They’re tricky things to get right, Christmas specials. Ideally, they should capture in one perfectly judged episode the very essence of everything you found wonderful about your favourite classic sitcom, be it The Royle Family, Father Ted or Peep Show, all dusted with the lightest sprinkle of tinsel, icing sugar and nostalgia. But if they get the mix wrong – usually by overdoing the saccharine and mawkishness – it takes you straight down to Christmas hell and tarnishes your memories forever. For example, I will never, ever be able to watch Only Fools And Horses again, not even the actually funny episode where the chandelier falls down, because of an emetic, late-period Christmas special involving Del Boy, his unnecessary wife and – ugh – their new born baby.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that the Detectorists Christmas Special didn’t fall into that trap, for which much thanks, because it has been consistently one of the best sitcoms of the last ten years. If I call it ‘gentle comedy’ that might sound offputting. But that’s more or less what it is: two really quite famous actors Mackenzie Crook (the worryingly bony-faced one from The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean who looks as if he’s never had quite enough sleep) and Toby Jones (if the lead role requires a short, balding, slightly squishfaced, hugely capable and versatile actor, he always lands it) slumming it in an innocent, understated, droll series about people who go metal-detecting.
Crook, himself a lifelong detectorist, knows whereof he writes (and directs). His scripts wear his research lightly, but they invariably manage to get to the heart of everything that makes metal detecting at once so addictive and yet so painfully almost-dull. One of the main running jokes of the series is all the bits of discarded modern crap they find, for such unfortunately is the nature of metal hunting.