Tutankhamun's Max Irons shares his first impressions of co-star Sam Neill

Max Irons as Carter and Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon in Tutankhamun.

Max Irons as Carter and Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon in Tutankhamun.

It is a true "boy's own" story of discovery, riches and success against the odds that has delighted people for almost 100 years.

Now the tale of archaeologist Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is brought to life in a new drama starring Max Irons as Carter and Sam Neill as his backer, Lord Carnarvon.

While his fellow archaeologists believed Egypt's much-plundered Valley Of The Kings, had yielded all its hidden secrets, Carter remained convinced there was a royal tomb waiting to be found – that of the little-known boy king Tutankhamun.

Max Irons on the scorching set of Tutankhamun.

Max Irons on the scorching set of Tutankhamun.

His insistence marked him as something of a social outcast and no one was willing to financially back him, until a chance meeting with Lord Carnarvon, who had faith. Together they joined forces to unearth the greatest marvel the world had seen.

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"When I first read the script I fell slightly in love with it because it reminded me of the sort of stories that I read as a kid," says Irons, who starred in the film The Riot Club and TV series The White Queen.

Kiwi Actor Sam Neill says Lord Carnarvon's passion is much like his own love of wine.

Kiwi Actor Sam Neill says Lord Carnarvon's passion is much like his own love of wine.

"You don't really hear or read about that kind of grand, romantic adventure these days. And that particular period in history is so golden and magnificent.

"I think Carter and Carnarvon had a very profound relationship over the years.

"I'm sure that Carnarvon found Carter infuriating at times, as everybody did, because he was stubborn and single-minded."

The drama was filmed in South Africa and the scorching heat and scary wildlife was a trial for the cast and crew.

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"It was mind-blowingly hot," says Irons, 31. "We were in a beautiful valley so there was no wind, just scorching heat. On the first day they had to bring in a load of extra trailers because dozens and dozens of people were passing out.

"And then there was the threat of scorpions and jumping spiders. Spiders that jump – I don't know if I can think of a worse thing.

"I can't figure it out. They don't jump to protect themselves. If you walk past, they see you coming and they jump on you."

There was also the historic 'curse of Tutankhamun' playing on people's minds, rumoured to bring dire punishment to anyone who disturbs a Pharaoh's tomb.

The curse was blamed for the mosquito bite that infected Lord Carnarvon and led to his death, along with several other bizarre and mysterious incidents.

"We didn't have any deaths but Amy Wren (Carnarvon's daughter, Lady Evelyn) was bitten by a spider, quite seriously," says Max. "But she recovered incredibly fast."

Irons, the son of actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, was delighted to be working with New Zealand actor Sam Neill, even though he was once rude about his voice as a child.

"It was pretty special working with him," says Irons of Neill. "He is one of the funniest men in the world. My mother is an actress and when I went to boarding school I was quite home sick and so she used to call me every now and then.

"One day, when I was about 10, she called from Australia where she was working with Sam Neill, and asked if I wanted to speak to him.

"I said, 'OK' and she put him on the line and he said hello and asked how I was and then when he passed me back to mother I said, 'That man has the most boring voice in the world'.

"But I can now say that he doesn't have a boring voice. He has got one of the best voices. I told him the story and he gave me one of his smiles."

For his part, Neill enjoyed working with Irons.

"I know both his parents and he is a lovely fellow – very well brought up and a very good actor," Neill says.

"I found Carnarvon interesting and liked him. He was in Egypt at the time for health reasons. He had a bad leg and the heat suited him.

"So he found himself in Egypt with no particular interest in archaeology but then became increasingly intrigued by what was going on because it was all the rage at that time. Everyone was looking for tombs and he got caught up in it.

"It's a bit like me and my wine-making business. I've been drinking it for half a century but discovering wine in a profound sense and growing wine has been the extraordinary discovery for me."

Tutankhamun, Prime, starts Tuesday December 13.

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 - TV Guide

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