Every so often there’s a television series comes along which is captivating for its ability to portray reality, generate humour and somehow create the magical alchemy that allows you to be taken out of yourself like the best fantasy. The Detectorists, ( Series 1 and Series 2 are both available on DVD while Series 3 is now airing on Acorn TV), is one of the best shows around right now for the way in which it manages to combine all those elements to create one of the most whimsical and genuinely lovely shows to be seen on television in a long time.
Written and directed by co-star, Mackenzie Crook, the show trails around behind two metal detectorists as they go about scouring farmer’s fields in Eastern England looking for treasure and as they go about their lives. Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Crook) are two guys in search of something, whether an elusive treasure hoard out of England’s past or some sort of permanence in their personal lives.
While initially it seems their lives revolve around their metal detecting, we soon see they have lives beyond the fields they scour for treasure. When we meet them in Series 1 Lance is still pining for his ex-wife who left him for the manager of a Pizza Hut while Andy lives with his girl friend Becky (Rachel Stirling). Andy is currently working temp jobs to help pay the bills while he finishes his archeology degree and Lance works as a fork lift driver in a fruit and vegetable distribution centre.
As Lance puts it to someone, metal detectoring is their chance to escape from the day to day drudgery of the world. At first we might not understand that, for what could be interesting about wandering farmer’s fields turning up endless pieces of junk in the hopes you’ll one day find something of value. However, as the show progresses through the first season and on into the second and third, we begin to see the attraction.
First of all there’s the simple fact of companionship. Lance and Andy talk about, as they put it, utter bollocks. Quiz shows and the odd deaths of fellow detectorists around England (struck by lightening, blown off a cliff when the wind caught their clothing) seem to be the focus of their conversations. However, every so often one of them will drop a nugget of truth which resonates with such force it’s actually stunning. Nothing major, but the simple truths that make the world an easier place to live in.
Like the show Crook’s scripts are deceptively simple. Only by stepping back and realizing how wonderfully they depict the lives of the people in the show, how the humour seems to arise spontaneously out of their actions without any effort on anyone’s part, do you realize how masterful they are. Like the great British and American playwrights Harold Pinter and David Mamet respectively, Crook has an ear for the cadences of speech and the idiosyncrasies of conversation that enables him to bring them to life in all their glory and ridiculousness.
However, the true magic in all three series is how they combine all the elements of television into making each episode pure magic. From the opening theme song sung by Johnny Flynn to the cinematography used to capture the beauty of the character’s surroundings when they are out detectoring we are gradually swept up into something magical.
In both the second and third seasons they also include sequences which depict the history of the area the detectorists are scanning. The third season’s montage, it comes at the end of the first episode, is especially beautiful as it slowly morphs the fields through the ages, from Roman times to the present, as seen through the eyes of magpies accompanied by the song “Magpie” sung by The Unthanks. It has to be some of the most beautiful filming I’ve seen on a television show.
If you buy the DVDs of the first two seasons you’ll also find some great bonus features. The first season comes with a twenty minute feature about how the series came together, while the second season comes with not only a making of an episode feature, but a bonus Christmas episode.
The Detectorists is one of the best examples of how less is indeed more. Hardly anything happens, yet it brings a whole world to life. The acting is exemplary, the scripts are amazing, and the cinematography is some of the best you’ll see on television. What more could you ask for?