It probably was not deliberate so much as an accident of scheduling, but for scholars of Anglo Saxon England and the stitch-nazi wing of reenactor world, the best joke in tonight’s opener for the second series of Mackenzie Crook’s “Detectorists” came in the dramatic pre-credit sequence. Immediately following the cliffhanging, or rather cagehanging, ending to BBC2’s new blockbusting “Game of Thrones” lite historical epic “The Last Kingdom” [lite because there is not quite so much graphic nudity, sex and violence that is], anyone switching across to BBC4 saw a Saxon monk wrapping up a bible and what looked like the iconic Alfred jewel, before fleeing into the thundery night and burying the hoard next to a standing stone as four horsemen in eleventh century armour galloped in for the kill. The joke being that the costumes and set in the pre credits set up of the new comedy were substantially more historically accurate than the big budget sets and costumes of the BBC’s flagship adaptation of Bernard Cornwall’s novels. To the annoyance of historical purists “The Last Kingdom” seems to have been afflicted by a desperate need to colour coordinate the protagonists and to give one side unhistorical rectangular shields in case anyone in the audience has trouble telling their ninth century Danes from their Saxons. Even worse for some, hero Uhtred has been given the kind of sword that would not look out of place in an episode of Xena Warrior Princess, or on the wall of a particularly down market martial arts gym. Of course, knowing their Early Medieval material culture as well as they do, the anti heroes of detectorists, Andy and Lance, would be equally annoyed at this apparent lack of historical verisimilitude as they bicker and chat while criss crossing the fields of Essex, in search of that life changing beep which signals a phone call to the local Finds Liaison Officer, a documentary on Nat Geo and a treasure award. As it is, having missed this treasure as they also managed to miss the treasure find we saw buried on Bishops Farm at the end of the first series, they will have to settle for criticising the “knobs” of contestants who grandstand on “University Challenge” and finding tufty club badges to display on the finds table at the meetings of the DMDC, the Danebury Metal Detecting Club. A group of detectorists who to judge by the somewhat sparse exhibition on the finds table are barely capable of hoovering the lounge, let alone hoovering up the past and would be appalled if any of their number turned up on night vision candid camera, ransacking a scheduled site.
In fact there are no problems of inappropriately designed weaponry in “Detectorists”. Second series are alway difficult, especially you have to follow up on a BAFTA Award winning, surprise hit of last Autumn. However, based on tonight’s first episode of the new run, the metal detecting kit and the military surplus/Millets chic clothes are still spot on and it looks very much as though Mackenzie Crook and his team have sensibly kept the same formula which made the first series so winning. They have presented a beautifully shot, sensitively acted, gently satirical look, less at the hobby of metal detecting and more at the utter failure of certain incarnations of the British male to engage with reality for large stretches of adulthood. Of course, in this kind of character driven story the characters have to live and breathe and we have moved on in time from the last series. The Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the DMDC, the hapless Lance [an always watchable Toby Jones] and aspiring archaeologist Andy [Mackenzie Crook himself stepping in front of the camera], have left Bishop’s Farm and the invisible dogs, for pastures new. Divorcee Lance appears to have lost some more of the will to live, or more exactly even the will to cook a curry for his best friend, a bonding moment in the first series, but hope is on the horizon with a tentative hint of a venture into the world of dating. Meanwhile Andy is still trying to find work to help support teacher and now wife Becky and new arrival baby Stanley. As the series opens Andy has sublimated the discipline and sense of worth of going to work to support his family into trying to get young Stanley to eat and sleep at set times, even when out in the field detecting. His situation has forced Andy to become the personification of a new man while at the same time rendering him a sad man for the audience; his creativity and sense of self frustrated by a lack of saleable skills to offer his employment agency. For both Andy and Lance, metal detecting is an escape into a world of promise, however distant. The bucolic outdoor version of that other escape route, the lottery ticket and with the odds stacked just as much against a life changing success.
What might be in this series has also been neatly set up for the next five episodes. There are hints of domestic stresses to come, with Becky going out after work with “gay Martin” who is not gay at all and who she says she does not fancy as she smiles hidden by the fridge door. There is also the barely concealed contempt of Becky’s mother Veronica at Andy’s attempt to turn fatherhood into a timetable and at his failure to find work. Metal detecting, “useful” she says with enough ice to sink the Titanic. Meanwhile all is not well either on the metal detecting front. The programme has a grasp of the ritual behaviour of detectorists as the DMDC is looking for a field where they can hold the annual rally the Edwardian rubbish dump where they do have a permission is just not good enough because it is full of rubbish, with no chance of finding gold and who would turn up to a rally where there is no chance of finding gold? However, a find of a very different nature is in the offing as handsome young German Peter has turned up driving a Volkswagen camper, in search of his missing Grandfather and the JU88 bomber in which he was shot down in 1941. As that plotline develops we may find out just how good Mackenzie Crook’s research has been as the DMDC should know that any attempt to dig up a military aircraft in the UK requires a licence from the Ministry of Defence and they are not normally granted where missing aircrew are believed to be present. The series trailer [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7NCQ-k-3S0] also promises a taste of the paranoia, jealousies and feuding, so characteristic of the real world of metal detecting, with the reappearance of “Art” and “Paul”, the treacherous, pompous and officious ‘AntiquiSearchers,’ from Series One, who have rebranded as a crack unit of “elite detectorists” calling themselves “the Dirt Sharks”. Fortunately we can’t imagine who such obnoxiously hilarious and pretentious characters might be based on. Equally fortunately we also seem to have been spared the nude charity calender, with the members of the DMDC voting never to take of their clothes in front of each other. We can save that one for “The Archers” where Linda Snell is currently casting the Ambridge production of “Calendar Girls”.
In the end the real point of that opening historical sequence was to show the priceless Saxon jewel in the ground next to the now fallen standing stone and then for the camera to pull back to see our two metal detecting heroes completely fail to find it and walk away. That one sequence superbly encapsulates the entire essence of “Detectorists”. It is not an agitprop debate about the ethics of metal detecting and nor should it be. This is a series about working class male friendship, among people who happen to have a hobby which has become a substitute both for the kind of work which is no longer available in zero hours Britain and for the sapping disappointments in life and love which makes the occasional moments of hope, warmth and mutual affection that much more telling. In that way it is a worthy successor to the series which first brought Mackenzie Crook to the notice of TV audiences, Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant’s “The Office”. A comedic slow burn which does not fizz with US style zingers, but which does give you time to get to know and to like the characters, even when they are being satirised. It is a mark of that effectiveness and ambition of “Detectorists” that while “The Last Kingdom” seems to have pitched at the “Game of Thrones” audience, which cynics would type as predominantly teenage alpha males lacking a girlfriend, Detectorists is a family show, but a family show for grown ups. Coincidentally, continuing the family theme, “Detectorists” has actually bagged one of the [for now at least] surviving “Game of Thrones” cast. Andy’s mother in law is played by the Queen of Thorns, Lady Olenna Tyrell, herself, Diana Rigg who also just happens to be the real life mother of Andy’s screen wife Becky, actor Rachael Sterling.
“Valar Morghulis” or “All men must die” as they say so fatalistically in Westeros; but before you die you can always go detecting, as they say in Essex. And while we think about it, the Vikings in that recent episode of Dr Who with “Game of Thrones’ ” Maisie Williams, were portrayed more accurately than in “the Last Kingdom”.