Tutankhamun: How ITV recreated Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in South Africa

Max Irons and co braved snakes, scorpions, spiders and sweltering heat to film the drama about Egyptologist Howard Carter

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ITV’s new period drama might look the part, but it wasn’t filmed anywhere near Egypt. It was all shot at the other end of the continent in South Africa.

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“We recreated the Valley of the Kings in a quarry in the desert region in the north of the country, close to the border with Namibia,” explains executive producer Francis Hopkinson.

“There was nothing up there so we had to take everything: the crew, the equipment, the extras. Normally the risk assessment for a shoot is a page long, but this one ran to about 30 pages and itemised all of the animals you might stumble across.

“And at one point it said: If you see this snake, run. We had to employ four scorpion wranglers to get rid of all the scorpions.”

Nobody fell foul of snakes or scorpions but Amy Wren, who plays Evelyn, was bitten by a spider and had to be hospitalised for a day. Even without the snakes, filming in a desert was no picnic.

“It was hot, windy and dusty. We had to stop once because it got to 52 degrees. You just have to push through it. I think the crew found it a bonding experience to be in that intense heat.” 

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Actress Amy Wren on the lookout for spiders

So Max Irons – who plays young Egyptologist Howard Carter – wasn’t faking that sweat, although Hopkinson says he deliberately wanted him to look a little icky. “We wanted to show that digging for these tombs was hard work. We wanted Carter to look sweaty and rough. It was tough: you were digging underground in small, confined, dirty, dark, hot spaces. We didn’t want picture-perfect people in white linen suits. We wanted to show that it was quite an extreme situation to be in.”

One thing did have to be faked, though. Anyone who’s been to the real Valley of the Kings will know that the sand is red. South Africa’s wasn’t so ITV’s Valley of the Kings had to be painted in the editing suite.

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Max Irons works up a sweat

After a fortnight in the desert, the shoot moved to Cape Town: “Which was quite a relief! We built all the interiors of the tombs in an old basketball court that was being turned into a studio. Then we built two streets of Cairo in an old borstal just outside Cape Town.”

Tutankhamun wasn’t the only show in town. In the last decade, Cape Town has established itself as Africa’s answer to Hollywood thanks to tax credits, a great filming infrastructure and – most importantly – the astonishing diversity of the South African landscape. It recently stood in for Kenya in the BBC1 drama Our Girl, and doubles as the Caribbean and the Amazon in the Sky 1 series Hooten & the Lady.

“It’s the first time I’ve filmed there and it was a great place to shoot,” says Hopkinson. “The only problem is it’s so popular. There were at least two movies filming in Cape Town while we were there and two big American series. Sam Neill would have parties and invite all the actors of the various shows around.”

Tutankhamun is on Sundays 9pm ITV

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