Detectorists: How a metal-detecting show went global

The gentle UK comedy about metal detecting, described as “almost Shakespearean” by the LA Times, has wowed audiences worldwide. Neil Armstrong wonders what the secret to its success is.

The Danebury Metal Detecting Club is not a closed group. On the contrary, new members are warmly welcomed. Nonetheless, it is a small group. There’s club president Terry Seymour, who is likely one of the foremost authorities on the buttons of North West Essex. There’s Louise, who can be quite loud, and Varde, who is usually quite quiet. Hugh is “young” (in his 30s), Russell is sarcastic, and Andy and Lance are there.–quick-study-tips-63a03ac3e3203c4f1f99cd0b

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The latter two, old friends who go detecting together on a regular basis, are the focus of the beloved, Bafta-winning BBC comedy Detectorists. For three six-episode series and a Christmas special, we followed their ups and downs. After a five-year hiatus, they are returning for another festive special, which, according to its writer, director, and star Mackenzie Crook, will most likely be the final instalment.

Detectorists is defiantly low-stakes, cheerfully bucking every TV trend. In a world of expansive, expensive epics, it’s a priceless miniature

Crook is Andy. Lance is played by Toby Jones. In the first episode of 2014, we were introduced to the pair detecting in a ploughed field. “Three shotgun caps and a Blakey,” Andy had discovered. Lance drew something from the ground. “What do you have?” Andy inquired. Lance replied, inspecting his find with a magnifying glass, “Ring pull. ’83. Tizer.” It’s not all Roman gold and Saxon hoards when it comes to metal detecting. In fact, it is extremely rare.–2022–best-preparation-materials

What motivates them to do so? “Metal detecting is the closest thing to time travel you’ll get,” Lance says. “Archaeologists, you see, gather the facts, put the jigsaw puzzle together, and figure out how we lived. We unearth the fragmented memories, mine for stories, and fill in the blanks. We’re time travellers, detectorists.” The show follows the pedantic couple’s discoveries as well as their minor domestic dramas. It’s defiantly low-stakes, defying every TV trend. It’s a priceless miniature in a world of massive, expensive epics. It is not about life and death or the fate of humanity. There aren’t many problems that can’t be solved over a pint at the Two Brewers or a cup of tea in the corner of the field. “Tea without sugar is just vegetable soup,” Lance insists. What’s at stake is whether Lance’s daughter will ding his prized yellow Triumph TR7 if he lets her drive it, or whether Andy’s wife Becky will be irritated when she finds out he’s packed in the job he despises. Or Andy and Lance’s friendship, which is at the heart of the show.

It’s often described as a “gentle” comedy, but there are plenty of belly laughs. Some of the funniest moments occur during the pair’s encounters with a rival metal detecting duo who disregard the detectorists’ code and are constantly changing their name. They’ve gone by the names Antiquisearchers, Dirt Sharks, and Terra Firma. Lance and Andy have nicknamed them Simon and Garfunkel, despite the fact that their real names are Phil Peters (Simon Farnaby) and Paul Lee (Paul Casar) – Peters and Lee, get it? They’re introduced with the opening bars of Sound of Silence, and Andy smuggles a Simon and Garfunkel lyric into the conversation, which usually ends in infantile insults.

Detectorists, set in Essex but filmed in Suffolk, feels quintessentially British and is rich in British cultural references. How many non-UK viewers, for example, understand the discussion about the accepted protocol when correctly answering a starter for 10 on University Challenge? (“What you want is a humble smile and a nod to your teammates as if to say, ‘I know you guys knew that one too,'” says Lance. “That’s all. Absolutely correct, “Andy concurs). Nonetheless, the show has a devoted and growing fan base outside of the United Kingdom.

In Tel Aviv, do they know what a “chinny reckon” is? Seems unlikely, but an Israeli newspaper called Detectorists “buried treasure”. Do they know Fiona Bruce from Bordeaux? Perhaps not, but Detectorists were described as “délicieuse” and “un baume apaisant” – a soothing balm – in a French newspaper. “This is not a TV show, it’s soul food,” wrote an Indian fan in an online discussion. A viewer in North Carolina poetically described it as “a deep, grassy field in an asphalt world”. The LA Times praised the show’s pastoral elements, calling it “almost Shakespearean” and comparing it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Toby Jones said following the Baftas ceremony, where the series received an award, told him about cycling through New Orleans when two guys came out of a bar and said, “Man, we love the Detectorists!”

‘About hobbyists, for hobbyists’

When this global adulation is mentioned, Crook appears genuinely embarrassed and says he can’t explain it. “Toby can wax lyrical about those sorts of things more than I can,” he tells BBC Culture. “It was always my intention to write an uncynical comedy about hobbyists for hobbyists – people with obsessions – and I guess those kinds of people are all over the world, and they’re not often championed, so perhaps they can relate to it,” she says. Jones, for one, understands why it is so universally adored. “It’s brilliant, brilliant writing,” he exclaims.

Ben Lindbergh, a senior editor at The Ringer, a pop culture and sports website and podcast network based in Los Angeles, has written about the show.

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