The Detectorists are back for a Christmas special after a five-year break – and its stars are buzzing
Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones on an "un-turndownable job", Roman gold, real treasure and the superpower of kindness...
Detectorists occupies a special place in the hearts of its fans. Discovering the show was like unearthing a gem in the schedules, so the return of the BBC’s BAFTA-winning sitcom for a feature-length special is like a pot of gold to its myriad admirers.
Funny, sometimes sad, full of quiet wisdom and underscored with a love of the countryside, Detectorists flew in the face of more aggressive modern comedies. But after three small but perfectly formed series, it looked like we’d said goodbye to treasure-seeking metal-detecting chums Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) in 2017.
The final scene saw the friends showered with "pennies from heaven", having at last stumbled upon a sparkling cache, while Andy and his teacher-wife Becky (Rachael Stirling) won their dream home at auction. It seemed like a decisive full stop on the part of Crook, who is also the show’s creator, writer and director.
So what changed his mind? "I tentatively said that that was it at the end of the third series because we left them in such a lovely place, and I thought I wouldn’t disturb them again unless I thought of a good story… And one occurred to me."
That and seeing your friends again? "Well exactly. It’s a bit of a cliché that actors at the end of a project say they’re going to miss their friends but yes, I was going to miss Lance!"
Filming for the special in and around Framlingham in east Suffolk concluded in September, but there’s a reunion of sorts going on for RT’s interview, with Crook, 51, joining in via Zoom and Jones, 56, live in the room. Their camaraderie, a mix of respect and ribbing, is delightful to watch, and theirs is clearly a prized friendship.
So how did Jones react when he got the call? "I was surprised because I felt we’d ended it, as MacKenzie says, beautifully, but I knew that he wouldn’t do it unless there was a good enough idea. He took Rachael out for lunch first – which I still hold against him – then he took me for lunch and said Rachael’s up for doing it, thereby putting emotional pressure on me to say yes as well!
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"Then he told me the story and I thought it was brilliant. It is an un-turndownable job… there isn’t any problem with this show because the scripts are so good. That makes it very easy to say yes to."
The actors, who are both married with two children, are in constant demand professionally. Having produced three chapters of his other countryside project Worzel Gummidge in 2021, Crook rejoined Mark Rylance for this year’s stage revival of Jerusalem. And Jones has added to his impressive list of roles in big franchises, from Harry Potter to Jurassic World, by starring with Harrison Ford in the new Indiana Jones film, set for a 2023 release.
How do the Crook and Ford tales of raiding the past compare? "Very different," says Jones. "The action sequences in Detectorists are much lower-key and you’re part of a smaller crew. But in terms of good-looking leading men, I think it’s probably about the same, really."
Crook and Jones had been in a handful of the same films but never shared a scene together until Muppets Most Wanted in 2014, playing museum guards. "That’s when it occurred to me that we be would good together as these detectorists," says Crook, who had first jotted down the story idea in 1999.
"Mackenzie mentioned that he’d written something with me in mind and then he sent it to me," adds Jones. "He sent me the kind of dialogue we do under the tree [the usual location for their characters' tea break in the programme] and it was just so laugh-out-loud funny. I remember calling my wife and saying, 'You’ve got to read this dialogue,' and she was laughing her head off."
I ask about Ricky Gervais, in whose sitcom, The Office, Crook played Gareth Keenan from 2001–2003, and who also appeared in Muppets Most Wanted, and I'm surprised by the answer. "Ah, do you know what, I haven’t seen him since then, which is approaching a decade ago. I’ve no idea, to be honest, if he’s seen Detectorists."
But back to the Detectorists Christmas Special, where we catch up with Andy, Lance and the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, five years later. The fortune we saw them discover has gone elsewhere, and a wedge is driven between the pair over how to explore a new permission to detect on farmland.
"I love the characters so much and it’s painful to put them in any horrible situations," says Crook, "but you have to have some sort of jeopardy for the drama. And they’ve always had this slightly fractious relationship, needling each other. They’re coming at the hobby from slightly different angles."
The actors are sure they’ve never fallen out, although Jones adds, "He’s normally so incredibly accommodating and he’s always got about 200 per cent more things going on in his head than I have. All I have to think about is doing the scene and he’s got to think about shooting it. I’ll sort of go… 'Don’t you think it would be funny if I did this..?' but a couple of times I’ve got the sense that maybe I’ve just asked once too often!"
Crook, who metal-detects in his spare time, holds up to the computer screen his favourite find to date, from the third century: "It’s a piece of Roman gold that I found on a farm where we filmed the third series – I don’t know if it’s a pendant or an earring – but it’s pretty crumpled. It was declared treasure but no museums were interested, so I got it back. It was valued at £100, somebody objected and it was revalued at £50. Bargain price, nobody wanted it!"
Hobbies aside, are they like their characters? "Andy is really an exaggerated version, a sadder version, of myself," says Crook, "so I’m kind of playing myself, in a way." Jones chips in, "He’s got a low satisfaction threshold [both laugh]. Probably lower than you!"
And what does Jones admire or dislike about Lance? "I admire his intelligence, his loyalty. Occasionally he strays but nonetheless I think he’s a very good friend. I think they’re both hopeful people.
"Lance is pompous but not hugely pompous. He’s not a big head. He’s a bit of a know-all, but that’s a feature of the club: everyone is a bit of a know-all. That’s what the club should be called, the Know-Alls."
Detectorists is such a fun, relaxing watch that you imagine the same is true of filming. Any gigglers among the cast? "There’s not a big problem with corpsing on set," says Crook. "I don’t know if that means that my scripts aren’t funny enough [Jones laughs].
"But Pearce Quigley [who plays Russell] is hilarious and whenever Toby and Pearce get together, I’ll look over and they’ll both be doubled over, gasping for breath, unable to speak…"
"He’s just a naturally very, very funny actor," explains Jones. "Really everyone’s just laughing in admiration."
But what about the public response to the show – did that surprise Crook? "It did. It’s been a sort of slow reaction, always building, and people are still finding it. It seemed to be a big comfort to people during lockdown, so it started as a cult audience of probably mainly metal detectorists and now it seems to have a big old fanbase."
"What’s really interesting is when you go away on holiday," adds Jones. "I was on the TGV in France and this guy said, 'Welcome to our country' and I said 'Thanks very much' and he went, 'Detectorists!' [mimes a thumbs up]. I assumed it might be shown in Europe but several people came up to me in France and said they absolutely loved the show. I think it’s got a reach internationally."
I suggest that there’s a lot of kindness in the programme… "Yes, thank you and that’s deliberate," replies Crook, "because I think it’s a superpower, almost. Kindness is underrated. If people were kinder in general, the world would be a better place."
In the new episode we learn that Andy and Becky (Rachael Stirling) have lost Becky’s mum, Veronica. She was played in the show by Stirling’s mother Diana Rigg, who died in 2020, and one moving scene where Becky takes stock feels completely real.
"It was important to me and it was important to Rachael to at least acknowledge it. She’s acting, obviously, but I could tell she was very upset at the same time, so I knew I’d got it on that first take and I didn’t make her do it again... They’ve had a tough year, Andy and Becky, for that and other reasons, and when we join them they’re on their way out of that tough period."
The show's rich blend of personal dramas and intrigues from antiquity have a wide appeal among the great and the good. Digging for Britain host Alice Roberts makes a brief cameo in the Christmas Detectorists – but are there other famous fans? "I got a message from Anthony Hopkins, who loves our show," says Jones... "Stewart Lee wrote a really lovely email," adds Crook.
What about Harrison Ford? "I wouldn’t be surprised," says Jones, "he just can’t stop with the archaeology."
It's interesting to learn that the show wasn't always intended as a relaxed, sun-kissed amble through the countryside. "I don’t think I set out for it to be this sort of calm tonic that it’s turned out to be," Crook elaborates. "I found some very early notes I’d written, way before I even started writing scripts – metal detecting in the real world happens in the autumn and the winter months when there are no crops in the fields, so it’s a bleaker, colder hobby – and in these original pages of dialogue it was a kind of a bleak drama I suppose.
"When we came to film the pilot it was on the hottest day of the year, and we realised we would be missing a trick if we didn’t do it in the summer."
It turned out to be a masterstroke. The show features stunning photography of fields and trees and insects – but then, the world around us is clearly important to Crook: “One of my main passions is the natural world and environmental issues, and if it makes people appreciate the countryside then that’s a good thing.
"It was the same with Worzel Gummidge. In that I could push the environmental message a bit further because that was kind of what it was about. But yeah, if I can just show some pleasant shots of the English countryside, that’s a bonus.”
Tied in with Detectorists' subtle eco-message is the series' clever theme tune by Johnny Flynn. Did Crook have any input to that? "I was listening to his music while I was writing it and there was a track called Lost and Found, which I thought was really apt. I wanted to use that and then we found that using previously published music was really expensive, so he suggested he’d compose a theme tune.
"I basically told [Flynn] the concept of the show. Two days later he came back, he left a voice message on my phone with this song perfectly formed, and with the lyrics coming from the point of view of the treasure underground calling out to the detectorists. I thought it was a work of genius, I still do.
"It still amazes me what musicians can do because I’m not a musician myself, and it seems like alchemy to me. He and Dan Michaelson have composed a bunch of new tracks for this new episode as well."
The musician's art may have eluded Crook but his projects speak of many talents. As his books for children prove, he's also an accomplished artist. In last year's Radio Times Christmas issue he shared an exquisite prop he had made for Worzel Gummidge. But Crook brushes off any suggestion that he's some kind of polymath: "If you want a list of things I can’t do, my wife will tell you..." [Jones laughs at this]
So apart from each other, what else makes the actors laugh? On TV, for example? "Curb Your Enthusiasm, answers Jones. "I tend to rewatch that. And I find Asim Chaudhry really funny."
"Charlie and Daisy May Cooper," chips in Crook. "Stath Lets Flats, Harry Enfield’s thing he’s just done about 100 years of BBC is an amazing piece of work – The Love Box in Your Living Room. It’s so dense with gags, I’m going to have to watch it again to pick up on them."
And what's next for them both? Jones: "A Sam Mendes film, a thing on Netflix called The Pale Blue Eye and Indy." Crook: "Frustratingly I've got two projects I’m really excited about but neither of them are greenlit yet so I can’t really talk about them. One’s a historical film I’m hoping to direct and one is something I’m writing."
But having now whetted our appetite for more Detectorists after this one-off, will it ever return? "I’m going to give the same answer I gave at the end of the third series: probably not," says Crook. Dot dot dot? "I guess dot dot dot... I mean where can you go after this?" Jones helps him out: "Movies… a franchise…" Crook warms to the theme: "We always talked about the live stadium show [laughter from both]."
As the programme they enjoy making so much goes to prove, riches take many forms. And as to what constitutes real treasure, the stars agree. "Family has been a kind of treasure," says Jones, "in the sense that it’s an incredibly stabilising force for good and tempers the kind of craziness of my job… That and getting really well paid!"
"My children are amazing me as they have done for the past 19 years," adds Crook. "They’re both teenagers and just bursting with ideas and creativity. My son’s at film school and is in a couple of bands. He’s found his tribe and he’s become a man… that’s amazing to me every single day."
Detectorists is on Boxing Day (Monday, 26th December) at 9pm on BBC Two. Seasons 1–3 are all on BBC iPlayer.