Buried Treasure: Detectorists

The Old English heroic poem Beowulf concludes with a funeral for the fallen hero. The final lines of the poem are:

they said that he was of all the world’s kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.[1]

In the original Old English:

cwǣdon þæt hē wǣre wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond monðwǣrust,
lēodum līðost ond lofgeornost.[2]

The word monðwǣrust is often translated as ‘gentlest’. In the glossary to Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English the meaning of monðwǣre is given as “gentle, kind” with monðwǣrust being the superlative form.[3] It has always been a source of fascination for me that this early Germanic warrior society would lament a hero in such terms. Kindness and gentleness might seem at first blush to be somewhat antithetical to the characteristics of a warrior society that was still pagan. As Michael Alexander puts it in the introduction to his translation, “Beowulf’s last word, ‘keenest for fame’, spoken over the ashes by the riders on horseback, is preceded by terms less expected. It is not said of heroes such as Achilles, nor even of Aeneas, that they were gentle, gracious and kind to their people. Beowulf exemplifies the heroic ideal in a socially responsible form.” [4]

Many centuries later and it becomes clear that these characteristics have become separated from what we might think of as a warrior, or heroic, ethos. On one of The Smiths’ most maudlin songs of all, I Know it’s Over, Morrissey laments that, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, It takes strength to be gentle and kind”. No one could mistake The Smiths for being supporters of masculine or martial strength. In fact, it is clear at this juncture that gentleness has become a virtue of the anti-hero, the one who stands against the ethos of the larger society rather than being the embodiment par excellence of that ethos.

It seems to me enormously sad that we have lost the wisdom that allows gentleness to be seen as part of a warrior’s virtue. It may seem like an odd point to dwell on but I feel that there was perhaps a range and depth to the notion of what it meant to be to be a strong man that has now disappeared to be replaced by a cartoonish stereotype. There is also the thought that the ‘feminine’ virtues of kindness and gentleness have become associated with Christianity whilst their ‘masculine’ antinomies, cruelty and violence, have been tagged on to paganism. This bifurcation in English ethics is no doubt partly a residue of the conversion period in Anglo Saxon times but it has also grown to have a life of its own.

All of which diversionary preamble brings us to Detectorists, the BBC 4 comedy series that concluded a few weeks ago. The most common adjective applied to this series would seem to be ‘gentle’ and, despite what I’ve already written, this actually put me off watching it for quite some time. My assumption was that it would be slight and unnourishing fare, casting lazy aspersions at some ‘eccentric’ characters. And that touches on another of my unspoken assumptions about the programme before I actually watched it: the subject matter, or, more accurately, my assumption about how the subject matter would be treated by the programme makers. A comedy programme about metal detectorists made by the BBC seemed certain to pick all the low-hanging fruit, treating its subjects as eccentric buffoons, conjured into existence by a cynical writer merely to have the piss taken out of them. Anyone who has seen the series will know how wrong such an assumption was. In fact, it is the programme’s careful and kind treatment of its characters that marks it out as something very different and, in its own quiet way, something strangely radical.

Perhaps the first pleasant surprise of this series was the theme song by Johnny Flynn. It’s worth quoting the lyrics in full:

Will you search through the lonely earth for me
Climb through the briar and bramble?
I’ll be your treasure

I felt the touch of the kings and the breath of the wind
I knew the call of all the song birds
They sang all the wrong words
I’m waiting for you
I’m waiting for you

Will you swim through the briny sea for me
Roll along the ocean’s floor?
I’ll be your treasure

I’m with the ghosts of the men who can never sing again
There’s a place follow me
Where a love lost at sea
Is waiting for you
Is waiting for you

Both music and words are intensely evocative of the sort of atmosphere that the series itself will go on to generate. The ambience is pleasantly pastoral but there are dark intimations of mortality and hauntological ruptures lying buried beneath the surface. The ghosts of the men who can never sing again are only obliquely hinted at in the three seasons of Detectorists but their spectral presence is always assumed if only through the ritualised process of listening to the land for signals from the past. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Detectorists: the sense of the liminal is always there but it remains appropriately marginal. The locus of the narrative is in the relationship between Andy and Lance. And the way in which they constantly and consistently defer and disavow any notions of the ‘mystical’ allows for the buried elements of the story (i.e. the buried history of England) to appear with all the greater power when they do emerge.

Of course, the convenient scapegoats for ‘mystical’ experiences are the women in Lance’s life. His ex-wife, Mags, runs a new age shop and his girlfriend in series three, Toni, encourages him to see a hypnotherapist. Lance’s overt disavowal of these ‘soft’ beliefs provides a contrast with his liking for quiz questions, right and wrong answers, his pedantry, fussy tidiness, love of technology, and his urge to taxonomy. Even his tendency for punning is used as a way of deflecting any sort of emotional or intimate entanglement. But the clear border of demarcation around Lance’s personality is drawn in such bold lines all the better to see the numinous tendrils from outside start to slither in. Mags’ new age hippy shit isn’t taken seriously by anyone; it operates as an anonymizing mask to hide Mags’ true self just as Lance’s verbal procedures camouflage the intimate centre of his own being. So the point here is not to set one character up against the other; neither of them shares in moments of dramatic irony with the audience; neither has a greater claim to ‘authenticity’. It is not a case of undercutting one character’s delusions with another’s candid veracity. In other words, we might say that the realism and plausibility of the characterisations in Detectorists come from the fact that there is no attempt to portray the characters as authentic beings. Their obsessive interests are not a mask of the real self; they are the real self. Furthermore, the pursuit of metal detecting, far from being treated as laughably eccentric, is rendered normal because its rituals, technical language and uniform are centre stage throughout the series. The DMDC is possibly the most stable family group within the programme. In this way, Detectorists manages to achieve a social realism that is unusual because it posits that the primary mode of the personality is at the level of decentred artifice, that of the obsessive role that one plays out.

A similar dislocation exists with regard to the notion of treasure. The title sequence throughout series two shows a buried jewel (resembling the Alfred jewel) in the ground waiting to be discovered by Lance and Andy. All of the ‘narrative’ of the series takes place with the explicit proviso that this is all secondary to the main point, the search for the gold. Here, all of the verbal sparring, the sideshow of Sophie and Peter’s relationship, even the search for the missing plane, become somehow contingent to the main point which is to discover buried gold. In this way, the deeper meaning of the series is perfectly matched with its form as all of the energy devoted to the mundane matters of life is framed within a context of the tantalisingly proximate, but ultimately elusive, gold. And, of course, when Lance does eventually find the jewel it doesn’t provide any of the satisfaction that it seems to promise. In this way, the opening and closing titles of series two give a supranormal frame to the activity that takes place within each episode. The metaphor of seeking something in the land becomes lavishly enriched.

And, speaking of Lance’s discovery of the gold, the Christmas episode where the supernatural consequences of the discovery are explored deserves special mention. Here, the (M.R.) Jamesian aspects of the story become explicit and help to spell out the deeper meaning of Lance and Andy’s search for treasure. As becomes clear, the discovery of the gold has resulted in a curse landing on Lance. He becomes plagued with bad luck, can no longer detect anything and, most interestingly of all, he can no longer hear bird song. The beginning of his recovery from the curse is prompted by Andy’s insistence that he needs to, “get back to the land”. Once Lance has returned some antique coins to the land the quid pro quo is enabled and he can once more hear bird song. Of course, he continues detecting as before, perhaps now realising that it is the seeking rather than the finding which is the point after all.

Interestingly, the programme makers were fully aware of incorporating these sorts of ideas into the series. In an interview with the New Statesman, Toby Jones talks about the pleasure to be gained from hobbies that appear to have no useful function, and that are not the socially approved pastimes. He complains about the fact that, “everything is so goal-orientated rather than being process-orientated”[5]. Perhaps of even greater interest is Jones again in iNews: “I read a very interesting book about trainspotting about 25 years ago. It said how one of the adjacent effects of Thatcherism was the growth of football. You could monetise it very quickly and dominate the culture. These other marginal, fringe hobbies – if you could get rid of them and channel everyone into mainstream, then you could make more money”[6].

This raises the interesting spectre which lies behind the whole ethos of the series: the threat that capital poses for the land. Almost unnoticed throughout the series is the question of who has permissions to which piece of land. This all refers to the fact that metal detectorists must (or should) get permission from the landowner before detecting. As anyone who has ever looked into metal detecting as a hobby will know, this can be a frustrating impediment to pursuing it because all land in the UK is owned by somebody, whether individual or corporation. There is no longer any common land in England. In the first season we see Lance and Andy visiting the farmer, Bishop, to ask permission to detect on his land. In series three there is an overt threat to Lance and Andy’s access to the land that comes from a solar panel company. This question of land ownership overshadows the playful tone of Lance and Andy’s quest but it is nonetheless a significant issue because the whole ethos of the series points towards the necessity of their meditative communion with the land. Their ability to access the land is not just part of the narrative tension of the series, it also taps into a deep need within the English soul, a need which has been suppressed ever since the enclosure acts forced the peasantry out of the rural areas into the cities where they have ever since felt the lack of the absent pastoral. Thus, the questions of capital, access and land ownership, all very political issues, are subtly present throughout all three series of Detectorists.

Also present throughout all three seasons, the sporadic nature photography that keeps cropping up is not just an aesthetic adornment to the story, although it performs that role particularly well. It also suggests that the viewer contemplate these natural artefacts in the same way that the detectorists regard their finds. Whether caterpillar, beetle or magpie we are invited to gaze at these creatures with longing and to wonder at the surfeit of beauty in the natural world. These small creatures are precise machines evolved over unimaginable millennia and they are here all around us. The deeper message of the show is that these natural ‘artefacts’ are abundant and close to us and that we must perhaps try to regard them with a more Blakean sense of wonder. In this way, we might be reminded that the real treasure of life is to be discovered in the here and now. However buried or marginalised this sense of wonder becomes due to the encroachments of capital, it is the work of but a moment to calmly and quietly contemplate the miracle that we subsist within.

Adam Mars Jones has described Detectorists as, “the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It”[7] and this is not hyperbole. Detectorists is a brilliant and beautiful work of art and, as I hope I have shown, it subtly brings to light some of the more interesting aspects of the English landscape that have become buried beneath the mire of capital and commodity.

  1. Alexander, M. (2003). Beowulf. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Porter, J. (1997). Beowulf. Frithgarth: Anglo-Saxon Books.
  3. Mitchell, B. and Robinson, F. (2001). A guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell.
  4. Alexander, op. cit.
  5. New Statesman (2017). “I was alone in my kitchen, doing a strange and lonely gold dance”: Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones on Detectorists. [online] Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2017/11/detectorists-series-3-mackenzie-crook-toby-jones-interview
  6. iNews (2017). Detectorists: ‘When people find it and realise what is, they hold it close to them’. [online] Available at: https://inews.co.uk/essentials/detectorists-people-find-realise-hold-close/
  7. Mars-Jones, A. (2017). Arts of the Year 2017. Times Literary Supplement, (5986/5987), pp. 24-5.

Detectorists – Series 1-3 + ’15 Xmas Special Box Set [DVD]

One thought on “Buried Treasure: Detectorists”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s