Mummifying Alan – Egypt’s Last Secret Review

MUMMIFYING ALAN – EGYPT’S LAST SECRET: Monday 24th October, C4, 9pm

There is sure to be plenty of backlash from tonight’s Channel 4 foray into the fairly gruesome procedures involved with ancient Egyptian mummification. Any unlucky viewer who stumbled across the documentary whilst eating, having just eaten or even contemplating food will have been severely put off…for some time. Perseverance was the key with this documentary and it is only by watching the more unsightly scenes in conjunction with the surprisingly tender portrait of the taxi driver, husband, father and grandfather, was it obvious that the production crew worked hard to maintain respect for the brave volunteer.

But Mummifying Alan did not exactly hold back when it came to giving audiences a front row seat at the first scientific embalming experiment ever conducted. Organ extraction, a beeswax and resin rub, five weeks in a highly caustic bath, five weeks of drying out and just three maggots to his name by the end of it all, Alan certainly did the team proud.

We began, however, by meeting Dr Stephen Buckley and his archaeologist partner Jo Fletcher, the obsessive pair behind this ancient Egyptian investigation. Buckley, a chemist and research fellow at York University, has spent 19 years trying to discover exactly how the ancient Egyptians preserved bodies so perfectly. With his recreation Egyptian tomb shed and kitchen sideboards filled with decomposing pig’s legs, it quickly becomes clear that conducting this experiment means an awful lot to Dr B and his globetrotting girlfriend, Jo. Their aim? To work the grisly details of mummification process used in the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt.

Running alongside the experiment were some rather tender clips of Alan talking about what was to come, before he died on 14th January 2011. Mr Billis had answered an advert sent out by Channel 4 asking for terminally ill patients to donate their bodies to this unique cause. His wife spoke frankly about the fact of her husband’s death and showed her support to the last, even visiting him as a linen-clad corpse.

“You looked after him better than I did!â€?, she jokes, an extraordinary woman who dealt with the whole nightmarish prospect admirably. Despite the integrity with which the experts proceeded with the operation, the thought of the family watching on is what tortures the viewer more than what is shown on screen. But the programme’s serious consideration of the family prevented the whole affair from turning into an unashamed gore fest.

In fact, it wasn’t even that gory. And it went a long way in dispelling the myth that the Egyptians were yanking out brains through nostrils left, right and centre. The brain was, in fact, left intact and the historian’s emphasised the idea that these ancient peoples were just as sentimental about their dead as we are. The idea of “preserving the body so that the soul would recognise itâ€? took weeks of preparation and care and there was certainly nothing barbaric about their intentions.

Not an easy watch, but if Alan and his family were brave enough to make the sacrifice then who are we to send in complaints by the bucket-load? From beyond the grave, Torquay’s answer to Tutankhamun even sends his own endorsement, “It’s a shame I won’t be around to see it – I quite like documentaries!”