Every Man’s History

Since the late 1990s, television audiences around the world have become increasingly drawn to documentaries that tell the trials and tribulations
October 1, 2003

Since the late 1990s, television audiences around the world have become increasingly drawn to documentaries that tell the trials and tribulations of history’s overlooked participants: average people living through extraordinary periods. Long fed on a diet of history’s famous and infamous, TV viewers want to see how their own ancestors might have faced everyday life 200 years ago, or even 2,000. The program approach breaks into two types: living history, in which ‘ordinary’ modern-day participants are thrust into the living standards of another time, and dramatic non-fiction, in which narrators and actors present extensively researched and carefully presented versions of daily existence, often enhanced by computer-generated imaging.

London-based prodco Wall To Wall is one outfit that found early success with both living history programs (1900 House, 1940s House) and dramatic non-fiction (Neanderthal). Pleased with the favorable feedback from broadcasters, such as the U.K.’s Channel 4, and the strong audience figures these programs generated, WTW’s chief executive Alex Graham conceived of a project that would draw on elements from each type of program, to re-create the Everyman’s experience of ancient Egypt.

One of the keys was finding true stories of average citizens. Luckily, written records exist. For instance, the tale of two girls in 164 b.c. who were forced out of their home and were subsequently drawn into the orbit of a death cult had been documented on papyri discovered in 1853. Their experience was relatively unremarkable at the time, but could make for audience-grabbing TV today, if presented in just the right way. Says Graham, ‘I thought, if we were able to pull something like this off, then it would have a huge marketing benefit. If it worked…it would help raise our profile even further.’

Early 2000: Graham meets C4 head of science and education Sara Ramsden (now controller of British Sky Broadcasting’s Sky One channel) to discuss potential projects. WTW and C4 have just collaborated on the living history copro 1900 House, and the CGI-dependent BBC/Discovery doc Walking with Dinosaurs has recently aired to huge audience numbers. Ramsden says she is keen to support a major project that has the heft of programs produced by its pubcaster competitor, the BBC.

Graham suggests ancient Egypt, since ‘people seem to watch just about anything’ concerning that period. ‘[But,] I wanted to find a different way to approach [it],’ he explains.

Ramsden raises the idea of a chronological history, like Ken Burns’s Civil War or Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. But, Graham counters that Egypt, due to its extremely long history, isn’t an ideal candidate for that type of treatment. ‘My instinct was that what people are most interested in about Egypt is not which pharaoh followed which pharaoh, but what it was like to live in ancient Egypt,’ he recalls.

Later that spring, Graham approaches TLC vice president and general manager Jana Bennett (now director of television at the BBC) with the idea of a major Egypt-themed coproduction. She shows tentative interest, taking a wait-and-see stance since the project, at this stage, is very rudimentary: Egyptian history, Ramsden’s verbal support and WTW’s track record are its only concrete aspects.

June 2000: WTW assigns producer Ben Goold to
the dossier and gives the concept a basic structure: a 6 x 30-minute program with a total budget of £6 million (US$9.5 million). Twenty-five percent of the budget is earmarked for special effects.

Graham concedes creating the budget was ‘slightly weird,’ since they were forecasting cost projections without having a clear idea of the story – or stories – they were going to tell. Normally, ‘you figure out what you want to do, you cost it, and then you go out and try to raise the money,’ he says. ‘To be honest, we didn’t really know how much this was going to cost in the end.’

Later that month, WTW approaches the distributor of many of its programs, itel (now Granada International), with a joint development and financing strategy.

November 2000: ITEL agrees to provide deficit financing of 40% [about £2.4 million ($3.8 million)], with a plan to target European broadcasters and the ancillary markets, specifically dvd/video, for pre-sales. WTW, meanwhile, pursues a book deal. The remaining 60% of the budget is to come from each of the project’s principal backers – presumably Channel 4 and TLC. Approximately $100,000 is earmarked for research and marketing initiatives.

The researchers uncover several documented historical accounts (told on papyri and tomb inscriptions) that lend themselves to dramatic re-creation. ‘The people [depicted] in our films are real. They have lived, and they really went through what they went through,’ Graham says. ‘In that sense, these [films] are real documentaries.’

December 2000: WTW and ITEL develop a CD-ROM to market the project to prospective financiers. ‘The scale of our ambition, the money we were trying to raise, meant we needed more than a piece of paper to do it,’ Graham recalls. They spend approximately $20,000 to produce a disc that contains several elements, including still images that capture the aesthetics and special-effects treatment of the proposal, and a one-minute mock ‘evocation’ of an ordinary Egyptian scaling the outside of a pyramid.

ITEL is taken over by U.K. media giant Granada and is renamed Granada International, but the project is unaffected. WTW and Granada begin to execute the financing strategy over the next three months, and pitch the proposal to a number of broadcasters, with mixed results. NDR factual controller Thomas Schreiber says he is intrigued but skeptical, ‘because it is too grand an idea.’

January 2001: C4 comes on board in principle as a coproducer – a crucial hurdle that helps the other potential financiers take WTW’s advances seriously. Separately, London-based Warner Bros. Home Video agrees to spin-off the DVD. They receive global DVD and video rights, except in Italy.

Summer 2001: WTW and Granada visit Tokyo to pitch to broadcasters NHK, TBS and TV Asahi. Commercial channel TV Asahi takes an immediate interest and, within weeks, pledges to join the coproduction.

TLC comes on board in principle as a coproducer. WTW auctions off the book rights; Harper Collins wins.

October 2001: At the first face-to-face coproducer meeting in Washington, D.C., held during the World Congress of Science Producers, Ramsden, Bennett and tlc exec producer Michael Klein decide they want a 4 x 1-hour series instead of six half-hour episodes. (The broadcast hour is 49 minutes in the U.K., but 44 minutes in North America; TLC will need to cut four minutes from the U.K. ‘master’ version.)

Says Graham, ‘We had to completely rethink the budget and the concept. We had to drop two of the stories we had been planning…and we had to turn the other stories into longer narratives.’

By the end of the month, Germany’s NDR, France’s Canal+ and Canal+ International, Italy’s RAI and Austria’s ORF state their intention to commit to the project, subject to contract discussions. Pubcaster NDR commits 1.12 million euro ($1.25 million) to cover approximately 10% of the budget. It also gets an editorial role.

November/December 2001: WTW reworks the budget to accommodate the new structure. The total cost drops slightly to £5.7 million ($9 million). The per-hour expenses fall to just under £1.5 million ($2.4 million) from £2 million ($3.2 million).

In this two-month period, Tony Mitchell, director of Neanderthal, agrees to join the project. Advanced story research and initial scripting begin.

January/February 2002: C4 signs a formal contract, promising to carry 30% of the budget in exchange for all broadcast rights in the U.K. WTW negotiates an overdraft facility with Clydesdale Bank, underwritten by a personal guarantee from Graham.

Location scouting in Morocco begins. WTW settles on the northwest African country instead of Egypt for a variety of reasons, including security – the producers consider Morocco safer than Egypt, in light of the U.S.-led war on terror and strife in the Middle East – and because they need a less industrialized setting.

March 2002: WTW signs formal agreements with Granada, NDR and TLC. TLC agrees to foot 30% of the budget in exchange for all North American broadcast rights. TLC’s Klein explains that a major reason TLC

is joining the project is because the series offers the cablecaster an opportunity to expand its key branding definition – ‘Life Unscripted’ – beyond its lifestyle formats. The four stories in Ancient Egyptians present a worldview that is based on a remarkably similar value system, but with a twist.

Says Klein, ‘I was blown away by how similar [the stories] felt to my daily life. Sure, a lot has changed, but fundamentally, [in ancient Egypt] you still had a husband working out of the house, coming home…protecting his family and raising his children.’

April 2002: Bennett leaves TLC for the BBC. The project is unaffected by her departure.

May 2002: Scripting for Ancient Egyptians ends. After much back-and-forth over the drafts among Graham, WTW’s producer Goold, TLC ‘s Klein and NDR’s head of docs Volker Zielke, the stories and how they are to be conveyed is nailed down. The four episodes are: ‘The Battle of Megiddo’, ‘The Tomb Robber’s Tale’, ‘Murder in the Temple’ and ‘The Twins’ Tale’.

‘Megiddo’ recounts (mostly from a soldier’s perspective) Tuthmosis III’s 1457 b.c. war against Asian invaders, as recorded by a scribe. In ‘The Tomb Robber’s Tale’, an ordinary quarryman is the center of a show trial staged to hide a grave-robbing scandal in 1110 b.c. ‘Murder’ shows how a high-level power struggle has violent ramifications for a politically connected family in 663 b.c. And lastly, ‘The Twins’ Tale’ follows the struggle of two teenage girls as they try to escape poverty and family breakdown in 164 b.c.’None of these are stories you will read in academic books,’ notes C4 commissioning editor Charles Furneaux (who assumed oversight of the production on Ramsden’s departure in March 2003).

Additionally, the producers agree that the films will employ spoken Egyptian with subtitling (several of the sources include quotations from key figures), as well as narration that will provide the overarching story. Graham argues this element provides a you-are-there vibrancy that has worked in films such as Neanderthal and the French hit L’Odyssée de l’espèce. The clips including subtitled Egyptian are kept brief, usually less than 90 seconds.

It’s decided there will be a U.S.-narrated version and a U.K.-narrated version, to account for accent differences, as well as versions to suit the native languages of the other territories. ‘We wanted the narration to be as accessible as possible,’ notes TLC ‘s Klein, adding that the U.S. version has a less academic delivery than the British one.

July 2002: Principal photography wraps. The logistics of the shoot emphasizes the ambition behind it: 137 sets and locations are employed; key battle scenes include as many as 200 extras; and more than 1,000 costumes are specially made for the series. Observes Furneaux, ‘[The producers] have made great efforts to get all the bits and pieces right… It’s important the stories come across as authentic and authoritative factual dramas, instead of Ben Hur.’ Post-production special effects and editing begin.

TV Asahi withdraws from the project, unsatisfied with fewer, albeit longer, episodes. ‘They [basically] said, ‘This isn’t what was pitched to us’,’ recalls Mark Reynolds, who takes over from John Drury (now head of Top Notch Productions in London) as head of international factual programming for Granada International.

WTW, C4, TLC and NDR all take a hand in the rough-cut stage. TLC, for one, wants to ensure that ‘Megiddo’ offers ‘a balanced, honest representation of the battle – without being gratuitous,’ notes Klein.

September 2003: The finished series is delivered and the tie-in DVD is prepared. Cut from the master to mirror the program as broadcast in each territory, Egyptians‘ DVD will be marketed and distributed by regional affiliates of Warner Bros. Home Video.

October 2003: Ancient Egyptians launches at MIPCOM.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.