters were articulate and engaging. It was well worth braving the snow to enjoy such a good evening.