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24 September 2014
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Matthew Kelly as Belzoni


Making history in Egypt


Braving the heat, the dust and the tummy upsets, the cast and crew of BBC ONE's new historical drama series, Egypt, survived an arduous shoot schedule in the name of adventure and authenticity.


Phil Dolling, executive producer, says: "The whole idea behind the series was to be able to discover Ancient Egypt through the eyes of Howard Carter – famous for uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun; The Great Belzoni – an amazing adventurer and explorer; and the scholar Jean-François Champollion, who was the first to decipher the Rosetta Stone and open up the meaning of hieroglyphics."


It is almost unimaginable to think that until the time of Napoleon, Ancient Egypt was virtually unknown to the Western world.


And, for Dolling and series producer Paul Bradshaw, in order to create a sense of seeing the treasures of Ancient Egypt for the first time, it was also imperative that they would be able to film in the actual archaeological sites.


With some skilful negotiation, the BBC was eventually able to gain unprecedented access to a large number of the sites in the Nile Valley - no mean feat when you consider not only their value, but also the sheer volume of visitors who flock there.


"We had fantastic help from the Government and a local production crew," says Bradshaw. "They managed to fix it for us to film in areas that - as far as we know - have never been used by other television or film productions.


"This, of course, created its own challenges. Keeping people out of shot was one - sometimes this was nearing impossible - but we tended to shoot early in the day so disruptions were kept to a minimum.


"The other was obviously making sure we didn't damage anything, which thankfully we managed!"


When asked what the most challenging aspect of the production was, both Dolling and Bradshaw are unanimous in their reply: "The heat…"


"We chose to film in March and April when the heat should not be too severe," Bradshaw explains. "However, we were treated to some very unseasonably warm weather.


"It was a real problem, not only for the cast, who were dressed in period costume - sometimes in temperatures pushing 50 degrees – but it was also hard on the equipment, some of which malfunctioned.


"At one point, we thought we may have to seriously reduce the amount of filming; then it rained – a rare event indeed in Luxor and it was such a relief for all of us, as everything then cooled down."


Added to the miseries of extreme heat, many of the cast were stricken with tummy bugs and chronic coughs due to the dust, which also clogged priceless film equipment.


"It was difficult keeping such a unique project running so far from home, and it is a tribute to the cast and crew that we managed to succeed," says Dolling.


"The series really is great and looks fantastic, well worth all the hard work."


When asked what, if any, were the highlights of filming, Bradshaw thinks for a while.


"The Egyptian people," he says emphatically. "They have such incredible energy: working with our Egyptian crew was a real eye-opener. And, of course, it was fascinating working there.


"The period that the drama is set in really was a Boys' Own time, an era of Arabian nights and untold treasures in the East, when there were still corners of the globe that were exotic and unexplored. Recreating this amazing period of history really was fantastic."


For Dolling, it was the fact that, like Carter, Belzoni and Champollion before him, he, too, was a pioneer.


"Being the first UK TV company to attempt such a project in the most amazing historical sights was very exhilarating, and to be able to return them - with additional sets and some computer imagery - to how they were during the time of the Pharaohs was incredible."



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