Detectorists (BBC4) is a sad git’s niche comedy that would never have been commissioned if it hadn’t been written and directed by Mackenzie Crook (who sort of counts as a Hollywood star, now, because after making his name in The Office he went on to appear in the Pirates of the Caribbean series). But I’m glad it was because I’m one of the sad gits it’s targeting: desperate blokes who spend their every spare weekend at this time of year scouring ploughed fields for non-existent treasure.
We’re a fairly eclectic bunch, we detectorists. Simon Heffer is one; Rolling Stone Bill Wyman is another; so, too, is Mackenzie Crook himself, which is why the details in his charming comedy series are often so right: the silly camouflage outfits adorned with webbing; the trainspotterish obsession with metal detector brands (mine’s an XP Deus, by the way: just thought you ought to know); the tragic delusion we all nurture that somewhere out there is the hoard with our name on it; the even more tragic reality that what detecting is really about is hours and hours of bugger-all punctuated by brief twinges of RSI, ring pulls and chunks of rusted metal.
Sometimes the desperation can get so intense that even when your detector gives you the warning signal for iron (as opposed to non-ferrous, which is all you’re really after) you still dig it up just for the thrill of finding something, anything, even if it’s just an old nail or one of those ancient coins so ubiquitous and corroded beyond recognition they’re known dismissively in the trade as ‘Roman grot’.
Still, though, you keep going because like our detectorist heroes Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) you imagine that any second now your luck is going to change. The deal with finding a hoard is this: you get to keep half its value; the landowner gets the other half — all paid for by the government according to a fair price decided by a Treasure Valuation Committee. It’s one of those rare corners of the English legal system where things still actually work.
Andy and Lance are in search of the lost, Sutton-Hoo-style treasure of Sexred, 7th-century king of the East Saxons. Unfortunately the man on whose land it may lie is as mad as a box of frogs. Furthermore, members of a rival metal-detecting club have got wind of the rumoured treasure, thus injecting into the sitcom scenario the vital ingredient known in TV land as ‘jeopardy’.
And the jeopardy doesn’t end there. There’s also a romantic subplot in the form of a pretty young thing called Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) who has failed to get the memo that detecting is solely a hobby for middle-aged saddoes and wants to have a go herself. This causes some awkward moments for Andy who already has an implausibly nice, well-balanced, educated, attractive, patient, reasonable long-term girlfriend called Becky (Rachael Stirling).
When long-lens photos appear of Sophie kissing Andy while out on a treasure hunt, Becky is simply not wired to understand that this is perfectly normal behaviour when you’ve just found your first gold stater. (Staters, for the uninitiated, being one of the holy grails of metal detecting because they’re always old and valuable and are only made of gold or silver, which unlike lower denomination alloy coins do not corrode. I’d still rather find a torque, though.)
But enough digressions about metal detecting — or before you know it, I’ll be telling you about the fibula brooch I found the other day, and maybe even the crotal bell, and don’t get me started on the strange crescent bronze thing with pockmarks on one side. What you’ll want to know is: is the series worth catching up with on iPlayer?
Well, yes and no. On the plus side, it’s the kind of gentle, mildly whimsical, rustic, undemanding, charmingly acted, chamber-ensemble-type comedy drama you’re in the mood for on a Sunday evening. And on the minus side, it’s so blandly inoffensive you do want to give it a bit of a slap sometimes.
For example, there’s a scene where Andy unearths, of all things, an original Jim’ll Fix It badge. ‘What you got?’ calls out Lance. Andy studies the badge in embarrassment and disgust. ‘Nothing,’ he says, chucking it away — which no real person would. Rather you’d be amazed at having found such a fantastic piece of sicko 1970s retro. And it would be the cue for hours and hours of bad taste Jimmy Savile jokes.
One other thing that annoyed me this week: BBC2’s Wonders of the Monsoon series (Sundays). The photography is just fantastic — epic thunderstorms; red crabs being speared by even bigger crabs; mosquitos in ultra close-up emerging from their larval stage — but I’d advise watching with the sound turned down to avoid irritations such as the use of the word ‘she’ to describe both a mosquito and a river. This creeping anthropomorphisation of everything by BBC nature documentaries is not an innocent trend. The sane pronouns you were looking for, Mr Dangerous Eco Loon propagandist, were ‘it’ and ‘it’.