It’s been five years since the last episode of Detectorists – five years since we last padded over the soft soil of the Essex countryside with Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook), heads bowed reverently, metal detectors in hand. They return to us, in this Boxing Day special, in many ways unchanged: still quietly devoted, slyly competitive hobbyists, rooting around the earth like truffle pigs driven by natural instinct, muscle memory and a seemingly insatiable hunger for something that lies beneath. They are still quizzing each other on old lumps of metal and last week’s University Challenge. But they seem different, too – older, scragglier, their faces orange and leathery from sun and dirt. Aptly so: every season, every special, shows us a snapshot of the detectorists in midsummer and so to us they seem to permanently exist in the dry heat of a bucolic English August. The days are long, dragonflies flit lazily over the fields and gold winks in the sunlight.
There is nothing superficially festive about this Christmas instalment, then, but Crook’s writing and direction is so poignant, so wryly observant, so wise in its understanding of our need for human connection – with the past, with our neighbours, with some ineffable force larger than ourselves – that the scheduling feels right. It doesn’t need to rely on cliches of snow and choirs to affect us: it digs deeper.
The first series ended with Lance turning up just another ring-pull – until the camera panned downwards, beneath the ground, revealing a hoard of treasure undisturbed deep below. The second series ended with Lance digging up a genuine Saxon artefact of great value. As he whooped in euphoria the camera zoomed out and above, soaring over them, making them tiny in their moment of enormous discovery. In the third series Lance muttered darkly about the “collective genetic memory” of magpies before finding hundreds of Roman gold coins, gathered by generations of birds, at the centre of an ancient oak. So where can Danebury Metal Detecting Club go from here? An even greater find would be preposterous, but the thrill of the hunt provides the show with all its narrative thrust.
Crook reintroduces us to Lance and Andy at a moment of renewed determination. Having belatedly learned they had no legal right to reward money for their Roman gold coins, they are diligently signing contracts with landowners before searching an area that Andy believes may have been the site of the Battle of Braintree, despite the evidence of the Venerable Bede. “Once again,” Lance sighs with a roll of his eyes, “the Venerable Bede is talking out of his arsehole.” The field generously obliges them – they barely need to get their trowels out to unearth sword pommels, chains and other battle ephemera. But when Lance finds a plate of shockingly vivid gold, embossed with a mysterious inscription, he hides it away from Andy in his pouch and sneaks it home.
Crook is smart enough to give Jones the meat of the acting work. As ever in this series, Jones slips effortlessly between physical comedy – his kitchen rendition of “It’s Raining Men” imbues the song with a renewed narrative urgency; in a late scene he has a magnificent, furious tussle with his own rucksack – and almost Shakespearean emotional arcs. Lance struggles to reckon with his greed, moving through desire, dread, despair and shame. Jones, with his diminutive stature and wizened, Anglo-Saxon features, turns Gollum-like in a way that is both funny and painful to watch. As he reads the inscription of his gold plate, his giant mouth behind his magnifying glass twists and contracts over the syllables, delighting in every new letter he reveals by unfolding a bend in the metal – until it snaps apart in his hands. Here is vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself, under a microscope. Crook’s Andy, by contrast, is more naive, a silent observer at points almost receding into the landscape. At an event at the British museum, he is wide-eyed in his admiration for the rumoured appearance of… yes, the Professor Alice Roberts.
I won’t spoil it, but there is a surprise here that should be absurd, but in Crook’s deft hands is both playful and exquisitely moving. Like every great Christmas parable, Detectorists sees how the epic and the everyday are intertwined. In these expansive, unassuming landscapes, Andy and Lance shake hands with the past, and become part of history themselves.