WARNING: Contains spoilers!
First broadcast in 2014, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle comedy ran for three seasons. It won two BAFTAs and inspired a loyal cult following
Why is Detectorists so good?
The Detectorists was so subtle, I missed the point at first.
My dad’s TV recommendations don’t always thrill me. Lupin? Bang on. Spiral? Sorry, Dad, couldn’t get through episode one. He loves his murder mysteries, whereas I’m more in the sci-fi camp with my mum. If he tells me about a show more than three times, I feel obliged to at least check it out. Detectorists sounded fairly harmless, by his standards. Hopefully fewer dead prostitutes than his usual recommendations.
Laughs were promised. And they were there…sort of. Not belly laughs. I found myself gently snorting on two occasions. To be honest, it reminded me of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. The scenery, the geeky camaraderie. All very British. “Do you like it?”, asked Emily as the credits rolled. “Yeah, it’s ok”, I replied, commandeering the remote. “I think there’s a new episode of ‘Homeland’ though.”
Fast forward to lockdown number two. In the snowy depths of the grimmest January in living memory, laughs were in short supply. Our frazzled nervous systems were no match for the horrors of the daily news. We needed something gentle.
We committed to the Detectorists. And slowly became entranced with a vision of Britishness that felt like coming home.
Much has been made of the technical aspects of Detectorists, and rightly so. The cinematography of Jamie Cairney and Mattias Nyberg turns the raw ingredients of the Suffolk countryside into a visual banquet. When confronted with such rolling scenes of pastoral beauty, the desire of the show’s main characters, Andy and Lance, to spend their every waking moment exploring the fields is understandable.
The music of alt-folk singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn provides another hook to engage the senses, and provides strong evidence of some pretty bold production choices, behind the scenes.
“So, Johnny Flynn’s doing the music.”
“Awesome! Does that mean we’ll have a soundtrack album for tie-in purposes?”
“No, he’s just doing one song. We’ll have the first four lines of that song, playing in every episode, over and over again, for three whole seasons.”
If you ever needed evidence of why we still need programmes commissioned by the BBC, this musical choice should suffice. On a lesser show, this level of repetition would drive most viewers into paroxysms of irritation. Here the repetition works (in cahoots with the glorious visuals of the British countryside) to hypnotic and soothing effect. Mackenzie Crook described the song as ‘almost another character in the show’.
Yet the show’s greatest strength lies in Mackenzie Crook’s writing. The Detectorists is a masterpiece of understatement, a heartfelt homage to the Great British Reserve.
Understatement is classy. Understatement takes absence – of emphasis, of exposition, of drama – and turns it into an asset. It’s the sly art of what’s left unsaid.
It’s also rooted in the kind of psychology that underpins a lot of good educational practice. By leaving informational gaps, the audience is encouraged to make predictions and hypothesise about what happened. When their predictions are proved accurate, they enjoy the intellectual satisfaction of being proved right. This increases their investment in the show.
There are two key moments where we can see the extent to which ‘Detectorists’ is defined by understatement – the Africa trip and the Saxon gold. These are big plot points. They are crucial to the development of the central characters. In any other programme, they would be celebrated onscreen. We’d see Andy and Becky at the airport, or Andy and Lance at the British Museum.
Instead, ‘Detectorists’ does the most British thing imaginable. It doesn’t make a fuss. Life goes on. We pick up where we left off, back in the field. The excitement’s over. We’ve had a cup of tea. The life-changing events and glorious achievements are mentioned in passing, if at all.
I was confused, at first. Really? That’s it? No African adventure? No earth-shattering historical revelations? Conditioned by cliff-hangers and the crash-bang-wallop of US dramas, I felt a bit cheated. Why weren’t they showing me the good stuff?
Because it’s the Detectorists, that’s why. It’s a programme about blokes in a nice field, digging up ring pulls. That’s the good stuff.
The discovery of the Saxon gold is treated for what it is – a really lucky thing that happened. Andy and Lance don’t suddenly become detectorist superstars or celebrities. They just keep digging.
Once you start to realise how integral understatement is to ‘Detectorists’, you can see why the whole thing hangs together so perfectly. Nowhere is this understatement better personified than Varde, the taciturn detectorist who speaks once in the entire show, only to be interrupted by Terry, the leader of the Detectorists’ unobtrusively diverse Danebury Metal Detecting Club. In keeping with the continual references by club members to Varde’s (allegedly) chatty disposition, Terry shuts her down with “Alright Varde, let someone else get a word in.”
Mackenzie Crook acknowledged his debt to an older, gentler British culture in interviews, paying tribute to the sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s. “They were very uncynical and there was no cruelty in them, and I was sort of hearkening back to them. I wanted to see if a sitcom could be done without this awkward, painful humour that is so prevalent these days.”
Is Detectorists coming back?
It could well be. Despite a fairly hectic schedule full of blockbuster movies and Worzel Gummidge reboots, Crook confessed his desire to rekindle the Detectorists on Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 show in December, 2020.
‘It’s true, I am kind of thinking of it but I don’t have any idea at the moment.
I’m just starting the process of thinking “Yeah, we should get the old band back together – one last time!”’
Is there another modern TV show that you think manages to capture these quintessential English qualities? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.