Wednesday 26 April 2017

We Don't Go Back #46: Detectorists (2014-15)

Acknowledgement: I found Detectorists thanks to the Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook (and if you are coming from there, sincere thanks). Detectorists has been seen two seasons on BBC4, and a Christmas special, amounting to 13 episodes. There's going to be a third season soon, but for the time being you can find all the current episodes on Netflix. It's also available on DVD.

Beneath golden sunshine, two men walk across a field, holding metal detectors. One of the devices beeps, and the shorter man crouches, and with a trowel carefully uncovers his find. It's a ring pull.

Tizer. 1983.
Then the man who found it confidently determines its brand and age. Then, reverently, he puts it in a little bag and returns it to his pocket. For as disappointing as it evidently is, and as absurd as knowing the difference between Vimto and Tizer cans is, a forty-year-old ringpull is a piece of history and these men care enough about it to learn about things like this (even if they call it rubbish openly). Lance and Andy (Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook, who is also the writer and director) are detectorists. Not "metal detectors", detectorists, as they constantly remind people. It's their hobby, one they pursue with nerdy intensity, going to talks about buttons and comparing the pros and cons of detector models. Lance is divorced, and for a living he drives a fork lift truck; Andy is unemployed and his partner Becky (Rachael Stirling), a primary school teacher, amused and frustrated by Andy's hobby, just wants him to find a job. Sophie, a history student and fellow detectorist, is the other main character; Becky is a bit jealous and you think that she might be right, but it's not like that, besides, Sophie has her own issues, and she's awkward in her own way.
Andy's family.
It's not horror, obviously, it's a gentle (and very funny) comedy that centres on a close, firm friendship between two quiet, sincere men, and in some ways the doings of the detectorists and their club, and the eccentrics around them: a farmer with invisible dogs, a mayor with an unfortunate habit for dogging, and Lance and Andy's archenemies, a pair of detectorists from a rival club who closely resemble Simon and Garfunkel. "Garfunkel" (Horrible Histories' Simon Farnaby) does all the talking for the duo, and he's reliably one of the funniest turns in Detectorists, playing the Bad Nerd, source of all the hobbyist drama, with evident relish.
See University Challenge last night?
But while the hobby is a source of humour, it's not the butt of the joke, nor really are the detectorists themselves. One of the series' many pleasures is how the various characters reveal themselves as people with lives outside of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club. Sheila (Sophie Thompson), unfailingly optimistic wife of club leader Terry (Gerard Horan), makes undrinkable lemonade but reveals late in the second season a long-carried heartbreak. Young Hugh (Divian Ladwa) actually turns out to be sick of being patronised by the other members but is too shy to say. Varde (Orion Ben) is as possessed of as much enthusiasm and knowledge as any of them, but no one ever lets her say anything.
The club.
In fact, Detectorists imbues its hobbyists with a sort of lonely nobility. The patience in the face of limited success that might make the hobby the preserve of the anorak, that's presented as a mark in its favour, that these people will go out and seek for something important and old, that's heroic. Lance and Andy's easy, loyal friendship, built around a mutual love for finding things, but sustained by a mutual regard, a genuine love, depends on things no one else can see. They care for each other. They matter. They know each other's stories, and have the same shared respect for the land.
A lot of water under the bridge. Troubled water.
And – and this, I think is why it's relevant to include Detectorists in my survey of pagan film – the detectorists recognise something that the people around them miss: the land has stories. It waits for the people who care; it hides murder victims, crashed bombers loaded with Nazi gold, Saxon hoards.

The second season begins with a monk, running in terror from the vikings, who buries a satchel containing books and other treasures. We see it under the ground, as everything rots away over centuries until a single jewel remains. And each subsequent episode in the season, no matter where Lance and Andy walk, it is always a few yards away, waiting to be unearthed.

And its position is indeterminate, ready to be found when it's ready. As if it's a conscious thing, a spirit of the land.
Did you hear about old Bob Cromer?
The objects Lance and Andy find, mostly mundane, carry stories. Why would a Blanketty Blank contestant leave their Blanketty Blank Chequebook (but not the pen) in the middle of a field? And is that any stranger than a lone jewel buried by a Saxon monk? The land has a life full of buried secrets and it parallels the people who walk across it, who Detectorists presents themselves as, just like a Sussex field, apparently dull but hiding things just beneath the surface, stories we can find if, patiently, we choose to look.

Johnny Flynn's pastoral theme song casts the singer as the thing to be found:
Will you search through the lonely earth for me?
Climb through the briar and bramble;
I will be your treasure.
The find.
We are the fields in which hidden gold can be found. We have buried beneath our surface soil, secrets, and treasures. Andy, Lance, Sophie and the others are, we find, fertile fields, rich in finds, if only we are patient enough to seek them.
I will be your treasure.
And that's of course the other thing. In a country like Britain, the land, nearly every inch of it bears the mark of human life. But also, we bear the mark of the land. We and the land share our stories, and every ringpull and button is a part of that.

Yesterday I heard that Robert Pirsig had died. He wrote, "We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives." I think that's the heart of it, except that the tiny objects the detectorists find have lives of their own, too. The countryside has a spirit. And it waits for us.