In Flinders' footsteps

Chris Naunton Chris Naunton, before illness struck

We were making one of BBC4's last history programmes before it becomes an arts and culture channel, with Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society.

He was to follow in the footsteps of a great Victorian adventurer, Flinders Petrie, who challenged the tomb raiders and treasure hunters by insisting on understanding the whole of ancient Egyptian civilisation, and invented modern field archaeology in the process.

It was a steep learning curve, as for all new presenters - who knew that television producers demanded such academic rigour, such long hours, and such ridiculous pants? Chris was the perfect team member, as happy to carry kit and buy a round of drinks, as to look up an arcane reference to a little-known pharaoh and read a hieroglyphic inscription.

An eccentric genius

I was determined to give viewers a sense of the eccentric Petrie as well as the genius, and the last thing I wanted was another white male expert telling us all we needed to know. I wanted Chris to show us things as much as possible too. So he balanced a lit candle on his forehead (which is how Petrie read at night on excavation), threw a tin of fish at a rock (which is how Petrie tested whether last year's supplies were good enough to eat), and donned a rose pink vest and longjohns (which is what Petrie wore when it was hot and he wanted to scare off the tourists). There were a number of conversations about the tension between the need to impress one's academic peers and the need to engage the general audience, as you can imagineā€¦.

None of this put Chris off television. Nor did rumours of post-revolution violence. We had postponed our filming until after Egypt's elections, and missed the worst of it. It was the gut wrenching food poisoning that did it. Both he and cameraman Rob McDougall began to feel ill after eight days in Egypt, as we were heading to Jordan and Israel. On our first morning in Jerusalem, Chris quietly let me know that he wasn't well but would carry on. Appropriately, we filmed in the building where Petrie died, with Chris looking more and more close to death himself. By lunchtime he couldn't get out of the van except to be sick, so I did the next interview myself. During filming, I heard a scuffle, and turned round to see that our Israeli fixer was behind the camera, and Rob had disappeared, now suffering as much as Chris.

From location to hospital

Realising that it was serious, I took them to hospital where they were both diagnosed with severe dehydration from gastroenteritis, and were put on intravenous saline drips. Poor Chris. Poor Rob. Poor me. How was I going to finish the film without a presenter or cameraman? Sound recordist Mark Nash and I took charge and our PM Ellen Davies changed flights and got the excellent BBC back-up systems fired up. Within 36 hours the guys were well enough to complete the shoot. Chris has been to Egypt many times but never had such a gruelling or sick time of it. Never again, he groaned in his hospital bed, delirious. But now, having seen the result, would he make another film with us? You bet.

The Man Who Discovered Egypt, BBC Four 9pm


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