THE STORY BEHIND MUMMIFYING ALAN
A Special for Channel 4, the Discovery Channel and Discovery Canada produced by Blink in association with medialab. Distributed by BBC Worldwide.
In this 90-minute special, archaeological chemist and Egyptologist, Dr Stephen Buckley unlock one of Egypt’s best kept secrets - how did the Egyptians make their best-preserved mummies? To do it he has spent 8 years experimenting on almost 200 pigs legs to refine the recipe, proving exactly how the Egyptians did it. But while pigs legs are a close proxy for human flesh there is no substitute for a real human being. Enter Alan, a terminally ill man from Torquay. Along with his wife Jan and their closest family, he has agreed to donate his body to this project in order to prove that during its ‘golden age’ the Egyptians mummification technique was very different to the one accepted as universal by today’s establishment.
Winner of the Royal Television Society Award - Best Science Film
Winner of the BAFTA - Best Specialist Factual Film
Winner of Alliance of International Broadcasters - Best Science Programme
Commended for Originality - Broadcast Awards
THE STORY BEHIND MUMMIFYING ALAN
In 2002 Gillian Mosely developed the series Egypt Detectives (Fulcrum for Five, Discovery Canada, National Geographic International) and asked long-term academic collaborators Dr Joann Fletcher and Dr Stephen Buckley if they could mummify someone for the series. The broadcasters didnt want the episode as they felt it needed to be under-pinned by a scientific purpose which went further than simply re-creating a mummification.
A year later when Drs Fletcher and Buckley returned from filming in Egypt they told Gillian that they had found that purpose. Looking at x-rays of 18th dynasty mummies, the "Rolls Royce" of mummies, Stephen noticed an anomaly that suggested that these mummies had not simply been left under piles of salt but had received a more extensive treatment so he began a series of experiments on pigs legs to prove his theory.
By 2004 Simon Andreae at Channel 4 had commissioned the project from Fulcrum and there Gillian facilitated for Stephen (with much help from the core team at Fulcrum) three further phases of experimentation which tested hundreds of pigs legs and lasted for six years. During this period Stephen determined the optimum concentration of salts and time period needed to mummify someone using a wet natron solution. He'd previously published on the role of organics (oils and resins) in mummification and he also spent considerable time finding the best organics for the job, finally determining that these needed to be applied BEFORE the natron bath.
Simon Andreae left and the film passed briefly to Simon Dickson at Channel 4 before arriving on Louisa Bolch's desk. Under her steering and Mark Lambert's guidance, Gillian began to look into the legalities of doing the experiment in the UK under new Human Tissue Authority (HTA) Guidelines and in the wake of Alderhay. An experiment like this had never been done in the UK before. We approached the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre, then part of Sheffield University, and three other Universities looking for a venue for our experiment. Each one turned us down on the basis of potentially adverse publicity.
Thanks to Stephen's mentor Professor Don Brothwell, we obtained an invitation to the Forensic Anthropology Centre (the Body Farm!) in Knoxville Tennessee. Although they did not have an internal facility available, Stephen and Gillian met with Professor Richard Jantz and Dr Lee Jantz. Persuaded that the project was worthwhile they agreed to house a bespoke unit on their property enabling the experiment on a human volunteer to go ahead.
With venue agreed, Gillian oversaw a people search where Associate Producer Joanna Service lead a team of six people who spent months talking to hospices, medics, charities and funeral directors alike searching for a terminally ill volunteer. The HTA guidelines were clear - the team needed explicit and informed consent from a donor before they died, and we wanted to keep our search out of the press if possible. With Discovery Channel on board the hunt was on for someone in America and in the end Associate Producer Jennifer Mosely found Michael in Seattle by posting on Craig's List.
Just as all of the elements had come together Fulcrum run by Christo Hird and Richard Belfield went into liquidation and the project moved to Richard's revived Fulcrum Television. We filmed Michael and his entire family who travelled to Egypt where they met Stephen and Joann who showed them what they would be participating in. Within six months Michael stepped down from the project and the team was back to square one.
Discovery had also backed down and National Geographic International and the Smithsonian Channel stepped in to take their place. Again Gillian and Richard worked with Joanna Service to find a new volunteer. This time they would be British. In 2009 an ad in a funeral director's magazine caught the eye of a journalist at the Independent who phoned for more information. Torquay resident Alan Billis saw the piece and phoned up David Glover, who had taken over as commissioner at Channel 4 (after a brief stint by Hamish Mykura, with Ralph Lee finally joining David at the party) to volunteer. He had just been diagnosed with lung cancer.
At the same time, Richard Belfield re-approached the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre who had become independent, in order to secure a British venue for the experiment. Their extraordinary manager Linda Dale, convinced by the passion of Stephen Buckley, took up the request with fervour and managed to convince the council and her bosses that the project was worth participating in. This delicate process was in process when Gillian, Joann and Stephen decided to take the project from Fulcrum. After discussions with Simon Andreae, then an executive producer on the project, they agreed to jointly approach Dan Chambers at Blink where the project was finally made.
Bringing Alan, the scientific team (Buckley and Fletcher alongside Professor Peter Vanezis and Maxine Coe) and their extraordinary experiment now under-pinned by extensive experiments, access to the Body Farm, and advanced discussions with the Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre, Mosely, now running her own company medialab, stepped down as Producer of the project in 2010 becoming an Executive Producer alongside Blink's Justine Kershaw. Laura Jones took over as producer and Kenny Scott (the 5th director to be involved) finally directed the film for Channel 4, Discovery US and Canada, giving the film its strong visual identity and narrative style.
In March the film they produced won the Royal Television Society's award for best science and natural history film, and in May, the film won BAFTA's award for best specialist factual film.