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“I was alone in my kitchen, doing a strange and lonely gold dance”: Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones on Detectorists

As the cult hit comedy about two middle-aged men with a love of metal detecting returns for a third season, Crook and Jones talk obsessive hobbies, ghosts and Detectorists fans.

There’s a scene at the end of the second series of Detectorists that will make you cry. I don’t care if you’re a big man with a heart of stone and a chronic case of dehydration in your tear ducts, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle BBC Four comedy about two middle-aged men with a love of metal detecting will make you weep. After two series of endless searching, Toby Jones’s Lance finally finds gold. And he can’t believe it’s happening.

Mackenzie Crook is a slightly hesitant interview subject, but even he can’t hide his emotions when talking about this scene. “The way it turned out, and the way we filmed it… I was so happy with it. The music comes in with Johnny Flynn’s violin and Aimee-Ffion [Edwards, who plays Sophie] does this sort of laugh, this nervous laugh. It was great. I loved that.”

Toby Jones sighs happily. “It was just...” he trails off.

We’re here to discuss the third season of Detectorists, which returns to on BBC Four and iPlayer tomorrow, but it feels important to start with this moment from the last series. Not much happens to Andy (Crook) and Lance (Jones) in the first 12 episodes of Detectorists, and they spend most of their detecting time quizzing each other on last night’s University Challenge and attempting to best each other’s dad jokes. Until this moment. Was it very rehearsed?

“I don’t remember even rehearsing it at all,” Crook explains, turning to Jones. “I think you asked, ‘Can we just do it now?’ I didn’t ask to see his dance beforehand.” At this point, Jones tongues the straw of his lime and soda and gives Mackenzie an exaggerated wink. “I don’t think he quite knew what was gonna come out.”

“I couldn’t prepare for that,” Jones adds. “I think it’s a rhythmic thing. It’s about discovery, the disbelief and… almost regret. Sometimes people ask me would I like to meet Bob Dylan. You know, I don’t think I would, because it would be inevitably disappointing. It’s just too big a thing. With finding treasure, there must be an element that’s a weeny bit like that. ‘Fuck. It is. It is treasure.’”

Crook has first-hand experience. Lots of people made the pun that he had struck gold with Detectorists, describing it, with a knowing, raised eyebrow, as a hidden gem. But after picking up a detector for real, it became a hobby of his, alongside coin collecting. Soon, he quite literally found buried treasure.

“I pulled it out of the ground,” he says, pausing. “And it was shiny.” He pauses again. “And it looked like a piece of crumpled foil. But it was too dark to see, so I couldn’t make out a gold colour. But something in my head was saying, ‘That’s quite special: but forget about it for now.’ So I put it in my pocket, and just sort of...” he sings and whistles like a man trying to act normal. “I drove home for two hours.”

Toby Jones laughs and claps with sheer delight at this story, one he’s encouraged Crook to tell to different journalists over the course of Detectorists press rounds. But, inevitably, it wasn’t the same wild release of emotion for Crook as it was for Lance. “It was a strange anti-climax. I was alone in my kitchen, doing a strange and lonely gold dance.” His discovery is now held by the British Museum.

Crook and Jones are a naturally comic pairing. Crook is lanky, dressed in eccentric, baggy clothing not unlike his character’s, and he’s a quieter, more nervous interviewee, directing some of his answers to the table. Jones is little, in a plaid shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck, and very relaxed, leaning back in his chair and often coaxing Crook into telling stories the way he told them to him.

They’re clearly warm friends and share a similar sense of humour – riffing off each other’s jokes. Crook first floated the idea of Detectorists after they had spent the day on the set of Muppets Most Wanted as museum guards.

“He first asked me to do it in his very shy, timid, unconfident way,” Jones laughs. “I was really heartened when Mackenzie told me about his hobbies, because I was a trainspotter as a kid,” he admits, grinning. “A passionate trainspotter.”

Jones read and loved a book about trainspotting published in 1990 called Platform Souls. In it, the author, Nicholas Whittaker blames comedy for the downfall of the trainspotter. “These comics have a lot to answer for,” he writes. “They’ve made a pariah out of a harmless eccentric and totally destroyed the market in anoraks – all for a cheap laugh.” So when Crook suggested a comedy about middle-aged men who spend their days metal detecting, but one that would be made with affection and respect, Jones was delighted.

“I wanted to like them,” Crook says. “I wanted it to be populated with people that you’d want to hang out with.”

“I think it’s interesting what we project onto these people. Often people talk to us about the characters being ‘losers’, ‘a pair of losers’,” Jones adds. “Actually, Lance has a lot of things going for him that a lot of people don’t have.”

He recalls the shooting of the pilot, on the hottest day of the year, and the costume designer presenting him with a jacket covered in badges. He asked Crook if he could leave the badges out of Lance’s look. “It immediately connotes to the audience that you can all laugh at this guy because he doesn’t realise how stupid that looks. But the greatness of what [Crook] had written is that these characters, while being immediately identifiable, weren’t stupid. They were smart. Their jokes are smart jokes.”

The love Crook has for these characters shines through, and part of the joy of the show is in how likeable they are. Perhaps that’s why it’s accumulated such a strikingly devoted audience over the last couple of years. Crook notes that he receives handwritten letters from fans, and is regularly stopped in the street by emotional viewers who want to thank him for the gift of the show. Jones has even been stopped by fans in Canada and the US. “In New Orleans?” Crook asks, wide-eyed. “I thought you were joking when you said it was big in New Orleans! Oh, that’s lovely.”

It’s strange that Detectorists is the thing that moves people to stop Crook and Jones in the street when both have been in much bigger and crazier franchises. Crook has had roles in both Pirates of the Caribbean and Game of Thrones, while Jones was in The Hunger Games films and voiced Dobby in Harry Potter. And both have played much-loved characters in British projects, from Crook’s turn as Gareth in The Office to Jones’s leading role in Dad’s Army.

“There are similarities there,” Crook says. “For me, it’s just the way it’s happened. I soon realised I’m not a lead actor, I can’t carry a film, and I’m very happy being a character actor and doing smaller parts.”

“I think the most glamorous thing about our job - the only really glamorous thing - is the contrast of different projects, and being able to switch different kinds of job all the time,” Jones adds.

Suddenly, he leans over and taps my phone on the table. “Oddly, these things, these things, I have quite strong opinions about. Because when you see actors with those on set, it’s tying them to the rest of the world. There’s something about seeing people constantly hooked into those that seems to be killing a bit of the actual magic and the privilege of what we get to do. I’m going to be serious about this for a minute!” he says, smiling. “I think different parts require different kinds of engagement.”

Jones has had a particularly varied number of roles in the last few years – from a giggling villain in Sherlock to a coughing antihero in Witness For The Prosecution, from roles in big budget films like Atomic Blonde to more niche projects like Michael Haneke’s Happy End. Does he have a favourite?

Detectorists season three,” he laughs.

“Likewise,” says Crook. “Put me down for one of them.”

In the new season of Detectorists, things have changed for Andy and Lance in terms of their love lives, domestic lives, and work lives. But their conversations out in the fields feel more familiar than ever. “If you could invite six people to a dinner party, who would it be? Anyone from history, alive or dead,” Lance asks. “Alive, probably,” Andy deadpans. “I know who I wouldn’t invite,” he adds. “Stephen Fry or Jesus. They get invited to these imaginary dinner parties all the time, doubt they’d be very good company.”

At one point, their conversation turns to Lance’s discovery. “You’ve got a piece in the British Museum,” Andy moans. “Where do you go from there? What do you aspire to?” Was that a worry for Crook, too, writing the new series?

“There was the question of what is their next quest,” Crook says. “But the third series is a lot of the same. You know, it doesn’t change an awful lot. Lance and Andy have got a whole repertoire of things that they do, schticks that they do every time an occurrence happens.”

“I felt it was so strong as a series, the third one, particularly, because of that very reason,” Jones cuts in. “It felt less dependent on introducing new stuff, and more trusting of all the characters Mackenzie has written. It just felt very, very comfortable.”

Of course, a hobby is often about finding joy in repetition and routine. “It’s an ongoing, perpetual process,” Jones says. “Which is very healthy.” He cites a news story about young girls’ mental health that interested him – Jones is the father to two daughters – for its emphasis on how a lack of hobbies can negatively affect teenage women. “A lot of girls don’t have hobbies as such. Everything is so goal-orientated rather than being process-oriented.”

“The whole thing about Detectorists is that there is a vague carrot dangling there, the chance of finding treasure or gold. But it’s really about the process and the carrying on,” Crook says.

“It’s not an immediate source of drama, you see,” Jones explains. Because if something’s process-oriented it’s very hard to get climax out of it, and drama’s all about climax and change and transformation. And the whole thing about a hobby is you don’t have to change, you just have to keep going. And I think Andy and Lance’s mutual dependency is about that. They keep each other going.

“But with this series, I wanted to make it more about where we belong, and finding a place that we can call home and put down roots,” Crook says. There was, he adds, a view to “leaving them at the end of this series in their rightful places, so we can leave them in peace.”

As our interview starts to wind down, I ask if they believe in ghosts. “No, no I don’t. I’m very cynical about all these things,” Crook says firmly. And then, “I love the idea of them, though. Voices from the past, calling to us.”

“What about that thing you’ve written about and said,” Jones says, gently. “That really beautiful thing about picking something out of the earth, and the last person that touched that thing was from 200 or 300 years ago, and that feeling...”

“Yeah, and that’s a direct connection to that person who lost it,” Crook picks up. “In fact in the first episode, you see I find a whistle at the end of it. And that’s from a real detecting trip I went on last year. And I actually found this whistle, and blew it, and heard the sound of the past, for the first time since medieval times. And that was a ghost. I heard a ghost.”

It’s a poignant moment. But it doesn’t last too long. Jones and Crook are soon joking together once more, this time with competing impressions of increasingly ridiculous cartoon ghosts.

Detectorists returns to BBC Four on Wednesday 8th November at 10pm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.