[Lead Image: thePipeLine]
Mackenzie Crook channels William Blake and John le Carré in “detectorists” Christmas Special.
Since its screen debut in 2014 Mackenzie Crooks “Detectorists” has achieved the seemingly impossible in that it has united both the titular hobby metal detectorists and professional archaeologists who are often critical of uncontrolled metal detecting, in praise for what has been described as a “classic sitcom”, which Ben Dowell of The Times described as being “steeped in a gentle kindness that I hadn’t seen before”.
Having now gone through three series, and a previous seasonal special in 2015, the ensemble cast, led by writer/director Mackenzie Crook himself and Toby Jones as detectorists and best friends Andy and Lance, were reunited on Boxing Day in a 2022 Christmas Special which has been met with similar delight, with descriptions of the feature length programme ranging from “delightful” to the Guardian’s conclusion that “detectorists”, was a “precious sitcom” which “…beats all other Yuletide TV hands down.”
[The use of lower case is deliberate as that is how the programme itself is titled in the clean, unshowy, way which is typical of the style of the entire production.]
It is a fair comment.
Indeed, while the programme is not perfect, it can be criticised for perhaps trying to cram the plotline for an entire series into seventy five minutes, there is no question that it is beautifully written, shot, and acted by the regular ensemble cast. This time sadly without the late Diana Rigg who played Andy’s mother in law opposite her own daughter, Rachel Stirling, as Andy’s long suffering wife Becky.
Nonetheless, it is a measure of the quality of emotional truth of the programme that her absence is both noted in the script and telling in terms of the emotional truth which Crook and his actors place on screen. An emotional truth which like all classic sitcoms is the underlying strength of the series.
Yet there is a further truth underlying the success of Crook’s concept for detectorists, like the strata underlying the landscape upon which the programme is set and it is a simple one.
The emotional, truth expressed through the recurring characters and their carefully constructed backstories is the foundation for a quasi mystical relationship with a past, the physical remains of which is there to be picked up by metal detector or “eyes only”, in and around the fictional small town of Danebury, which lies in a liminal, rural landscape on the Essex, Suffolk border, somewhere near Colchester on the Greater Anglia line.
It is a regular motif that, as the members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club criss cross their permissions, at least for the audience, the intrusive electronic bleeps of the present, are layered with the sounds and images of the past, with the birds and animals of rural England acting as observers, and sometimes intermediaries, in what seems to be a deliberate nod in the direction of the animal lore derived from pre-Christian mythology and the Bardic tradition of Britain and Ireland.
In previous series that history and mysticism was often elusive, the streams of the past running through the landscape and onto the DMDC finds table, but transient as a Winterbourne, particularly when, at the beginning of the latest Special, the club loses out on a treasure reward because their permission had lapsed on a technicality.
However, in the new film, Mackenzie Crook takes that theme in a bold new direction, forging a direct relationship with perhaps the best known mystical evocation of rural England, and its Christian mythology, William Blake’s “Jerusalem”.
To say anymore would be the most spoiling of spoilers, suffice to say, in the final reveal, by way of a beautifully conceived montage, “detectorists” either proves what some of us have suspected for some time, which is that the exploits of Dr Indiana Jones are indeed fictional, or they take place on an alternative timeline in the multiverse.
But like the rural poetry of Ted Hughes, Mackenzie Crook introduces alongside the innocence and beauty of nature, ambiguity and darkness.
The ambiguity begins with the first drone shots of the Christmas Special as two cars approach each other on an isolated dirt road. Is this the Essex Boys meeting a dealer to finalise a drugs purchase, or Cold War spies exchanging state secrets at some Checkpoint Charlie east of Braintree?
The visual vocabulary of a film genre predicated on secrets and betrayal are being applied to metal detecting and the classic comedic odd couple of Andy and Lance who are meeting the owner of their new metal detecting permission to sign a search agreement.
We also soon find out that the village community hall where the metal detecting club meets is under threat from developers and that the club must raise the money to refurbish the building or the council will sell up.
All seems set for a classic, community in jeopardy, we must save the community hall/local railway/cinema/zoo plot.
Again, as the story unfolds, not quite.
Neither is all well at home. As the story begins Lance, who admits to being difficult to live with because of his hobbies and habits, is estranged from girlfriend Toni, while Andy’s school teacher wife Becky is trying for a headship she does not really want because it will pay more to support Andy and their son.
“There is no money in archaeology.” Andy says when Becky pleads for him to step up and get back to work to and support her.
“There’s no money in doing fuck all either!” she responds with justifiable anger.
How many archaeologists with a partner who is in another, better paid, line of work and thus is the main bread winner in a relationship, found, this scene almost impossible to watch?
Adding to the power of the scene viewers who have followed detectorists from the beginning will remember also that during series three, first broadcast in 2017, Andy, the qualified archaeologist who is also a metal detectorists, became disillusioned with professional archaeology and walked off a developer funded site after the site supervisor told him to ignore a Roman mosaic because to dig and record it would delay the developer.
Many archaeologists can tell similar stories from the real world, but it takes sitcom to share the archaeological sector’s elephant in the room with a wider audience. We don’t see this issue discussed on “Digging For Britain.”
Meanwhile, Lance is becoming possessive and borderline obsessive about the new permission which is yielding Saxon finds of the type and quantity suggestive of a lost battlefield.
But along with the finds are early clues that the plot may be developing in an altogether more challenging direction.
Lance responds to finding an attractive, and complete, small pot, by saying he is not interested in “crockery” and wants to find metal.
He also tries to persuade Andy not to report what they have found to “the beards” [archaeologists] and ultimately, after finding a gold mount with an embossed Latin inscription, he not only keeps the news of the find to himself, lying to Andy that he has merely found a lump of lead.
He is later seen in his flat, hunched over the artefact lit by an angle poise magnifier, looking like a twenty-first century Gollum gloating over his “precious”.
This has to be deliberate on two levels. Not just as an allusion to Tolkien’s character who, corrupted by gold, turns to evil in spite of himself, but because anyone who has ever been involved in investigating #HeritageCrime will be familiar with the concept of the “Gollum Box”.
The box, cupboard or other hiding place where the collector/thief hides their most valued material.
Adding to the sense that he is heading off the rails and about to go full Leominster hoard illegal, in another allusion to spy films, Lance requests a rendezvous in the pub and tries to hand over the artefact, by now hidden in a briefcase, for girlfriend Toni to look after.
Not for the first time it is the women in detectorists who save the day, and save the men from themselves, as Toni persuades Lance that he needs to row back on his actions before it is too late, thus precipitating the third act and, on the face of it, a happy conclusion to the main plot.
Meanwhile, the message is clear. Obsessing about gold and finding artefacts can distort character, destroy relationships, and even tempt an individual down the path towards crime and moral self destruction.
It can also strip away a carefully constructed emotional façade to reveal the raw interior of a personality.
In the course of his attempts to manipulate the situation Lance refers to archaeologists collectively by a shockingly homophobic slur, straight out of a routine by the late Bernard Manning, or a 1970’s sitcom. A line which appears totally out of place in what we have become used to as the gentle, modern, even “woke”, social construct of the DMDC.
In fact in the way the scene is shot, played and contextualised by Crook, with the vicious sarcasm of the line delivered by Toby Jones being followed immediately by two quick reactions shots showing best friend Andy, and DMDC member Russell, expressing shock at what they have just heard, makes clear that this is in no sense a laugh line as it would have been forty years ago.
Lance is shown to have transgressed in an especially ugly way, particularly as, regular viewers will know, two of the DMDC’s stalwarts, Louise and Varde, are long established as a Lesbian couple.
There may be an explanation for this overtly more challenging presentation of one of “detectorists” principal characters.
Since “detectorists” made its debut in 2014 we have seen an increasing number of high profile prosecutions of thieves who used metal detectors to recover artefacts for personal profit. Hence has it become more difficult for the series to sustain an entirely positive image of male bonding across a Nox, within a rural idyll, East of Ambridge and, whereas in a previous series transgressions came from outside the club, this time the threat is from within.
The villain of the story is one of its central characters and above the title stars.
The result is not just a brave piece of writing, and implicit vote of confidence in the actors, especially Toby Jones, to bring it off. It is a more rounded depiction of the moral risks of metal detecting.
It is also brave because this is not the message about metal detecting which advocates for the hobby want to promote. After all, for them, it is all about the history, and citizen archaeology. It is never about “the shiny” and the money.
However, neither does the Portable Antiquities Scheme escape implicit criticism. Echoing the complaints of many detectorists about long waiting times in the real world, when Andy hands over a find to be researched by the PAS, Lance responds derisively,
“It will be months before you see it again too.”
Eventually though the plot plays out following via an episode of the kind of classic farce against the clock which has been a staple of film comedy since the days of Buster Keaton, and a cameo from Professor Alice Roberts, which in less subtle hands than Mackenzie Crook’s would have seen an awkward dialogue between the real and fictional protagonists.
Options are also left open for another visit to the DMDC on another Christmas.
But there is also one final trail of breadcrumbs which Mackenzie Crook has laid throughout the story.
That is that the pristine permission, the “ten acres of pay dirt,” which, according to Farmer Kevin, has never before been detected, has in fact been visited previously by at least one metal detectorist without permission. Perhaps even visited by one of the leading characters?
As well as in the poetry of Ted Hughes, there are also precedents for using and even subverting, a bucolic world and folk idiom in the British broadcast comedy tradition which Mackenzie Crook appears to draw on, even if subconsciously.
In the late 1960’s comic actor Kenneth Williams created a character called Rambling Syd Rumpo for the radio comedy “Round the Horne.” On the surface Syd was a traditional folk singer of the type seen at the local folk club, finger in the ear, supporting Euan McColl. However, in the hands of writers Marty Feldman and Barry Took the most bucolic folk song of chaste love and yearning, as published by the English Folk Song and Dance Society, became a hilariously filthy subversion of the 9pm Watershed and Reithian principles.
One of the words Took and Feldman delighted in using in their nonsense lyrics was “artefacts” which was given a leering verbal spin which took it some distance from the academic monograph, or site report.
Another favourite example of verbal camouflage was “nadgers”, the origin of which is lost in the mists of time, service slang and efforts by the members of the Goons, and others, to subvert BBC censorship in the 1950’s, but the meaning of which does not require reference to the OED.
Like Took, Feldman and Rambling Syd, in the 2022 Christmas Special of “Detectortists” writer/director Mackenzie Crook has once again delivered an apparently bucolic parable of our times, but if you are in on the jokes, and the back stories which Crook is referencing, you soon see it is a parable which also harbours a sharp kick to the nadgers of both archaeologists and metal detectorists.
Indeed, had Mackenzie Crook not chosen once again to use the theme written and sung by singer songwriter Johnny Flynn, then Rambling Syd had another number which perfectly caught the mood of the Detectorists 2022 Christmas Special.
Appropriately enough it was first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1967 and it ended,
“Brightly shone their artefacts,
Red their possets glowing,
He knew not from whence they came,
(adopts nudge nudge wink wink accent)
But ‘e knew where they were going!“
Happy New Year!
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