April 9, 2018

Detectorists: in praise of small things

The defining moment of Detectorists, for me, is like most of the show’s scenes in that it is quiet, incidental, and not much seems to actually happen.

The two men, Lance and Andy, are walking over Essex farmland with their metal detectors. Lance gets a signal, digs a hole, drops to his knees to investigate, and retrieves something.

“What you got?” asks Andy.

“Carpet stair rod holder,” says Lance, holding it up.

“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of them,” says Andy.

“Must have been a flight of stairs here, once,” says Lance.

Then Lance lowers the little metal piece, and the two men look at the wide, empty field of farmland, and quietly ponder this. Then the show continues.

This is how it goes on Detectorists, a peaceful, gentle, contemplative show that is about small people doing small things. And the characters of Detectorists are very clearly small people: the show follows the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, a handful of oddball obsessives who scour the English countryside digging up and cataloging buttons, ring-pulls, and metal toy cars – trash, in short.

There is a floating notion that, like all detectorists, the DMDC is always looking for the one big find: a hoard of ancient gold, which could very well exist, since England has seen its fair share of ancient kings. This curious juxtaposition is strangely bittersweet, and compelling: these small, mild people are the inheritors of the land that was once walked by kings and queens, and now they putter through the countryside picking through soil as they try to unearth ancient lost trinkets. Andy and Lance will never have a Saxon burial, entombed in the hills with mounds of gold coins and treasure, nor will they ever flee Vikings or battle Norse men. Lance drives a forklift for a living, and Andy works temp jobs doing landscaping. They are far more concerned with catching University Challenge and fretting over their own quaint, slightly mismanaged lives.

This juxtaposition, though, is slowly undermined as the show goes on. Because the story quietly makes the case that England has seen rather a lot of history: there are Saxon tombs, and Medieval monks, and Roman burials, and all of these theoretically legendary peoples become somewhat lost in all this time, much like the remnants of their very existence are lost in the soil of Essex.

On a large enough timeline, everyone is very small. The life of a great king or queen is about the same size as an overenthusiastic hobbyist in southwestern England. It is, after all, just one life.

Paired with this argument is the recurring visuals of the series, for Detectorists is practically a love letter to Essex (or perhaps Suffolk, where it was mostly filmed). Each episode opens with a montage of quiet, natural wonders: the camera lingers lovingly on crystalline dew clinging to the dimples of ferns, or a grasshopper traversing a stalk of wheat, or butterflies flitting through dales and glens, their wings turned to stained glass by dawning light. This is the first sign that, though Detectorists is an English sitcom, it is a very unusual one.

And these scenes underline the show’s evolving contention: these moments are all ephemera, all fleeting, and all largely unnoticed. Existence happens everywhere, all the time, whether you know it or not. Just as the lives of the DMDC are small but still very real in comparison to the great kings and queens of England, the lives of butterflies and moths and ferns are smaller still, but just as valid, just as real.

Much like how a stairway and a home can flourish and foster lives and history, but then fade until it’s no more than a trinket in the ground – just because you didn’t see it happen, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Nor does it mean that it did not matter.

The show makes this point adroitly in one scene where Lance consults with Sheila about what to do about his daughter who’s just come back into his life. Sheila is the spacey wife of Terry, the leader of the DMDC, and she’s mostly comic relief for much of the series – until she suddenly becomes earnest in this scene, and says, “But what you’ve got going for you now is that she’s met you, Lance. And you’re lovely. So she’s bound to come back when she’s ready.”

Lance thanks her for her advice, and says, “Never realized how often I’d thought about her over the last twenty years.” Then Sheila grows solemn and says with a hint of quiet desperation, “I know. Imagining every day what they might be doing now. What they would look like.” She looks away with tears in her eyes.

It is a beautiful, suddenly heartbreaking moment. Lance does not pick up on her sudden emotion, and the show does not explore this glimpse any further. We wonder – was it a child she gave away? A child that died? We aren’t sure. But we know that Sheila and Terry appear to be a childless couple, occupying their lives with dance classes and other activities. It isn’t until this moment that we wonder if they are trying to fill a vacancy, or distract themselves from something that was lost.

Endless moments unscroll and unfold beyond the boundaries of our little worlds, and we remain wholly ignorant of them. If the show urges the audience to do anything, it is perhaps to just sit, and watch, and wonder, and not take small things for granted. Lance makes a speech in the final episode of the show about how a detectorist is the closest thing we have to time travel, but I think this misses the larger point: a detectorist is someone who takes the time to look, and contemplates all the things they find, even if initially they don’t seem to matter much.

The final episode of Detectorists is full of sweet moments, but perhaps the sweetest for me returns to Shiela and Terry. Terry is a former policeman, and is full of enthusiastic, patrician officiousness, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he sets the world to rights with a confidence of an aging man maintaining his small courtyard garden. Terry is first played for laughs a bit in the series, having built up an extensive collection of cataloged buttons, but though the show first suggests this is somewhat ridiculous, it eventually comes to take him quite seriously.

Terry gets a signal, digs a hole, drops to his knees to investigate, and retrieves something. It is, naturally, a button. He holds it up, and calls to Sheila, who sits on the limb of an ancient tree across the field, drinking lemonade. “Button!” he calls. “Welsh Guard!” She raises her glass to him and smiles.

Terry then lowers the button, and looks around the field at all the people with him detecting on this beautiful summer day. And then, in a sudden burst of emotion, he is moved to happy tears. Perhaps you wonder if Terry is thinking of that hinted child, or perhaps not. But you are right there with him, by that point: on such a day, with such lovely people, how could you feel anything but joy?

One must take pleasure in small things, Detectorists suggests, for life is nothing but small things. But that does not mean it does not matter.