Nobody turns to Thomas Hardy for light entertainment. For all its power and beauty, sorrow and suffering were central to the Victorian writer’s work. His novels recount futile and often-tragic struggles against oppressive social mores, while in his poetry, he turned time and again to the theme of the thwarted heart.
The closest we get to a joke with Hardy is by mistake; that would be the macabre and scarcely believable tale of the cat that ate his heart when the doctor charged with removing the deceased writer’s organ was called away before finishing the job. Hardy had requested his heart be laid to rest in Dorset, and his wish was granted, though a fair chunk of it remained in the cat that shared his grave.
Curious, then that Mackenzie Crook, creator of the BBC’s cherished sit-com Detectorists should find himself labelled ‘the Thomas Hardy of sitcom writers.’ Crook, self-effacing to a fault, seems appropriately bemused by a tag he has earned accidentally. Having mentioned in passing to The Guardian the vague hope that Detectorists was the sort of thing that Hardy might have appreciated, the association has stuck. While he sees the joke, he’d surely be too modest to admit there’s a kernel of truth to the compliment.
In recent years we’ve come to expect the highest standards from the best television shows. If one thing characterizes the modern viewing experience, regardless of genre, it’s that we love paying attention. Attentiveness reaps dividends, and the smart show is built on this premise. In an interview for The New York Times early in 2022, actor and creator Bob Odenkirk, bidding farewell to Better Call Saul, reflected on the singular strength of its parent show, Breaking Bad. He observed that Breaking Bad had demonstrated to the audience the value of watching something closely. Odenkirk and Breaking Bad director Vince Gilligan took this principle to heart when they turned their attention to the character of Saul Goodman, upping the ante with a prequel that you must watch ‘very closely’.
Creator and fan alike internalized the lesson, and the ongoing synergy between the two yielded an astonishing result, if never quite astonishing enough for the judges. Over the course of six seasons, Better Call Saul expanded into a work that might once have found its way to us in the form of the ‘great American novel’ so rich is its tapestry. Along the way, it garnered zero Emmys despite its 46 nominations.
No matter. Better Call Saul is television you can read. It respected its audience. For all its treats, the Easter eggs and references, not one single detail existed purely for its own sake or, worse, to titillate. When Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) returns to the Albuquerque courthouse she once graced to make the deposition that both shames and potentially criminalizes her she snatches her parking ticket from an automated booth on which the camera’s gaze lingers as she drives off. Mike Ermantraut (Jonathan Banks), the man replaced by the ticket machine, may be long forgotten to the city’s municipal authorities but not to the close observer, who alone might see in the concrete lot a cold memorial to a character whose ultimate fate haunts the scene.
Meanwhile, a world away in rural Essex, Detectorists goes a step further, presenting a story that not only rewards close attention but is also about close attention. The two shows appear to have little in common beyond their rich levels of detail. True, there’s much to be found beneath the soil on both sides of the Atlantic. Detectorists’ Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook) turn up a lot of ‘late 20th-century pocket drop’ in the fields of Essex. Ring-pulls, diecast toys, and pound coins far outweigh the occasional treasure. Over in New Mexico, it’s dead bodies, dollar bills, and high-end assault weaponry that emerge from the desert sands.
Detectorists distinguishes itself with its lack of cynicism, something that will never be said of Breaking Bad or its prequel. In that respect, it fulfills Crook’s guiding aspiration for the show. It’s a kind of hymn for the hobbyist, a dedication to those who turn from the vagaries of the world to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their passions. That pivotal hobby could easily be interchangeable, as Crook admits – fishing or mudlarking might easily have served the show’s purpose, though the elegance of the title would have been lost. ‘Mudlarkers’ or ‘Anglers’ doesn’t quite have that ring, and a 200-pound carp, while hefty, certainly doesn’t have the dramatic allure of Detectorists‘ ever-elusive Holy Grail.
Crook had a point, but he seems to have landed on the most appropriate pursuit all the same. Threading throughout Detectorists is the pleasure of the search, metal detector in hand. It’s the eternal pursuit of gold and something else besides – something the daily grind can’t offer. Lance puts his finger on it even as his metal detector fails him, pausing in the Essex mud to declare that ‘my heart has followed all my days – something I cannot name,’ much to Andy’s quiet astonishment. Lance is quoting verse, not Thomas Hardy but Don Marquis, the American newspaperman and humourist whose work encompassed poetry, drama, and philosophy. Hardy might have been proud of the line, but Marquis would surely have loved the show.
Lance, Andy, and the other members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club put ‘coils to the soil’ in the search for gold, but Crook adjusts his settings and broadens his scope, mining, in turn, the eccentricities of male identity and friendship, the struggle to balance defining enthusiasms with the demands of family and work, and the promise of a life lived to an alternate rhythm – far, you might say, from the madding crowd. Andy’s temp jobs, from hoovering empty hospital corridors to spraying roadside weedkiller, serve as a satisfying visual echo to the viewer. For him, perhaps, his hobby is an unacknowledged subconscious reminder of what he knows he ought to be doing, following his heart with a metal detector in hand. Professional satisfaction finally presents itself to Andy in the form of an archaeological posting to Botswana. His passion as an amateur ‘detectorist’ supersedes his natural caution, and the 40-year-old without a CV takes the job offered unseen and online.
In the years since its first broadcast, the show has become something of a consolation to the viewer, as Toby Jones has noted. In the UK, a pandemic and national lockdown left millions of us more closely wedded to our sofas and screens than ever as the distance between loved ones – or anyone – inflated with disconcerting suddenness. Detectorists became a welcome window of green for the housebound viewer already discombobulated in a terminally urbanized and digitized landscape. If rural programming has become a hit for the BBC – and the success of shows like Country File and Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer’s Gone Fishing suggest it has – then there’s a simple reason for it. Viewers love television that gives them scenes of the countryside because it’s often the only way they can see it.
Detectorists‘ comforts are many. The simple presence of a tree. Talking nonsense with a mate. The answers to last night’s QI (Quite Interesting series) or University Challenge. Pubs. These are lifelines to a kind of Englishness that seems forever in danger of evaporating but endures for as long as we carry them with us. Terrifying lemonade, jamborees, and church halls, farmers who stir their tea with the nearest screwdriver to hand. And, of course, Endland’s landscape – captured in a way that Constable, never mind Hardy, would have approved of. This ‘Englishness’ that Crook celebrates in Detectorists is indefinable – and perhaps the largest part of Englishness is its indefinability – but it informs his work with understated, resolute patience and inclusivity. You sense it won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
Each season of Detectorists is deftly wrought. As sub-plots intertwine across a six-episode arc, we’re wrong-footed by betrayals, red herrings, and unexpected alliances. A climax is often undercut by the gravity of anti-climax. Life goes on, gold or not, and the audience returns. Repeat viewing becomes its own reward with Detectorists; strata of previously unnoticed detail reveal themselves as we sift through what we thought we already knew – not unlike an archaeological dig.
Beneath it all lies the bedrock of the show, its dialogue. There’s precious little action to speak of – the closest we get is a chase between a car and a moped on a country lane that remains respectfully within the speed limit at all times – and the show moves along at a similar pace, one foot in front of the other with a metal detector in hand, in the finely observed exchanges epitomized best by the duologues between Lance and Andy.
Crook maintains a deliberately unfussy and essentially non-dramatic tone throughout. The script evolved from snippets of conversation he jotted down at intervals and serves as much as a series of observations about life as it does to advance the plot. The result is a kind of ‘Tao of Detectorists’, a common-sense response to the demands of the humdrum. There’s plenty of pithy advice, particularly from Lance, from how to drink tea – without sugar, it’s ‘just vegetable soup’ – to what’s reasonable to expect from partners struggling to understand the impulse to re-alphabetize our record collections.
Detectorists throws its arms around the local and the cosmic; it’s small and immense at once, as The LA Times noted. How much truer to life can a show be? After all, we live in both reality and the imaginary. It breathes and reminds the viewer to do likewise; plenty of us have forgotten how. It takes its time and has an innate confidence in the space it allows. After a season or two of Detectorists, you can no longer trust someone who doesn’t get it.
The importance of noticing, of putting a name to things, was impressed upon the young Crook by his father. Crook Sr. left the city he grew up in for suburbia to raise his kids, swapping north London for the green belt and sidestepping, perhaps, the pitfalls of the rat race. Crook recalled his father quoting from the legendary BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in an article he wrote for the Countryside Charity. Reggie Perrin is a middle-aged middle manager driven to distraction and increasingly erratic behavior by the deadening futility of his job at Sunshine Desserts. Based, tellingly, on a novel called The Death of Reginald Perrin, it is untypically dark for 1970s midweek viewing, though maybe not as dark as it would have been had its creators held sway.
Perrin’s mordant monologues, perfectly delivered by a tightly wound Leonard Rossiter, are its hallmark and are doubtless committed to memory by many a thwarted commuter at the time. His lament that his tombstone would say that he didn’t know the names of the birds and the flowers, ‘but knew all the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein’, left its mark on Crook Sr. and, in turn, his son.
Growing up within a bike ride of the River Darent in rural Kent, Crook soon knew the names of the things that mattered – crayfish, bullheads, and kingfishers. Things that matter even more now that their numbers are threatened by the diminishment and pollution of their natural habitats. Little wonder then that Crook so effectively marries his learned attentiveness with the concerns he and the audience share for the environment. The grammar of his visual language is pastoral; each episode of Detectorists is punctuated with shots more readily associated with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The flora and fauna of Suffolk – standing in for Essex – are given their due in turn. Crook established this template from day one, instructing his camera crew to be on the alert for moths, toads, or whatever they may chance upon.
As the cast share screen time with foxes and magpies, the context of Detectorists grows, and the canvas is immeasurably enriched. Something bigger and more lasting comes into view, a continuity that stretches beyond the lives of the protagonists. When a find is threatened by thieving magpies, Lance wonders aloud whether they might be possessed of a kind of shared intelligence or folk memory – a thesis that, in time, would appear to be borne out by events. Several episodes are bookended by cold openings that point to the origins of the treasures our detectorists seek. These serve as reminders that, in Crook’s words, ‘every field in England has been trodden or inhabited before.’
We are, all of us, just passing through – but that’s as philosophical as Crook gets. He clearly feels it’s ‘okay to admit you’re English’, and sensibly declines to drape anything more overt across his stories. There’s no need. An innate and modest wisdom runs through them. Change is inevitable; the ‘permissions’ once granted to Lance and Andy are sold off to a large concern to develop large-scale solar power. Andy loses his mother-in-law and must try to become the money maker and provider she doubted he could be. Lance finds love and the daughter he thought he’d lost. The Danebury Metal Detecting Club save the scout hunt and they put the kettle on. People carry on growing their collections. So do the magpies.
Detectorists has ended now, destined to be buried treasure. Lance’s yellow TR-7 has been auctioned off for charity and Crook, cautious of creating new material without a justifiable reason for doing so, has hung up the detector. Three seasons and two specials can now take their place, complete and unspoiled, in our own collections. When revisiting them, we’ll treasure an un-showy grandeur their creator would never claim. We’ll never know if Detectorists would have made Thomas Hardy laugh, but he’d surely have heard its hymn to an England he would recognize. Crook’s vague hope for the Country is not misplaced.