There are things that, as a man, I pride myself I’d never do. The big things like, say, being unfaithful to my wife or letting down my friends, plus the little things like using the term “cheerio” or taking up metal detecting.
I’ve become far less averse to the last one recently, however. The reason – the comedy series, Detectorists.
The BAFTA-winning show first aired on BBC Four in the autumn of 2014, so I’ve come to it late, but what I’ve found is a deconstruction – and celebration – of men.
It stars Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as Andy and Lance, a pair of metal detectors (sorry, detectorists) pursuing their passion in tandem with ostensibly hapless personal and professional lives.
Andy is a wannabe archaeologist with a terror of change; forklift driver Lance has dreams of appearing on Mastermind (chosen specialised subject: British birds, not including seagulls) and loves his TR7. But the men’s exchanges as they sweep the countryside, however superficially banal, are loaded with tenderness and profundity.
Of course, it’s not solely a Saxon hoard they’re searching for, or even the chance to secure their own place in history, it’s a sense of their own purpose. It’s a metaphor that could easily have been clunky, but the pair’s adventures (insofar as unearthing toy cars and buttons can be deemed “adventures”) are simultaneously unique and ubiquitous.
As with such classics as Dad’s Army and Cheers, the 13 episodes give an insight into men at their best and men at their worst. I defy anyone not to recognise something of themselves in one of them.
Mackenzie, who shot to fame as Gareth in The Office (he was the skinny one who had his stapler put in jelly by Martin Freeman) and Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean, wrote and directed the comedy.
His achievement – along with a raft of hilarious one-liners and nail-biting tension as the pair close in on their treasure – is to have created two flawed, essentially decent, totally believable characters. They just happen to spend most of their time crabbing around the fields of Essex. Their adage: When in doubt, dig it out.
Along the way, there are rival detectors (sorry, detectorists), a mad farmer, a dogging mayor, plenty of “hot rocks and grots”, plus hilarious scenes at meetings of Danebury Metal Detecting Club, including one where they can’t find the “finds” table.
It’s all here, buried among the ring pulls and the drinks cans – rivalries, obsession, parenthood, love, loss, lust and friendship.
Crook clearly has an ear for the droll exchanges that permeate male conversations.
“Who will you talk bollocks at you while I’m in Africa?” Andy asks Lance at one point.
“I’ll just keep talking bollocks. Half the time I’m not even bothered if you’re listening,” he replies.
“That’s good,” Andy tells him. “Half the time, I’m not.”
Despite fears from the metal detecting fraternity that the show would make their hobby look “anorakish”, Crook has insisted he aimed for an “affectionate study” of those involved.
“People take the mickey out of men with hobbies that aren’t sport-related,” he said. “It’s fine to be completely into football or rugby, but as soon as you say you’re into stamp collecting, you’re a massive nerd or a trainspotter or a loser.”
Maybe it came along at the right time for me. I’d been bingeing on True Detective and Game of Thrones (here’s a piece of trivia Lance would be proud of: Crook appeared as a warg in Season 3 of GoT) so I’d had my fill of dark and sinister.
Detectorists proved the perfect antidote. Two blokes trying to escape reality and find it at the same time; two blokes doing something supposedly boring, but managing to imbue it with a sense of purpose and dignity. A warm-hearted and bittersweet celebration of friendship and of the sometimes awkward, often unarticulated, but incredibly powerful bonds between men.
At its best, TV reminds us that there is beauty and meaning in the everyday and in the ordinary – even if, as Andy and Lance know well, it’s sometimes buried just beneath the surface.
Tim Relf writes fiction under the pen name T.R. Richmond. His new novel, What She Left, is out in paperback from Penguin. @trrichmondbooks