Landscapes of Detectorists

The first essay I wrote for the Corse Present blog was a rather breathless and in-depth/pretentious account of the TV series Detectorists, so it was inevitable that the newly published book, Landscapes of Detectorists (edited by Innes M. Keighren and Joanne Norcup), would appeal to me. The book is a collection of papers originally presented at a conference of the Royal Geographical  Society in 2018 which was dedicated to our favourite TV series.

Academic interest in particular TV shows is nothing new of course, but usually you will tend to find it coming from a more Cultural Studies or Philosophy angle; the work of writers such as Mark Fisher and Slavoj Zizek springs to mind in this regard. The thing that distinguishes Landscapes of Detectorists is that the academics whose papers are collected here all work within the discipline of Geography. Writing now as someone who failed O-Level Geography and has had a slight allergy to the subject ever since, this is perhaps a little disappointing for me. But happily, each of the chapters is approachable and engaging enough whilst still maintaining scholarly standards.

No doubt one reason that the writers are able to keep their material accessible has to do with the subject matter. I don’t think I’ve read many academic papers on gender that have made me laugh out loud several times but that certainly happened with Joanne Norcup’s “That’s got to be a first: woman reads map” – gender, hobbies, & knowledge in Detectorists. Admittedly, it was some of the show’s quoted script that made me laugh but I wasn’t made to feel guilty for doing so. The sexist banter that the characters (mostly Lance) might engage in is never the end point towards which the humour of the show works. Rather, there is a web of interactions and relationships between the characters which is so finely poised that they are able to get away with saying things that might come across as malicious or lazy in a lesser sit-com.

And that’s the other interesting thing about the subject matter of this book: Detectorists has become an unusual cult phenomenon. The Facebook group dedicated to the series currently has four and a half thousand members and is very active. In fact, Detectorists is maybe starting to develop the sort of loyal and dedicated fan base that is usually associated with sci-fi or fantasy series. I can’t think offhand of another sit-com that has this sort of dedicated following. In this regard, I suspect that there will be a big market for this book and it will be interesting to see how it is received by fans of the series, as opposed to how fellow academics receive it.

As for the contents of the book itself, as already mentioned there is nothing here to deter the enthusiastic amateur and there’s plenty to provide food for thought. The chapters are pretty short so I won’t delve too deeply into each. Innes M. Keighren looks at the different ways that the landscape is read by the characters in Detectorists, and he grounds this in a brief (but interesting) survey of twentieth century landscape history. He goes on to make a really interesting point about the way in which the characters approach the landscape. In particular, Sophie (History degree) and Becky (Geography degree) both bring a rational, scholarly approach to the problem of locating the Saxon ship burial, whilst Lance and Andy, for all the technical paraphernalia they bring to their hobby, are motivated more by an instinctual, intuitive approach. It’s such an interesting perspective to bring to the series and in the gentle subversion of gender stereotypes it also foreshadows Norcup’s later chapter.

Isla Forsyth’s Hoarding the everyday – the disquieting geographies of the Detectorists is about the junk that the detectorists so often find: the ring pulls, the Viscount wrappers, the Matchbox cars. It even has a handy little checklist of all of the rubbish they find throughout the series. More substantially, Forsythe brings in the work of Joe Moran, who is a distinguished academic of the mundane and everyday, and she explains how and why unearthing the detritus of the recent past can be such an uncanny experience. The simultaneous familiarity and distance we experience when confronted with these objects feels somewhat akin to the sort of retro-nostalgia that has been best crystallised in the Scarred for Life book.  Forsythe brings these diverse considerations together into a meditation on the transience of popular culture and everyday objects.

Andrew Harris’ chapter on the vertical landscape of Detectorists considers the ‘groundedness’ of the show, often signalled with high shots looking down on Andy and Lance in a flat, horizontal landscape, their heads bowed to the ground. This sense of open space and a lack of high buildings gives a sense of landscape that immediately suggests something important about a rural/urban divide, with the detectorists firmly in the rural landscape. As Harris notes, “The closest the programme gets to vertical stacking, beyond the opening shot of the third series, is the massed vegetable crates in the depot where Lance works as a forklift driver and the piled-up boxes of DMDC fleeces that Lance has delivered in his aborted bid to become club president.” Harris concludes by observing that the groundedness of Detectorists somehow counteracts much of the socio-cultural movement and speed of contemporary life. I could have done with more consideration of this point. After all, the three series of Detectorists spanned 2014 -2017 and so coincided with the run up to, and aftermath of, Brexit. I have a feeling that a great deal could be said about Detectorists in this regard.

The final chapter by Joanne Norcup was alluded to earlier and looks at gender in Detectorists. I must admit that I struggled – and still struggle – to understand how this relates to geography, despite the reference to, “public and private landscapes.” No matter, it still has interesting things to say, starting from the observation that Detectorists is often judged to be a comedy about male friendship seen through a particular and male hobby. Norcup points out that the programme is more complex than this, not just because two of the detectorists are female, but also because Andy and Lance’s pursuit of their hobby is often made possible only through the invisible support that the women in their lives give to them. Again, the web  of relationships between the characters is sufficiently developed that it can stand this weight of analysis. Somehow, Mackenzie Crook has created a sit-com with genuinely believable and layered characters. As Norcup puts it, “Male and female characters are made real.”

The volume is bookended with a foreword by Mackenzie Crook, and an afterword by the show’s producer, Adam Tandy.

Far from digging too deeply and over-interpreting the material, Landscapes of Detectorists left me wanting more. I would have liked each of the essays to be longer and to have had more of them. The book is illustrated profusely (to disguise the low word count, one suspects) and the design is perfect. There’s no point me recommending that you buy this book; you’re either someone who must have it or you’re not. Members of the former group will not be disappointed.

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