REVIEW: “detectorists” BBC4

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In 2008 the creators of “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes”,  tried to turn archaeology into prime time drama with the action packed, credulity stretching epic of testosterone and New Age pseudo archaeology, which was “Bonekickers” [Mammoth Screen Ltd and Monastic Productions for the BBC].  That series was met by a combination of incredulity, hilarity and derision by the archaeological profession, not least because no-one could ever remember using the term bonekickers.    Even the short lived fun to be had guessing which organisations and eminent members of the profession were being alluded to in the characters of Wessex University and its team of Gillian Magwilde, Gregory “Dolly” Parton and Professor Daniel Mastiff, was not nearly so enjoyable as the legendary “Time Team Drinking Game” [ http://www.assemblage.group.shef.ac.uk/4/4drink.html ].  Now men wearing army surplus combat gear who dig holes in the ground are back on our TV screens, this time in Mackenzie Crook’s “detectorists” [Channel X and Lola Entertainment for BBC 4 ] which has just begun a six episode run and the result is a lot more successful.

Written and directed by Crook, who also plays the joint leading character, detectorist Andy, and filmed on location in widescreen HD, there is a gloss and expansiveness about the series which serves only to emphasise the programme’s essential sadness and elegaic quality.  This is situation comedy  with an unusual and well drawn situation, but relatively little laugh out loud comedy.  In that it owes much to the trend setting series where Mackenzie Crook made his name as the slightly sinister, rather pathetic and not very bright TA wannabe Gareth; “The Office”.  “Detectorists” has much of the same quality of flawed, essentially decent characters,  attempting to make relationships and follow dreams of transcending class and education against the odds as Ricky Gervase and Tony Marchant’s classic.

In “The Office” Dawn wanted to be an artist, but was trapped as the receptionist in a provincial office supply company, while hapless, emotionally illiterate boss David Brent saw himself as a thrusting management guru and entertainer.  In “detectorists” Andy [Crook] temps as a cleaner, but aspires to be a professional archaeologist [that has to be a first in TV drama] even attempting to walk the ethical walk dividing archaeologists from many real world metal detectorists when he says

“I don’t sell my finds, I don’t agree with it.  When I am a qualified archaeologist that’s when I get to see the good stuff.”

Forklift driving divorcee Lance [Toby Jones] whose personal; tragedy is that his wife ran off with the manager of the local Pizza Hut, disagrees with the no sales policy.  Lance even puts detected ring pulls on the “interweb” because “Someone will buy this shit.”  Run a search on E-bay using the term “metal detector finds” and you will see how well Crook has done his research.

But of course “detectorists” was created in a post Staffordshire Hoard world and the maguffin Crook has set up to drive the narrative for the characters of Lance and Andy is the search for a Saxon Hoard, “the Holy Grail of Treasure Hunting.”

“We’re going to strike Gold soon and then we’ll be rich.” Andy tells teacher girlfriend Becks [Rachael Stirling] . In what is probably the first recorded example of the use of a classic archaeological  text for erotic purposes she purrs

“You’re my Lord Canarvon.  You’re my Howard Carter.  You’re going to discover the Valley of the Kings.”

“What in Essex…”

“Can you see anything?” she asks as Andy looks down her top

“Wonderful things.” replies Crook/Andy as the director cuts away.

It is funny, knowing, grown up writing, affectionately played.

The other star of the series is the English Countryside.  Enhanced by a contemporary folk score by Johnny Flynne and Dan Michaelson, the Countryside is a place where magical things can happen and magical creatures, in the form of attractive young history students, can be encountered.  It is a place where Andy and Lance can escape mundane reality, and relationships which may be turning stale, to follow their dreams.  However, dreamers beware because the spirit of the Wicker man is also abroad in the shape of mad farmer Bishop who warns “Stay out of the paddock on Birchwood Road!”  It is a line in the tradition of Stella Gibbon’s “something nasty in the wood shed” and one suspects there will be more revelations from Farmer Bishop’s own Cold Comfort Farm as the storyline unfolds.

It was recently announced that Toby Jones is to take on the mantle of portraying a national treasure,  Captain Mainwaring in the cinema re-make of “Dad’s Army”.  One of the reasons “Dad’s Army” has been such an enduring success is the fact that underneath the bumptiousness and bluster, class ridden attitudes, and general incompetence of the Sitcom incarnation of the British male, is a sense of decency and an underlying sadness at opportunities denied and missed and of time running out.  The overall impression left by Mackenzie Crook’s series is that wandering across a field waiting for a bleep which will turn into that “holy grail of metal detecting” is also essentially a metaphor.  Metal detecting becomes one of any number displacement activities from train spotting to the Bake Off, each offering at least some sense of personal fulfillment, maybe some human contact with other people who understand you and at best a fairy story ending.  In the past working class men would hope to make the grade as professional footballers, boxers or pop stars to buy their way out of low wages and spirit sapping routine.  In the case of the detectorists it is a Saxon Hoard which lies at the end of the rainbow bridge.

Such a sensitive presentation will not satisfy the archaeologists who would see all metal detectorists portrayed as horned plunderers of the past, trailing fumes of Sulphur as they pass.  Neither I suspect will Crook’s series please many real world metal detectorists who will see their hobby portrayed as a faction ridden, refuge for obsessives, wannabe’s and never were’s.  The series will certainly not do much for the sales of army surplus DPM.  Except perhaps among the archaeologists and detectorists who would buy it anyway.   But that really should not worry either group.  The series is actually about what it is like to be a male member of what used to be called the working class  in a post industrial, low wage economy, trying to find some meaning in your life and your relationships.  Detectorists is a gently played, beautifully shot metaphor, not a debate about the virtues and vices of metal detecting and the Portable Antiquities Scheme and that is how it should be.  In fact, on the strength of the first two episodes “detectorists” has the potential to make the score Archae’s 1, Detectorists 2 by winning a second series.

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