Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, just when everything’s at its most wretched and pointless, the universe will shift slightly, put this thing together with that other thing, and suddenly deliver something you weren’t expecting, had never even considered, but which, now it’s there in front of you, strikes you as so right, so inevitable and so mysteriously preordained you can’t help thinking – maybe things aren’t that bad. I mean, we live in a world with all that other stuff going on, of course,yes. But also a world where there’s still the possibility of something like this.
It can be a face, a landscape, a record. But I got that rare feeling most recently during the opening seconds of Detectorists, as I realised that, somehow, I had never before even contemplated that there might be a sitcom starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as a pair of men with metal detectors, wandering muttering through empty fields in the morning sun; and in the same moment understood that, of course: it had to happen, and of course it would be tremendous.
Academic work has probably been attempted on what makes the ideal comedy double act – equations dissecting Stan and Ollie, Eric and Ernie, Vladimir and Estragon, Pete and Dud, Vic and Bob – but whatever it is, Crook and Jones have it. Put them together, and they just look funny, in both senses of the phrase. Crook is like a scarecrow drawn by a pirate, Jones like a turnip made of gnomes. A lonely field is their ideal setting, and, even if Detectorists consisted of nothing but scenes of them shuffling a few steps, heads bent to the earth as they sweep their machines, straining to catch a blip in their headphones, then stopping to dig, being disappointed about what they find, and shuffling on again, it would be worth watching.
And, in fact, a lot of Detectorists is just that same splendid sequence, over and over again. If there is a catchphrase, it is “What you got?” – the nervous, hopeful, slightly jealous question that this pair, Andy (Crook) and Lance (Jones), call repeatedly back and forth whenever one of their detectors pings and the trowel comes out.
But the series, written and directed by Crook, has much more going on, albeit quietly. For one thing, there’s the constant, chummy, jibing banter the duo share. For another, there is a pair of rival detectorists who look like Simon and Garfunkel, hiding in the long grass. And for another, there’s a gentle but determined probing of the psychology that can drive us obsessively into our hobbies, the way we wrap ourselves in things to blot out the world and make the time pass, while we’re waiting to stumble over the pot of gold we must surely find one day.
Crook binds this all up with a great feel for relationships, between Andy and Lance, between Andy and his partner, Becky (the infallible Rachael Stirling), and between Andy, Lance and Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a bright young student who turns up in their field one day, suspiciously interested in them.
More surprising, though, is his visual sense as director, layering in strange silent gags (by day, Andy works a series of menial jobs whose physical aspects – pushing floor cleaners and lawnmowers – all mirror his metal detecting choreography) and displaying an unshowy, folksy, and quite rapturous feel for the British landscape. There hasn’t been a British TV series as much about place, space, light, air, trees, grass, birds, skies, bunnies fields and furrows in a long, long time. Above all, Detectorists just looks great, and feels lovely to be inside. It is a gem, covered in dirt – a strange little thing, and strangely beautiful.
Published in The Sunday Herald, September 28, 2014