How to begin, with a series that defies easy description. One could just say that this is perhaps the most endearing series ever produced by BBC4, but that might not encourage you sufficiently if you haven't already seen Detectorists
. Maybe you were put off when the first season appeared in 2014, thinking that the categorisation of 'comedy' seemed a strange definition of a programme that appeared to be about metal detecting. Or, that it looked like a documentary about geeks who go out in anoraks with funny looking equipment and headphones and hope to find treasure.
Another potential put-off could have been that you took one look at the cast, with its stars Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook, and all you can remember is the scarecrow-like figure of Crook in scenes from The Office
or Worzel Gummidge
. But, remind yourself that Mackenzie Crook is one of the UK's finest actors, appearing with Mark Rylance in London and on Broadway in the Olivier-winning Jez Butterworth play, Jerusalem
. Also, there is the BAFTA that Toby Jones won in 2018 for his role in Detectorists
, among the many plaudits that have come his way as a character actor.
Put this together and an intriguing picture appears. There have been three seasons of Detectorists
(plus a Christmas special), the latest in 2017, but a one-off special is coming later this year. Behind it, as writer and director, is Mackenzie Crook, who won a BAFTA specifically for the writing in 2015, and the writing is the reason – along with the simply wonderful cast – that Detectorists
Once upon a time in a beautiful English county of fields and trees and birdsong (north Essex, but filmed in Suffolk) there lived two great friends, approaching middle age, Lance (Jones) and Andy (Crook), whose passion is metal detecting, making them detectorists (a metal detector is a machine not a person). Like all good fairy stories there is a quest: to discover something beautiful beneath the earth, a link to those who also walked these fields centuries ago.
Naturally, there is a dragon, which here takes the form of two blokes from a rival metal detecting club (the Dirt Sharks), who bear an uncanny resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel. There is a running gag throughout Detectorists
linked to their songs, jokes which Crook and Jones execute with perfect comic timing. There is also a lovely damsel, in some distress, Becky (Rachel Stirling, plus, for good measure – maybe a queen – her real mother, Diana Rigg, playing her screen mother). The Court consists of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, its president, and former policeman, Terry (Gerard Horan), with his wife Sheila (Sophie Thompson), altogether a half dozen members who all have their seats at the round table, or, in this case, the finds table at the weekly meetings.
is about searching, and in each half-hour episode something is found, but not necessarily from underground. The revelations are discoveries about the characters themselves; the real detecting here concerns friendships, love, loss and life. If usually all they find are old ring-pulls and discarded farm implements in the metal detecting, what the watching audience finds, through the story of the lives of those in the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, is an intelligent and sympathetic depiction of what makes us all human.
is remarkable for the dialogue: witty, sharp and so natural in that spoken by the characters that everything is believable through and through. Andy and Lance take a break from detecting (they both do have other work) and eat their lunch under a tree, discussing Mastermind
. Of course they would. Conversations may be left dangling, and even the silence – the expression, the sideways glance – is as meaningful as sound.
Pub quiz night is a good vehicle for a comic scene; an open mic night is an opportunity for friends to support each other. The comedy is never overdone; expectations of the usual pratfall take unusual turns. Laughter is always with the characters, except the Dirt Sharks. They definitely bear the brunt of much deserved ridicule. However, that dragon does sometimes show its teeth.
Andy and Becky, who love each other very much, but struggle with the direction of their relationship, each have their strengths. Becky, a teacher, would like a real adventure – maybe VSO in Africa – but Andy, an archaeologist (almost qualified) clings to caution. Lance really needs to realise that his ex-wife is taking him for a ride (everyone else can see it). Discovering an unknown relation opens a huge window for him in Season Two, with mixed results. Terry and Sheila are a slightly older pair, a source of laughter, and at the same time conveying devotion, an equal measure of both. Others in the DMDC weave in and out of the story.
Thus the tale takes the form of three coinciding circles: the friendship of Andy and Lance on days out detecting is sometimes the cause of resentment from Becky; the relationship of Becky and Andy; the DMDC. As these circles spin and overlap, the audience learns their stories. Lance, often the philosopher, feels that what he is detecting for is not really the gold – though that would be marvellous – but the connection, to the past, to others. And that is what this series gives to its audience: a connection, a sense of being on the same quest, laughing sometimes, empathising always.
Other dragons encountered are: an unexploded bomb; the possibility of solar panels on the fields where they are detecting; the arrival of a detectorist from Germany whose credentials are highly suspicious; a farmer who may or may not have murdered and buried his wife in the field; and possibly a corrupt construction firm who would rather not know that a major archaeological find is about to be unearthed right where they are planning to build a development.
Underlying this tale of life's quest, creating the most beautiful backdrop, is cinematography that depicts the land lovingly in all its seasons, with both distance and close-ups, views and details. It too creates a sense of connection, of belonging to the here and now, but also to the long distant and deep past of England's history. This is much enhanced by the theme, and music throughout, by Johnny Flynn. Detectorists
defies description. How do you define magic?