In a year when pure joy has generally been in short supply, the third series of the BBC sitcom Detectorists has been a cultural highlight. During its run, all across social media, people could be seen making its acquaintance, with many comments along the lines of ‘why didn’t I know about this before?’ and ‘why on earth is it buried away at 10pm on BBC Four?’. Once found, though, it’s unlikely to leave you.
Frankly, on paper it doesn’t sound all that, which might be another reason why it’s been easy to overlook. It’s the story of two friends, Andy Stone (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance Stater (Toby Jones), who spend whatever free time they have out searching with their metal detectors in the Essex countryside. It really needs to be seen, preferably for a handful of episodes, for its spell to start to work. The pace is leisurely, the tone warm and fond. Series-long plots unfold gradually, without any major look-at-me histrionics.
The allure lies in two simple elements. First and foremost are the characters. The supporting cast here is beautifully put together, mostly consisting of Lance and Andy’s immediate families and fellow members of the DMDC (Danebury Metal Detecting Club). Oh, there are true delights here, among them Sophie Thompson as the ethereal Sheila, Simon Farnaby as lingering antagonist Philip Peters and Salford’s own Pearce Quigley as Russell.
Best of all, though, is Toby Jones as Lance. A more vulnerable comic character you’re unlikely to see, but though Lance was originally envisioned as more of a scheming, mercenary figure, Jones makes him engagingly three-dimensional and hugely watchable. He’s far from demonstrative, but while pottering about alone, which he does a lot, Jones’s Lance speaks volumes with just the range of expressions chasing across his face. At times it’s like a comic version of Bob Hoskins’ wordless tour de force at the climax of The Long Good Friday.
Likewise, as Andy, Crook creates a well-drawn character who goes through major life changes while looking like he’d always rather slink off to the pub for a quiet pint. He may have made his name as Gareth from The Office and a pop-eyed regular in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but here Crook proves there’s far more to him. Indeed, apart from starring in it he’s also Detectorists‘ creator, writer and director. No dilettantism this, either. He demonstrates genuine talent across the board, and here’s where that other key element of the show comes in. It looks beautiful, with Crook making tremendous use of the gorgeous English landscape as an evocative backdrop. As a viewer, you long to be right there, just as you long to spend time with Lance and Andy.
It’s far from being soppy or toothless, but Detectorists isn’t a comedy of cruelty. They’re not rogues, they’re just a bit hopeless. In truth, these are good, honest, sometimes slightly care-worn figures, and the viewer likes them just as they like each other, albeit without any gushy speeches, high fives or group hugs. It’s enormously funny, but the humour comes from knowing the world and the characters in it, rather than from watching them suffer.
It’s worth noting too that the show has a fine folk-inflected theme tune by Johnny Flynn. It fits perfectly, setting the scene and the tone in seconds as all great themes should. There’s also the fact that it practically becomes part of the show itself, whether by Flynn popping up to perfom it at a pub on open mic night or by dialogue subtly echoing the lyrics. Ultimately, in fact, the theme actually tells the whole Detectorists story.
That ‘ultimately’ might sting a bit, and nothing’s been formally announced, but recent quotes from Crook would certainly seem to suggest that the recent third series will be the end of the show. Devotees will always live in hope, and yes, the second series in 2015 seemed to be a full stop of sorts too. But actually, Detectorists has always celebrated the maxim ‘less is more’, and it’s a good thing that it hasn’t been milked entirely dry. It didn’t outstay its welcome, that’s for sure. In its own quiet way, the third series was a triumph and one of the very best TV shows of 2017. If you’re yet to experience it, the recent run is currently on iPlayer, as is its lead-in, the fine 2015 Christmas special which added a seasonally spooky dash of M.R. James into the mix. Or if you’re staying in, BBC Four is showing the whole third series on New Year’s Eve from 10pm so you can see in the New Year with Lance and Andy. By our reckoning, you’d then be starting 2018 around the moment when Simon and Garfunkel launch a drone, and if you’ve no idea what that’s all about, there’s another fine reason to watch it.
As for it being tucked away on a smaller channel at a later slot, a great deal of Detectorists‘ charm lies in it being small-scale and low-key. If that means viewers have to make a little effort to dig it out, well, thematically speaking that’s perfectly apt, isn’t it?
The third series of Detectorists is now available on BBC iPlayer and is showing on BBC Four from New Year’s Eve.