Comfort Classic: Detectorists

Comfort Classic: Detectorists

Wednesday, 1st February 2023
Odd couple: Mackenzie Crook (left) and Toby Jones in Detectorists (Credit: BBC)
Odd couple: Mackenzie Crook (left) and Toby Jones in Detectorists (Credit: BBC)
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Steve Clarke celebrates a tender, humane comedy that really cares about its characters and their imperfect lives.

From The Likely Lads to Men Behaving Badly, British comedy has long mined male friendship for its comic potential. In 2014, BBC Four’s Detectorists delivered a new and unexpected take on the relationship between a couple of blokes. It upended what used to be a pretty macho world to give audiences something completely different.

“It was the relationship between two middle-aged men that I wanted to explore as the basis of everything,” the show’s creator, Mackenzie Crook, said at the time. As an actor, he had already thrilled audiences playing alongside Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s exhilarating Jerusalem at London’s Royal Court theatre. He had also been to ­Hollywood to do Pirates of the Caribbean and starred in BBC Two’s The Office.

Crucially, with their ruminations on a dying England that is forever threatened by “progress” and pollution, Jerusalem and Detectorists have a lot more in common than Crook’s more famous screen outings.

One of the simple joys of Detectorists – and there are many – is its close-ups of the natural world – bees and other threatened species abound.

But I digress. Crook takes up the story: “The first thing I wrote was bits of dialogue about two blokes out in a field, just talking rubbish. It was only then that I came to the idea of hobbies.”

In theory, a comedy about two guys metal-detecting in rural Essex sounds about as exciting as Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer, but don’t be deceived. Detectorists appears to be filmed in eternal summer, an idealised version of pastoral England. The show is shot in the quiet, discreetly rolling landscape of East Suffolk, in and around Framlingham, a charming town famous for its ruined medieval castle and a church containing outstanding Tudor tombs.

As for the writing and characters, don’t expect to be blown away, at least not at first. Once this slow, subversive show eases its way into your consciousness, there is no turning back.

Our less-than-dynamic duo are Andy (played by Crook) and the lugubrious Lance, performed by the incomparable and highly versatile Toby Jones. Both are oddballs struggling to make their way in the modern world. Their hangdog, elastic faces suggest comic possibilities that are off limits to more conventionally handsome actors. Hugh Grant or George Clooney they are not.

Don’t be misled – while they may not be everyone’s idea of a pin-up, the army-surplus fatigue-wearing pair can be as sharp-witted as any Shakespearian fools.

In an episode in series three (which kicks off by parodying The Apprentice), they are seen chewing the fat in one of their favourite places, under an oak tree. They discuss who they would like to invite to a fantasy dinner party. Jesus and Stephen Fry are ruled out because they are ubiquitous fantasy dinner guests. The jury is out on the Dalai Lama and Kurt Cobain.

If their professional lives are disappointing (Andy is variously an agency worker, an archaeologist and unemployed, and Lance works as a forklift driver at a vegetable-packing company), back home things aren’t exactly a bowl of cherries. Andy’s partner may be the rather lovely Becky (Rachael Stirling) but, for much of the time, Andy prefers metal-detecting to matrimony.

Put-upon Lance’s home life is a disaster area: at first, he is tormented by his ex-wife, Maggie (who runs a crystal shop with her conspicuously handsome new partner), and later, by his untidy daughter, who moves back into his flat.

Throughout, the tone is tender and bittersweet. The recent Christmas special was one of 2022’s television highlights and a reminder of what a singularly rare treat Detectorists is. And I haven’t even mentioned the haunting music written and performed by Johnny Flynn, itself redolent of a bucolic England.

Detectorists is available on BBC iPlayer.