Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Antecedents Of The Detectorists

yes that is the great Toby Jones with Mackenzie Crook
Mackenzie Crook's new(ish) BBC show The Detectorists initially appears to come from a toxic legacy. When I first heard about it I was uncomfortably reminded of the long running BBC 1 comedy Last of the Summer Wine which no one of my generation ever willingly watched. However back in the days of 3 channels in the 1970's you had very little choice between Summer Wine, an awful Bob Monkhouse gameshow on ITV and some Open University programme about vulcanism on BBC 2. Summer Wine seemed to be on every Sunday night for decades just after the doleful Songs of Praise and pretty thin gruel it was too. It was basically about 3 old blokes who acted like kids in rural Yorkshire. Beautifully shot on location in Holmfirth in the West Riding, Summer Wine was a comedy of friendship, class and manners with a style of humour so broad that it could only have appealed to the demographic who enjoyed music hall in the 1930's. 
The Detectorists is set in Essex and is about two blokes who are part-time amateur treasure hunters. As the title suggests they use their metal detectors to look for gold or silver but usually only ever find Coke can ring pulls and pennies. Like Summer Wine The Detectorists is a rural, gentle, comedy of friendship, class and manners but its antecedents lie pretty far from Summer Wine. Mackenzie Crook first came to the public's attention playing Gareth in Ricky Gervais's The Office and his deadpan brilliance was often the comic heart of the show. The Office drew on many comedic traditions: the silliness of the Pythons & Spike Milligan but also the satirical work of Beyond The Fringe and especially the dry irony of The Larry Sanders Show and what Chris Morris was doing on Channel 4 in the 1990s. After The Office Crook then went on to do notable stage work, appearing in the first production of my favourite play of the last five years: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. Jerusalem explores what Englishness actually means today (if it means anything at all) and in a very funny way clashes together such diverse elements as: Samuel Beckett, Roald Dahl, Pete & Dud, George Orwell, William Blake & Chris Morris again. 
Mackenzie Crook has taken all of these antecedents for The Detectorists and thrown in a healthy dose of the Ealing comedies and Michael Powell too, especially the early classic films I Know Where I'm Going, A Canterbury Tale and A Matter Of Life And Death. Gentle, patient and filmed in a dreamy sunlit Essex & Suffolk of rolling wheat and barley and rape seed fields The Detectorists is funny but more than that it's very sweet (not however cloyingly sweet). I think I was perhaps the only person in the world who was disappointed when he learned that Trainspotting wasn't actually about train spotting. I like shows about geeks, nerds, weird hobbyists & outsiders. Trainspotting was - yawn - about heroin addicts. We've seen a million movies about junkies. Junkies are boring narcissists. Real life trainspotters are fascinating. Why do they do it? What do they hope to get out of it? What drives them? What do their wives and girlfriends think? Do they have wives or girlfriends? Are there female trainspotters? Similarly those blokes you see on the beach with their metal detectors. What the hell are they up to? The Detectorists takes you inside that world and of course it's not boring at all. Trainspotters like Detectorists are heroes standing athwart the march of history attempting to impose order where there is only disorder and trying to salvage information or artifacts from the chilly embrace of entropy.
The Detectorists is a wonderful little series with a proper opening title song (a great one too by Johnny Flynn (click this link and you'll see what I'm saying)) and is worth looking out for if it ever makes it to your country or if the Beeb ever repeats it. It certainly deserves a second season. As they used to say in Russia: long live the sun - may the darkness be hidden.