Detectorists returned to BBC4 last week and, says Hannah Dunleavy, remains as golden as a Saxon treasure horde.
Has there been a more gorgeous sight on television this year than Mackenzie Crook swinging a metal detector in a muddy Essex field?
It’s as unlikely a statement as I will probably ever make, even if those scenes are shot like The Virgin Suicides and scored by Johnny Flynn’s impossibly lovely theme tune. What can I say? Like so much of Detectorists, I can’t explain it, it just works for me.
Detectorists is all those things I’ve come to roll my eyes about in comedy – gentle (yeesh), middle aged and male. It’s also about metal detecting. And yet, it is, without doubt, the most charming, warm and wonderful way to spend half an hour in front of the TV.
Written and directed by Crook and already a BAFTA winner and BBC4’s most watched sitcom, the second series picks up a year later. While some stuff has changed, Andy (Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) remain on the same mission: to find the final resting place of Sexred and its associated wonders. Or, as Lance describes it, “finding junk and talking bollocks.”
“The pair’s reasons for wanting to unearth a horde are many; money, kudos, a general sense of achievement, but what it boils down to is that they think it will change their lives.”
I’ve seen it argued that the series could be about any number of repetitive, solitary hobbies, like trainspotting or fishing. Indeed, it follows that fine comedy tradition of respectfully mocking the eccentric – despite all his “this could be the next Sutton Hoo”, Lance is also a man with the necessary stock and will to put together a display entitled Ringpulls Throughout the Ages.
Crook originally said the idea for the series came to him while watching Time Team, but later found a notebook from 1999 in which he’d written an idea about two men searching for treasure. And, for me, that’s the key to Detectorists’ appeal. The pair’s reasons for wanting to unearth a horde are many; money, kudos, a general sense of achievement, but what it boils down to is that they think it will change their lives. No one ever did that catching a fish.
It makes the lead pairing exceptionally sympathetic despite their obvious shortcomings, of which they are refreshingly aware. And it gives their dreary mornings in damp fields an air of genuine romance, particularly as we are now privy to some information that they are not.
In fact, Detectorists’ focus on folklore and the earth has a whiff of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, in which Crook, along with his co-star here, Aimee Ffion Edwards, starred in the West End and on Broadway. Both tie the England of heroes and legends to the present through the land they are standing on, and both manage to be categorically English without the unpleasant association that often comes with that idea.
Detectorists is doing a lot of other things right of course. Jones is as brilliant as I’ve come to expect from him and the supporting cast of obsessives and bemused onlookers is excellent. I don’t know who Sophie Thompson is basing Sheila on but I really want to meet her.
It’s also shot like a drama – finding the space to let moments sit and even indulges its lead characters a soliloquy (of sorts) or two. While it might not have the LOL count of something like Catastrophe, it makes up for it with soul. Besides, who can’t love something that bemoans “nostalgia conventions ain’t what they used to be.”
Detectorists is on BBC4, Thursdays, 10pm2857 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.