Watching The Detector(ists)


Prior to Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists going out on BBC4 the National Council for Metal Detecting (no me neither) came out fighting, with the Council’s general secretary, Trevor Austin, stating that “They approached us but we didn’t want to get involved in a comedy which would belittle detecting and make detectors look anorakish.” He went on, failing to notice that in doing so he was probably achieving more harm than good, by adding “Detectors are hobbyists. They don’t go out to make a fortune. Any serious metal detector knows there isn’t much money in it. And they don’t dig without getting a special licence and abiding by the rules.”

If he’s been watching (which I admit is unlikely given his statement above), I hope that by now (the final episode of this first series goes out on Thursday night) he’s realised that the programme is actually an enormously affectionate and beautifully filmed portrayal of a group of people (in this case largely people with x and y chromosomes) who have a passionate interest in something that’s just a little off the beaten track.

Mackenzie Crook responded to Austin’s claims by saying that “In this country we take the mickey out of any hobby that isn’t sport-related, we see them as anoraks or sad people with no friends. But detectorists have real expertise in archaeology and the fields they study.” Which reminded me of James Ward’s wonderful opening talk from this year’s Boring Conference in which he spoke about the disappointing differential in respect given for those whose hobbies are based around cars, music and football compared to those who have interests which are considered a deal more niche.

To be honest though, Detectorists isn’t really about the investigative activities of the fine people of the Danbury Metal Detecting Club, which is another reason why Trevor Austin was enormously wide of the mark with his criticism – you’ll understand if you’ve watched the programme and if you haven’t then I don’t suppose you’ll probably care (although I think you probably should).

So here’s to the rise of the hobbyists, the anoraks and the detectorists of this world (even those who take themselves a little too seriously) because without them life would be tremendously dull eh?

[If you do care (and you really really should) the theme, especially recorded by Johnny Flynn, is also a delight.]

6 Responses to “Watching The Detector(ists)”

  1. fine words sir. it was lovely telly

    • Wasn’t it just – haven’t met anyone who’s watched it and not fallen in love with it. Will be very disappointed later when I realise that it finished last week. Hey ho. DWx

  2. 3 Dennis Allison

    Well i’m going to stick my head over the parapet, and i say, as the only one apparently not keen on this program, that i thought it was very dull and boringly slow. I am a detectorist so there was initial interest, but i gave up 2 episodes in to the 2nd series. No laugh out loud moments at all, but watching repeats of Porridge proves my sense of humour is working.

    • Hello Dennis 🙂 You’re of course allowed not to enjoy the programme – but I think you’re so wrong! Admittedly it doesn’t motor along at any great speed, but to me that’s half the appeal. I still find Porridge enormously funny despite having watched it time and time again but they’re plainly very different beasts. Detectorists is a much a love letter to the English countryside as it is a comedy, which I thought might appeal to you – seems sadly not.

      Anyway I’m not nearly bright enough to explain so here’s a review from Peter Ross in the The Scottish Review which sums up how I feel exactly (maybe it’ll make you re-visit the programme):

      “I had hoped that there wouldn’t be a second series of ‘Detectorists’. Not because the first was bad. Quite the opposite. More in the spirit that it would be wrong to add even a single further note to ‘The Lark Ascending’. The six episodes broadcast last autumn constituted, for me, the best British sitcom since ‘The Office’, possibly better, and its concluding moments were pitch-perfect, a bittersweet unresolved chord; to move the story on, to resolve that chord, was to risk spoiling the whole.

      Well, I was right about the risk, but wrong to think that it wasn’t worth taking. ‘Detectorists’ still gleams in the gloaming.

      Mackenzie Crook writes and directs the show, and co-stars with Jones. They are Andy and Lance, two metal detectorists – please, please, never ‘detectors’ – who live humdrum lives in rural Essex, dreaming of Saxon hoards but unearthing, instead, ringpulls and rusty Matchbox cars. This series opened around a year after the first ended. Andy and his partner Becky (Rachael Stirling) had married and become parents. Lance, meanwhile, was in a bit of a slump, a brown study, drunkenly strumming sad songs to his ex-wife in a flat full of takeaway boxes and rumpled clothes.

      The theme of this series has been family, the way ties can tame you but also give life meaning. So we have seen Lance make contact with his long-lost daughter, and Andy fret over whether to move to Botswana with Becky and their son.

      Plot, though, is not really the point of ‘Detectorists’. It’s all about character and atmosphere. The word ‘gentle’, when used in relation to comedy, is usually pejorative. It brings to mind ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ and has become a synonym for ‘unfunny’. ‘Detectorists’, however, reclaims the whole idea of gentleness, even kindness, and puts those things at the heart of its aesthetic, its mood and the things it suggests are important.

      It is also beautiful. Again, not a word much applied to TV comedy, but the look of ‘Detectorists’ is central to its appeal. Denim skies, cotton clouds, corduroy fields. Bird song. Lens flare. The saughing breeze in the trees. Seeds blowing through the cidery late afternoon. This is sitcom as pastoral symphony, as folk ballad. Its antecedents and influences are not other shows. It sits more comfortably alongside the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or the novels of Thomas Hardy than it does anything else on television. There is, all the time, this feeling of an olde weird Englande rubbing up against the melancholy mundanities of the 21st century.

      Mostly, though, it’s about that unalloyed currency, friendship. The best moments are those tender, funny, quiet scenes between Lance and Andy, perhaps sitting beneath a dead tree, sharing a flask and a joke and a chat, say, about the previous evening’s quiz shows, each at ease in the other’s company. Crook and Jones have extraordinary faces, old beyond their years, but somehow callow, too, and it is a delight to watch the golden Essex light play across them.

      ‘My heart has followed, all my days, something I cannot name,’ said Lance in episode two, quoting the poet Don Marquis. That’s ‘Detectorists’ right there – a sweet ache of a story, in search of intangibles. Look out for the stand-alone Christmas special, but most of all do please watch the exquisite final episode (3 December, 10pm) which is set around the metal detecting club’s annual rally and the Dickens-themed school fête. Pure television gold.”

  3. 5 Dennis Allison

    Perhaps a new ‘Genre’ is needed to classify programs such as this. When i watch a comedy program i hope to laugh. Comedy is very subjective. Blue skies, cotton bud clouds etc, etc. are nice to look at but, to me, just not funny, just an incidental part of the program. Thank you for the review by Peter Ross. I watched last evenings Christmas Special and still found myself watching the clock. To me there is nothing outstanding and memorable about this program, nothing to make it stick in the mind and recall with affection. Think of Dads Army = Stupid Boy, Fools & Horses = One day we’ll be millionaires, Open all hours, = Ger Ger Granville, and so on, these make those shows recognisable, but of Detectorists, what will come to mind in future years? For me a truly funny and very well and cleverly written sit-com was ‘Watching’ by the late Jim Hitchmough. Over 50 episodes of sheer fun and humour that was there for the watching without the need,for me, to go looking for reasons to like it, it just entertained from start to finish. If Detectorists appeals then enjoy it, but it’s not for me. Regards.

  4. Ha! Well it appears I’m not going to convince you, but then I suspect if I have to try then it’s not going to happen anyway eh? As I said earlier I love Porridge, Dad’s Army and the earlier episodes of Only Fools and Horses (less so Open All Hours but such is life eh), so plainly we agree on some things (can’t recall Watching though). Intrigued that you’re concerned that it’s defined as a comedy – do you think you need catchphrases for a comedy to work well? And also that you believe that the shots of the Suffolk countryside are “an incidental part of the program” because I think they’re as important as the script and the actors. Anyways thanks for stopping by however wrong you are 🙂 DWx

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