There’s a scene in the final episode of Detectorists, Macenzie Crook’s lovely, languid, ever-so-gentle comedy about the exploits of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, which has stayed with me from the first time I saw it.
You see, the DMDC has allied with their sworn rivals the AntiquiSearchers in an attempt to locate an ancient golden hoard buried somewhere beneath a field in Essex. We see the club president, a gruff retired policeman named Terry, remove something from a hole and lovingly wipe away the dirt. He looks over to his wife, the amiable, slightly dotty Shelia, who is reading a book on the branch of a tree.
“Nice button,” Terry solemnly informs her. “Welsh guards. 2nd Infantry.”
The find means nothing to Shelia, but she loves her husband and she smiles at him and she offers a thumbs up, a thumbs up which Terry returns. Then he gazes out into the field and his eyes fill with tears. The camera doesn’t linger on him. It’s a moment of utter privacy, a moment we share for all of two seconds before the episode moves on.
Detectorists is a celebration of nature, both human and physical
Why the tears? Who knows. They are most likely tears of happiness: caused by his discovery, his love for Shelia, the grass and trees and sunshine all around him, a perfect moment in a perfect day. But I think there is also sadness in those tears, because Terry is not a young man, and life deals us a finite amount of days, perfect or otherwise, and even in the middle of one you can briefly mourn its passing.
Do they find the treasure? It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the companionship, and the fields and fresh air, and the pub at the end of the day. (Indeed, one episode strongly implies that actually finding treasure is a form of historical vandalism; the land must keep its secrets.)
Detectorists isn’t about metal detecting. First and foremost, it’s a celebration of nature, both human and physical - you can’t watch an episode without mentally purchasing a farmhouse. Gorgeous imagery abounds, imagery that makes you think, or perhaps realise, that tree leaves sparkling with the morning rain might be the most beautiful sight in creation.
Yet as much as the show loves the countryside, it loves people even more. Protagonists Lance and Andy are simple men, flawed and good. Practically everyone in Detectorists is good, including characters a cruder show might depict as bad, or at the very least unsympathetic: Andy’s mother-in-law, say, or the AntiquiSearchers, whose animosity with our heroes stems entirely from their similarities.
Every performance is a (buried) gem. Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook dominate the screen time, the former winning a BAFTA for his nebbish Lance, a man never entirely comfortable in his own skin. (Detectorists has won a BAFTA itself, and a Rose d'Or: international recognition for this most British of creations.)
Although we spend the most time with Lance and Andy, it’s very much an ensemble piece. Shoutout to Rachel Sterling as Becky, Andy’s wife - well, he’s really more her husband - and Diana Rigg as Becky’s formidable mother, a woman of steel and kindness. All of the DMDC have their own in-jokes and storylines, from the talkative Orion Ben’s talkative Vorde to Divian Ladwa’s young Hugh (who’s in his thirties).
Johnny Flynn's title song is a paean to the natural world but also heartbreakingly elegiac
Ultimately, the show is Crook’s creation. It’s hard not to compare and contrast with The Office, another great 21st century British sitcom, in which Crook starred as the insufferable Gareth Keenan. Both depict unremarkable lives, lived in a minor key: but whereas for The Office, and Ricky Gervais, mundanity is akin purgatory, Crook sees it as something close to paradise. The Office is about people doing a job they hate, and Detectorists is about people doing a hobby they love. Both are sublime in their own way, but I know whose world I’d rather live in.
The final word to the title song. Actor and songwriter Johnny Flynn somehow composed a piece of music that’s both a paean to the natural world but also inescapably, heartbreakingly elegiac - suffused with a longing for something lost, or perhaps something that has never been found. “Will you search through the loamy earth for me / Climb through the briar and bramble / I'll be your treasure… I'm waiting for you, I'm waiting for you.”
Waiting for who, exactly? Or what? A person, perhaps, or a moment, one so beautiful it cannot fail but move you to tears. Such moments are buried all around us, provided we know where to look.