Detectorists: A Quintessentially English Comedy

“Anything?”
“Fuck all.”

The opening dialogue of Detectorists is an expression of matter of fact disdain, which belies the deep passion Andy (Mackenzie Crook*) and Lance (Toby Jones) have for their hobby; in this case, metal detecting. Every philatelist, train spotter, bird watcher, pigeon fancier, weekend woodworker and, well, insert your hobby here ….. knows how it feels. You can’t explain it. You try, but the blank expressions prove you’re not getting through. You love what you do, and that’s all there is to it. Rewards? Very rare, but intensely satisfying; a penny black, a GW Moghul, a Green Winged Teal or that perfectly tight hand-cut dovetail will mean nothing to those around you but, inside, you’ll be doing the dance. The “gold dance” Andy and Lance strive for, as they sift through the mud and bracken of fictitious Danebury, in northern Essex, for that once in a lifetime find, is much the same.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Detectorists after that initial exchange between the protagonists, the sumptuous pure folk of its theme song and the intriguing introduction of the female stranger. A gentle charm flows through, and one can feel the kind of warmth normally reserved for well-worn slippers, the fireside, a faithful canine companion and a brandy nightcap on a dark winter’s evening. The carefully considered writing, stunning photography and beautifully understated performances transport the viewer to an England anyone with sense would want to live in; a place where life doesn’t do you much in the way of harm. Pain, anguish, anxiety and loss are transient, solely controlled by the environment and quintessential Englishness.

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Mackenzie Crook’s tour de force follows the general rules of sitcom delivery, with an expected ensemble of disparate, yet intrinsically communal, characters acting out thematically driven dialogue toward a punchline. Where Detectorists diverges from the usual sitcom formula is in its overarching plot and delicate sub-plots. Furthermore, adding moments of breathtaking revelation (such as Sheila’s talk of loss or Verde’s silence breaking speech) can catch the viewer off-guard, leaving the viewer in tears of both joy and empathy. However, the single most ingenious thing about Crook’s direction is his use of subtle physical or behavioural tics (I have watched the club meeting scene, in the first episode of the third season, several times and each time I’ve found another hidden gem).

I can’t be entirely sure why Detectorists took the hold on me it did; it just did. It’s a wonderfully realised and intelligent televisual work, which has awoken my instilled rectitude and made me dissatisfied with life, damn it.  Perhaps it’s because I can relate to Lance so profoundly. Middle-age, marriage failure and attempts to satisfy the crises (I think that’s the plural of crisis. Whatever, I’ve had loads) culminate in one last hobby, and a strong desire to pursue it into my final third at a gentler pace; at peace with the world around me.

*Also the show’s writer and director.

Lee's Dad and occasional detractor/podcast guest.