The Detectorists – Television Alchemy

The Detectorists is a BBC series which ran from 2014 to 2017, winning a BAFTA in 2015. I have just caught up with it. If you haven’t seen the series and want to avoid spoilers, watch first before reading on.

Written by Mackenzie Crook, the show tells the story of a group of metal detector enthusiasts, or ‘detectorists’ as they are more properly known, who pursue their hobby in the fictional town of Danebury in northern Essex.

The show is charming in its portrayal of a group of people who are looking for something. That something is ostensibly a gold hoard, the ultimate dream of a detectorist. In reality, the elusive ‘something’ they look for is bigger than gold. For example, there’s the feeling that the very act of searching through lovely countryside with friends is valuable in itself. In fact, focusing too much on gold as the end point can push the value it represents further away. Treasure hunters, who will do anything to find what they are looking for – known as night hawks – are the villains of the metal detector world.

After many days of finding ring pulls, buttons, old metal coat hangers, bits of scrap metal; after a day or two of actually finding gold and suffering the disappointment of discovering it does not bring the happy ever after; and after competitive detectorists come together as friends at a sunny afternoon rally where they all enjoy themselves, the mythic hoard still remains elusive. Our dreamers shoulder their detectors and start to walk away, looking forward to an evening at the pub. But there is something in their shouldering of arms which suggests this isn’t the end of the story. Before they begin a search, the detectorists tend to hold their detectors in the air, as a kind of salute. And at the end of a session, there is another inversion, pointing their devices upwards, in the opposite direction to where they would normally expect to find what they seek. And it is from this direction that reward seems to finally come. The story ends with a mischievous group of magpies appearing to acknowledge the detectorists for developing a better sense of value. These birds have been taking shiny gold coins from an old Roman hoard, and depositing them high in the boughs of a tree, above the field where the final detector rally is held. Right at the end of the closing episode, when it seems the rally hasn’t turned up the hoped-for great discovery, and no one really minds – at that point the magpies throw their gold coins to the ground.

The Detectorists is a heart-warming series, funny, gentle and thoughtful, suggesting there are as many ways to find gold as there are days to search for it. You can even find it watching television.

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