Astonishing, the things that have come out of dusty holes in the ground at Egypt’s great archaeological sites. This time, it was character actor Rupert Vansittart, stark naked and covered in bat droppings.
Rupert is one of those faces you’ve seen in everything, from Four Weddings And A Funeral to Game Of Thrones. On Midsomer Murders, he’s appeared as three different characters. You name the TV show, he’s been in it. But never completely, eye-wateringly unclothed.
He was playing eccentric antiquary Sir Flinders Petrie in the big budget historical drama (ITV), and since he appeared well after the watershed, the producers felt no need to pan away as Rupert clambered full-frontal starkers from an underground cave on the edge of the Sahara desert.
Viewers of a delicate disposition might have felt the need for a swift, restorative snifter, though you’d be well advised to stay away from Sir Flinders’s recommended tipple: ethyl alcohol preserving fluid, poured over citric acid crystals, served in beakers. ‘Near as dammit, gin and tonic!’ he rumbled.
Sam Neill stars as Lord Carnarvon alongside Amy Wren, who plays Carnarvon’s daughter Emily and Max Irons as Howard Carter
This was not, it should be obvious by now, the standard Boy’s Own take on the curse of the boy king – yet for the first few minutes, it appeared to obey all the traditional formulas.
The sun blazed on the Valley Of The Kings. Extras in knotted white turbans dug with picks while a moustachio’d Englishman in a sweat-stained vest and braces shouted short-tempered dialogue about the hunt for buried treasure… as if the extras might have been under the mistaken impression they were there to do some gardening.
Tutankhamun looked like a combination of Indiana Jones and Agatha Christie. The only question was whether the Nazi gold-hunters would turn up before the first body with a jewelled dagger between its shoulderblades.
In fact, neither cliché arrived. Instead, what turned up was Sam Neill as playboy toff Lord Carnarvon, and the drama became alive.
Whether as King Henry’s corrupt adviser Cromwell in The Tudors, or the insane policeman in Peaky Blinders, Sam has made a habit of stealing entire TV series in recent years, and with the boldness of a tomb robber he’s planning to do the same here.
Lord Carnarvon, Evelyn Herbert and Howard Carter at the Entrance to the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922
Max Irons, scion of an acting family — his parents are Sinead Cusack and Jeremy Irons — is Howard Carter, the pig-headed Egyptologist seaching for King Tut’s tomb. He seemed tentative rather than tyrannical, though it was probably hard to act with two strips of black Velcro on his upper lip.
While New Zealander Sam was overdoing his English accent, Catherine Steadman was showcasing a perfect American twang, as lovelorn, bookish Maggie. Poor girl — Carter wouldn’t have noticed her if she had tattooed ‘Take me I’m yours’ across her body in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Secret love affair: The drama’s writer said they could not ‘ignore’ the evidence of a romance between Herbert and Carter
Catherine is a veteran of Sunday night costume dramas: she was man-mad Mabel Lane Fox in Downton Abbey. And that’s not the only link to the Grantham family. Highclere Castle, where Downton was filmed, is the real home of the Earl of Carnarvon.
Tutankhamun doesn’t promise to be as addictive and multi-layered as that classic, nor even as good as its predecessor in this slot, Victoria. But it’s rollicking good fun, full of the unexpected, and set in splendid scenery.