Comfort Viewing: Detectorists in an Age of Anxiety

In the final, pitch-perfect episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, as the protagonists ready themselves to leave their Western-Front trench and take the fight to the enemy, George – the eager and idealistic lieutenant – is suddenly struck by fear and nostalgia. Recalling the enthusiasm with which he and his fellow Cambridge recruits had signed up at the outbreak of war, giddily leapfrogging one another to the recruiting office, George realises that he is “the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”. “I don’t want to die,” he tells Captain Blackadder; “I’m really not overkeen on dying at all, sir”. If only for a moment, we have all – at some point in the last year or so – been George: apprehensive about the future and longing for the perceived certainties of the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has, perhaps indelibly so, divided the chronology of our lives into two distinct periods: before and after. Rarely in peacetime has everyday life been so disrupted and made so unpredictable for so many people at the same time. The fundamental uncertainties that the pandemic has brought in respect to health, money, and family and social life, has necessarily seen us seek comfort and reassurance in things that feel safe, familiar, and predictable. For many viewers in Britain and internationally, Detectorists has been a source of that assurance. In what follows, I consider why this might be so and what it might tell us about the programme’s continuing relevance and possible longevity.

“I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”.

In the middle of March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, Joanne Norcup and I were finalising the text of our soon-to-be-published edited collection, Landscapes of Detectorists. As we made a final round of phone calls to the rapidly emptying offices of cast members’ agents, striving to secure the permissions necessary to reproduce screengrabs in the book, we had a shared and growing sense that we had missed our moment: that, from the rapidly changing perspective of 2020, Detectorists seemed suddenly dated – a swiftly fading echo of the culture of a pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit Britain. Yet, in creating the temporal disjuncture that marked out Detectorists as coming from the “before” times, the socio-political events of 2020 served in unexpected ways to renew the programme’s relevance, both for existing fans and for new viewers. The advent of the pandemic, and the arrival of its associated lockdowns, was marked by a proliferation of articles in print and online offering advice on how best to navigate the “new normal”, many of which, in providing lists of recommended viewing, sought to guide readers through the vast range of entertainment available to them via television streaming services. Detectorists featured prominently in many of these lists.

Beyond its obvious comedic qualities, Detectorists was often recommended as a visual treat – a bucolic escape from the domestic confines of lockdown. For the journalist Paul Kirkley, for example, Detectorists represented “a whole new genre of television – the pastoral sitcom”. While there are undoubtedly earlier examples of this genre, such as Green Acres in the US and Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, Detectorists is perhaps unique in the degree to which the rural landscape is central both to the programme’s narrative and to its visual identity and distinctiveness. “Watching the show,” Kirkley noted, “is like stepping into a landscape painting, with flat Essex fields laid out beneath vast Eastern skies, while bees and insects buzz drowsily in the cowslip and foxglove”. Here, Detectorists is seen to have value in relation to its visual spectacle – a quality more often associated with the cinematic rather than the televisual. The scholar of film and television Helen Wheatley has shown, however, that a wider cycle of “landscape programming” has seen television increasingly deliver the immersive viewing experience more ordinarily associated with film. For Wheatley, series such as Coast and Britain’s Favourite View, while depending for their success partly on the visual fidelity of high-definition film and broadcast technology, address a desire amongst audience members for a less frenetic and more contemplative viewing experience – a desire often associated with the so-called “slow television” movement. Detectorists sits firmly at the intersection of these trends, its visual richness matched by its measured tempo.

The first pastoral sitcom? © Chris Harris Photography.

The pacing of Detectorists is, by design, gently meandering – a choice that mirrors both the unhurried approach to life which Lance and Andy assume (often to the understandable frustration of their partners) and the leisurely and deliberate nature of the hobby they pursue. On the rare occasions during which this lack of hurry is subverted in the programme’s narrative, it is for comic rather than dramatic effect: think of the incomprehensibly rapid delivery of Kevin Eldon’s auctioneer or the chase sequence in which Lance and Andy in the TR7 pursue Paul and “Art” on an underpowered scooter. In Detectorists, speed, in all its guises, is rendered absurd and unnatural. The rural setting of Detectorists certainly plays into this construction of slowness as natural – the programme’s action (such as it is) unfolds in a landscape where time is marked out by the passing of seasons and the rhythms of nature. While the reality of rural life might not correspond with such an imagined ideal, the apparent slowness of Detectorists was, for many viewers during the pandemic, a source of its appeal. Together with programmes like Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, Detectorists was espoused by online commentators as a source of almost meditative calm – a tranquilising retreat from an anxiety-inducing world. Described variously as gentle, tender, sweet, and pure, Detectorists was seen by many to embody qualities that appeared otherwise elusive in a global culture defined increasingly by antagonism and hostility.

The rural setting of Detectorists, and the importance of landscape to its storytelling, has, of course, long been recognised by critics as central to the programme’s lure. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, for example, Robert Lloyd argued that Detectorists was “a pastoral comedy in which characters (philosophers, lovers, clowns) go from the town to the country and into the woods, to be translated, deepened, changed, improved or beloved, as in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or ‘As You Like It’”. Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 2017, concurred with Lloyd’s analysis and heaped further praise on the programme in declaring it to be “the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It”. For audiences in lockdown in 2020, the pastoral qualities of Detectorists took on a new significance as a visual replacement for the landscapes to which their physical access was temporarily denied. Writing in Square Mile magazine – a publication targeting residents of the highly urbanised City of London and Canary Wharf – Max Williams called Detectorists “the perfect show for these troubled times,” on account partly of its calming and transportive visual qualities. “Gorgeous imagery abounds,” he noted, “imagery that makes you think, or perhaps realise, that tree leaves sparkling with the morning rain might be the most beautiful sight in creation”.

Our collective Golden Summer?

The cinematography of Jamie Cairney and Mattias Nyberg succeeds in capturing the mythical “Golden Summer” invoke by George in Blackadder Goes Forth. While such a vision of Britain, and of England specifically, might be dismissed as tritely nostalgic (a visual resonance of John Major’s “long shadows on county grounds”), the summer landscape of Detectorist comforts precisely because it elicits memories, real or imagined, of an earlier time. Redolent of the seemingly endless summers of childhood, landscape in Detectorists transports us not only in space but also across time. Detectorists is an escape because it takes place somewhere else but also, in effect, at another time in our collective past. Writing on Twitter the day after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, the novelist Linda Grant captured this sense of the programme’s comfort: “I assert that it is the perfect diversion from our troubled times, in which everything is ordinary, the skies are blue and nothing bad happens”. It is, of course, not true that nothing bad happens in Detectorists – relationships are repeatedly strained and tested, individuals are lied to and hurt, and a priceless Roman mosaic is destroyed. Rather, it is truer to say that wrongs are generally righted in the end and that, by and large, the characters’ lives become richer and more fulfilled as the series progresses. Like our childhood summers in this respect, the programme becomes a comforting memory when considered in retrospect: its narrative ups and downs are smoothed out in the process of remembering.

While the gentleness of Detectorists might be understood pejoratively as tweeness, it is both more subtle and more important than that. Gentleness is not only the absence of violence and aggression, it is also the presence of empathy and care – both for others and for the world at large. Gentleness, in this sense, is evident in the actions of many of the programme’s characters: in Andy’s attentiveness to the welfare of wildlife, in Terry’s unswerving devotion to Sheila, and in Lance’s capacity to bury the hatchet and extend the hand of friendship (albeit one holding a glass of Sheila’s lemonade) to “Art”. Their gentleness does not mean, however, that the characters of Detectorists lack flaws – rather it shows that, despite their ordinary human faults, they retrain a capacity for decency. Gentleness is evident, too, in the way the programme deals with what might otherwise be considered difficult themes. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the subtle but deeply poignant way in which Sheila’s heartbreak over the presumed loss of a child is revealed to the audience. Disguised in words of support and reassurance to Lance, Sheila hints, much too delicately for Lance to realise, at a hidden personal tragedy, the precise details of which remain unspoken. Sheila’s pain is, as a consequence of her selflessness and of the programme makers’ gentleness of touch, turned into a gift of comfort for Lance. Gentleness – as a character trait and as an approach to storytelling – strikes a chord with viewers because it seems to run against the grain of so much of contemporary cultural and political life, in which a ruthless emphasis on individual difference feeds social polarisation and the erosion of compassion. Gentleness matters because it is a deeply humanising quality.

“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”.

As much as Detectorists might appear so idiosyncratically British so as not to travel well as a cultural export, the positive international reception of the programme – facilitated by its availability across a range of streaming platforms and the provision of subtitling in various languages – has shown that its appeal is neither linguistically nor geographically specific. Whilst the pandemic is responsible for having created a shared context in which the programme’s intrinsic qualities became topically appealing, the way Detectorists deals with generic themes of friendship, belonging, and the search for meaning in life are arguably so universal that they are immediately relatable. Across the world, viewers have found comfort in Detectorists and a surprising sense of kinship with the DMDC. Taking to Twitter, one viewer in France epitomised the thoughts of many in describing the programme as “un petit cocon de bein-être [a little cocoon of well-being]”. That Detectorists has succeeded in transcending linguistic and cultural barriers is at least in part attributable to its hybrid status as a comedy-drama. For every reference to Blankety Blank or Linda Lusardi that might fall flat with international viewers, the character-driven nature of the programme presents a fundamentally relatable human story; we do not need to be from north Essex to care about, or to understand, the residents of Danebury and their hopes and their fears.

For all that the pandemic has brought new viewers to Detectorists, it has also encouraged many existing fans to return to the programme, often multiple times. The pleasure derived from the repeated viewing of a favourite television programme is well documented in the academic literature. Writing in the journal Television & New Media, Anne Gilbert – a scholar of popular culture – has argued, for example, that enjoyment in repeated viewing derives from the predictability and familiarity of the programme in question. Rather than a disincentive to watching again, knowing what will happen is precisely the reason for doing so – it is a guarantee of the temporary absence of uncertainty. In this respect, Detectorists sits alongside other sitcoms like Friends and Frasier in functioning for many viewers a self-prescribed treatment for anxiety – a safe and certain window of time in which there is no jeopardy, only predictability. Detectorists is one of those programmes that, for some viewers, has become more than simply a sitcom; it has become a lifeline. For one Twitter user writing in March 2020, the programme’s therapeutic value was clear: “When I find myself faced with a terrifying, unstable world, gripped by fear and anxiety, there’s one thing I can always rely on to make me feel safe: Detectorists”.

That Detectorists has become what the American journalist Ben White has called “an anxiety antidote”, goes some way to explain its cultural significance in 2020. Three years after the series ended, it acquired – as a consequence of the most exceptional of global events – both a new audience and a new meaning. When so much in the future can feel frightening – with climate change, democratic instability, and social polarisation making it difficult to feel optimistic about what is to come – we seek comfort in the things that counter that trepidation, in things that make us feel reassured and hopeful. For those who wish for a gentler and more inclusive world, Detectorists offers that reassurance – it is not a lost fragment of the “before” times, but rather is an image of what we might wish to see in our collective future. For as long as we live in an age of anxiety, Detectorists will remain relevant and will be there to comfort us.

Innes M. Keighren

This essay originally featured in issue no. 2 of Waiting for You: A Detectorists Zine, published by Temporal Boundary Press.

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