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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 a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper with and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

A few goes in, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.