Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“As I get older I realise I absolutely love the Ancient Egyptian aesthetic,” says Gillian Mosely. “That’s the art I choose to collect. Maybe it’s a past life thing.” Reincarnated or not, her current life has certainly encompassed a wide variety of interests and passions.
Though Mosely was born in London, her parents emigrated to the States when she nine. While returning to the UK as a visitor over the years, it was only when she was 22 that she moved back to London full-time and started working as a freelance journalist, covering such disparate topics as the rave scene in Goa, martial arts and shamanism. A far more personal piece was her article on the Marchioness disaster – the catastrophe on the Thames in which the 1,800-ton dredger Bowbelle collided with a 90-ton pleasure steamer – from which she barely escaped alive. The official investigation concluded that the Marchioness was completely submerged just 30 seconds after the impact: 51 of 131 people on board died, including the host of birthday party being held on the boat and two of Gillian’s friends. “I had gone under and I’d started seeing stars, and literally started saying goodbye. And then I came back up in an air bubble and someone opened what turned out to be a door above my head”.
I first met Gillian many years ago in Fred’s bar, a hideout for artists avoiding the limelight of member’s clubs like the Groucho. It boasted one of the most celebrated cocktail makers in Soho, the sadly missed Dick Bradsell, and an eclectic mix of pop culture movers and shakers: Pete Burns, Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer, Depeche Mode and Siouxsie and the Banshees rubbed shoulders with club kids and budding talents like Hamish Bowles, David Collins and Mosely herself. Many of them were also regulars at the notorious Kinky Gerlinky and Taboo clubs. “Taboo was always my favourite. At this stage I was 17 and there was a huge posse of us that used to hang out together. I didn’t know who Leigh Bowery was at the time, so I just wandered up and started chatting to him. I think he might have just been charmed that somebody was so unconscious around him, and so we struck up a friendship!”
By the mid-1990s, Mosely wanted a change, and television presented itself as the next logical step. “The subjects I was covering as a print journalist weren’t necessarily the subjects I was most passionate about,” she says. “I wanted to do things like history and science.” She began pitching to television commissioners, and eventually an idea for Channel 4 was shortlisted. Her fascination with ancient Egypt, harking back to childhood and a brief spell studying the subject at University, led her to produce a series of documentaries on the subject for the BBC, fronted by Professor Joann Fletcher. While producing another series on Egyptian mysteries, the unusual prospect arose of actually mummifying someone. This germ of an idea transformed into a documentary that took nine and a half years to complete, going through five commissioning editors, three companies, several co-producers, and, last but not least, two potential subjects for mummification. “All of which,” she points out, “is unique in television history”.
Though initially rejected as too sensationalist, the project soon found development funding from Channel 4. The long gestation period it went through helped identify some genuine scientific questions that could potentially be unravelled by proceeding with the experiment, but it also revealed that the legal and moral knots involved would be as labyrinthine as an Egyptian tomb, since the living subject willing to be mummified – in this case a terminally ill patient – would have to consent to the filming, as would their family.
After responding to a newspaper advertisement placed by the production team, former taxi driver Alan Billis became the first person to be mummified using this technique in 3,000 years. In the end, Mummifying Alan ended up winning a BAFTA in the specialist factual category, along with a slew of other awards. It was a welcome validation of Mosely’s supposedly ‘sensationalist’ approach to bringing the past to life: “The thing that I feel is most important about history is that you need to contextualise it so people understand why it relates to them here and now”. It’s an ethos she has carried through the 19 films she has made about ancient Egypt over as many years, for the BBC, Channel 4, Discovery, National Geographic and others.
Her involvement in all things Egyptian extends further than television: she spent five years on the Committee of the Friends of the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. “It’s an underappreciated resource in Egyptology, right here in Bloomsbury. It’s full of rare and special things – everyday objects that give you an intimate portrait of life in ancient Egypt that you won’t get from anywhere else, other than perhaps the Cairo Museum.”
Witnessing Marylebone’s burgeoning gentrification 12 years ago, Gillian decided she needed to relocate to somewhere “more integrated, less homogenous, less relentlessly upmarket”, and she settled on Bloomsbury. Her home certainly reflects her passions: imagine the secret chambers of the Great Pyramid (one staircase lies under the watchful eye of a Pharaoh) mixed with Sir John Soane’s Museum and you’ll have some idea of its colourful, eccentric charm. For Mosely, Bloomsbury has been a fertile place where she’s forged strong personal and professional bonds; but it’s also an area whose rich history acts as a constant inspiration and where having the British Museum, University College London and Senate House Library on her doorstep has been invaluable for her work.
Bloomsbury is also host to medialab, a venture she started to advance her own vision of the future of media production. “Back in 2006-7 it was becoming obvious that making full-length programmes is fantastic and writing articles for magazines is fantastic, but really there should be a way to join everything up”. This concept of creating ‘joined-up’, 360-degree content has seen the company working across various media as it has evolved, as well as in partnership with other production houses, bringing together professionals with contrasting sets of experiences and knowledge. Upcoming projects include focus on contextualising important historical subjects, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or examining big themes, like the impact of technology on human lives. Mosely is also currently editing her first novel, which is set in London and also deals with the interface between humans and technology.
Gillian Mosely has never looked back since moving to Bloomsbury. She feels confident that the area is insulated against the gentrification that pushed her away from Marylebone: “You get this mad mixture of £4 million townhouses and a lot of council property, and what that means is that you get to live with everybody – which is just what I wanted!”