BBC4 this week broadcast the first episode of the third series of Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook. The series has always featured images of nature- closeup studies of insects, snails and plants- and conveyed a sense timeless charm and peace, and an intimate connection and identification with nature- but this first episode of the new series went further.
Not only is there the theme of the rural idyll challenged- and thereby the mental peace of the main characters- but the closing scene was a stunning and moving evocation of former ages in the same field, supported by a beautiful soundtrack by The Unthanks- the haunting song ‘Magpie.’
A green energy development (ironically) threatens the land where Lance and Andy detect at weekends. The peril and loss of the agrarian scene of this (imaginary) part of North Essex was wistfully and painfully evoked. The finding of a falconry whistle evoked and summoned all those generations that had passed before: they were depicted by a fantastic morphing backwards and forwards in time, with trees growing and shrinking as we passed between eras. The continuity amid change and the timeless beauty of the countryside were all captured.
The scenes brought a tear to my eyes- as often the series has done (including Johnny Flynn’s soundtrack song)- and I cannot praise it too highly, both for its humour and for its awareness of the mystical quality of the land and of the past that is always with us.
The series is concerned with metal detecting, so the concept of uncovering hidden treasure is central to its story lines. All the same, I have always viewed this literal meaning as a metaphor for something deeper- the search for hidden riches and meaning beneath the surface in the familiar environment. We all bring our personal responses to works of art, and my reaction to Detectorists (over and above admiration for the gentle comedy and for its sensitive explorations of relationships and personal ambitions and interests) has always been to see it as a celebration of England and of the attachment of the English people to their countryside. Throughout Detectorists I’m aware of the palpable and abiding presence of the past; I see the series as a statement of our enduring ties to foregoing generations and of their ongoing meaning for us. The past is tangible and emotionally sensible- and it isn’t far away, it’s just beneath the surface green of the familiar rural scene if only we care to look and listen.
At the risk of weighting a simple comedy series with too great a burden of significance: we are the land and the land is ours.