Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers for Episode 1 of Series Three of the BBC 4 series, “Detectorists”
Having navigated successfully that notoriously difficult second series, the third, and apparently final, series of Mackenzie Crook’s deceptively bucolic vision of metal detecting in East Anglia, “Detectorists”, has made its debut on BBC4 and it is clear from the beginning that series creator, writer and director, Crook is not resting on the plaudits and awards garnered by the first two incarnations of the adventures of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (DMDC).
Like all the best ensemble sit coms, from “Dad’s Army” and “Porridge”, through “Blackadder” to “Gavin and Stacy”, “Fresh Meat” and the “Inbetweeners”, BAFTA winning “Detectorists” is character driven and in this first episode neither of the two leading characters are in a good place. Lance, the always understated, always compelling, Toby Jones, is sharing his flat with his long lost daughter, whose domestic habits are of the semi house trained variety and are driving the devoted, but fastidious, Lance to distraction. Meanwhile Mackenzie Crook’s Andy is house sharing with his Mother-in-Law, Lady Olenna Tyrell, oh alright, Diana Rigg, who plays the mother of Andy’s wife Becks, played her real life daughter Rachael Stirling. So tight is this particular family unit that Andy confesses that he has taken to vaping outside, just to find some space.
So far so consistent with the previous two series. “Detectorists” has always been built around a strong story arc and an emotional truth, and here the situations and relationships the two friends find themselves in follow on directly from the previous series. However, there are signs in this first episode that what Mackenzie Crook is attempting is something far more ambitious than simply producing a warm sit com tale to while away six half hour episodes as Winter draws in across Britain. A Britain where working people like Andy and Lance, their friends and families, have been hammered by ten years of austerity and divided by the fall out from the Brexit referendum. This is the human comedy for our times, with added metal detecting.
The first signs of this development comes when Lance and Andy comment that they are afraid of losing the field where they have permission to metal detect because it is becoming more difficult to get new permissions. It has been a mark of “Detectorists” that Crook does his research and you only have to look at metal detecting forums and Facebook groups to sense the fear expressed by Lance and Andy is a reflection of the current state of metal detecting in Britain. In many areas a combination of fields stripped of finds, farmers who are more savvy about the finances of metal detecting, and companies buying up the rights to whole farms to hold large scale metal detecting rallies, are perceived to be bringing about a tailing off traditional permissions. Especially those for the individuals and small local clubs who were the grass roots which built the hobby.
Next Andy, who qualified as an archaeologist in a previous series, finds himself working on a commercial excavation. We already know how much he and wife Beck’s need him to work, because they are saving up to buy a house, so there is real jeopardy when, suspecting he has identified some buried archaeology, Andy realises with horror that is not what he is there to do. The site manager suggests that he moves to work on another part of the site and the clear sub-text is that commercial archaeology sometimes fails deliberately to identify archaeology which would inconvenience the client.
Although many archaeologists will be able to point to variations of that experience, for professional archaeologists the fact that Crook can place such a take on current commercial archaeology on screen, as the scene setting representation of professional developer funded archaeology, should be profoundly disturbing. Crook seems to be suggesting that by becoming so close to developers archaeology has lost its heart. A view reinforced when Andy says desperately “I thought you had to be passionate to be an archaeologist.” yet, he observes, the site manager is “dead behind the eyes.” The question is clear: will Andy’s ideals [and his marriage] survive the series?
Again, the really sad thing is that, in private at least, many archaeologists would agree with this thesis, at least in part, and this depressing take on the profession will become worse if, in the course of this series, the villains are not the nighthawking Dirt Sharks and Peter the plane robber, of Series One and Two, but commercial archaeologists who only care about their client’s and therefore their own, bottom line.
However, it is in the last few minutes of the programme that the full extent of Crook’s ambition becomes apparent.
As the episode draws to a close an earlier joke at the expense of shy Hugh of the DMDC, who claims two Victorian coins found in the same field are his first hoard, is revisited with a beautifully atmospheric impression of the deposition of a genuine late Roman coin hoard.
Under the timeless gaze of some magical realist Magpies, this scene then morphs into nothing less than a representation of site formation in the English countryside and the danger ploughing represents to buried archaeology, all set against a haunting musical setting of the folk poem “One for Sorrow, ” which ends of course with the line “Seven for a secret never to be told.”
Like the search for Saxon jewel of Series One and Two, time is mutable with the past there in the present and the hoard is out there for Andy and Lance to find. However, the question is, will they get the chance to even look when their permission is set to become a solar farm and the commercial archaeologists seem not to want to find archaeology which will inconvenience their client?
No series is perfect, and for a series as well researched as this is, the use of “elf and safety” to indicate the site manager is a jobsworth was lazy. Andy would know that, for an archaeologist, wearing full PPE on a building site is not negotiable. However, ultimately, as well as being gently funny, “Detectorists” is also laying down the dramatic foundations to become nothing much less than an exploration of the state of the nation. It is not just that we have young people living with their parents, and a young couple with a baby forced to live with a parent while trying desperately to save for a mortgage on the low wage of a jobbing archaeologist on the commercial circuit. This is a series which also just happens to want to explore what the state of our archaeology and our attitudes to the past say about us.
Indeed, it can be seen as a sit com for a nation where it seems that for many a construct of the past is a place to escape to, or even to try to recreate.
It is also a sit com for that same nation where one of the most iconic monuments in the world, Stonehenge, can be put at risk in the eyes of many by a proposed road development and tunnel. A development which is supported by significant numbers of archaeologists and pragmatic archaeological companies and organisations.
In alluding to these issues Mackenzie Crook’s series is including more debate about the nature of metal detecting and the motivations of at least some of the people who undertake it, and about the state of commercial archaeology and at least some of the people who undertake it, than you will find in much of the mainstream archaeological and heritage media in the UK. Media which too often presents the real world Lance and Andy’s simplistically as either the people’s auxiliaries battling for archaeology and reporting it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, or divides along tribal lines of archaeology “good” and metal detecting “bad”. That includes the BBC’s own magazine programme, “Dig for Britain,” soon to appear for its latest season, also on BBC4.
“Dig for Britain,” is a programme where much of the content comes from developer funded archaeology, or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but it is a programme where the metal detectorists never dig out a hoard and keep it at home for a few days while they work out what to do with it, and the archaeologists never meet commercial deadlines by leaving parts of the site unsampled, or by machining through archaeological strata to get at the Medieval/Saxon/Roman layers, and they certainly never bid low to get the contract with the result that short cuts are taken with the Post Ex’ and publication.
As Sir Mortimer Wheeler said most famously, “Archaeology is digging up people.” and one of the reasons “Detectorists” works so well is that we care about the people who remain at the center of it as they perform their human comedy in the present and the past. Ultimately Mackenzie Crook and his team seem to be saying that this is something all archaeologists, and detectorists, forget at their peril.
Series Three of “Detectorists” is showing on BBC 4 on Wednesday nights at 22.00 and is available on the BBC i-Player.
Series One and Two are available on DVD and on some streaming services including Netflix in the UK.
A Box Set of all three series plus the 2016 Christmas Special is scheduled for release in the UK on 18 December 2017.