The BBC4 website attracted a lot of attention in February when it was announced that Mackenzie Crook was filming a comedy series in which he plays a ‘wannabee archaeologist’. The comments on online detecting forums ranged from how the show might be very entertaining and worth watching, to how it would be detrimental to detectorists and the hobby.
I was pleased to see that the Sunday Times Culture magazine TV listings for the week preceding the programme was awarded the ‘Critics’ Choice’ and chosen as ‘Pick of the Day’
Mackenzie – the Metal Detecting Enthusiast
Our conversation led to an article in a metal detecting magazine. What follows is an edited version of that account.
Some detectorists hoped that the hobby would be shown in a favourable light and it would be a case of ‘laughing with us rather than at us.’ The doom mongers forecast ridicule galore, detectorists wearing silly garb, driving old cars and living on the dole – all typical comments for a comedy show that has yet to be aired. My favourite was, “The show can’t be very good ‘cos it’s been shown on BBC4. The show will flop if it makes detectorists look silly!”
Readers were told that they would see Crook draw on his own experiences as a metal detecting enthusiast ‘as he and his detecting partner Lance embark on a journey of greed, betrayal, rejection and redemption as they hurtle towards Danbury MDC’s greatest ever find. They both dream of finding that priceless hoard that will make them rich and cement their places in detecting history’ … but real life keeps getting in the way!
The exceptionally multi-talented Mr. Crook
Mackenzie is a gifted fellow – illustrator, stage, television and film actor, comedian, musical director, children’s author, radio performer, conservationist, comedy writer … and part-time detectorist! He is totally without ‘edge’ or pretentiousness and utterly charming.
For those readers who may need reminding, Mackenzie first came to prominence playing Gareth, the guy with the ‘character-actor’ face and funny haircut in the television show, The Office. That was twelve years ago. Since then he has never been out of work, appearing on the stage, in film (remember him as Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean?) and appearances in several television dramas. His face is his fortune!
“I’m still star-struck when meeting people like Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, and I hope I always will be. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Detecting helps keep me grounded,” he explained. Mackenzie’s humour can be deadpan. Was the pun intended I momentarily wondered?
I’ve absolutely no idea whether anyone will watch the program … I think it’s warm and heartfelt, not in the least cruel or spiteful, a story of ordinary people, their lives and relationships, and this extraordinary hobby that they escape into at the weekends … Mackenzie Crook
Over refreshing glasses of amber coloured ale, I asked about the forthcoming programme. Contrary to the impression the BBC website may have given, it was very early days, because he was still fine-tuning the scripts. There was still a lot to be done and filming wouldn’t start until June. Screening would probably be nearer the end of the year. His ‘pirating days’ were over and now the challenge was to write, star and direct in a show conceived by himself.
Mackenzie said (at least on a couple of occasions) he was keen that the metal detecting community would enjoy the show and stressed it wasn’t his intention to mock detectorists or the hobby. “The series will be a celebration of an all-absorbing pastime and the quirky people it can attract,” he assured me.
He smiled, nodded enthusiastically, and agreed that he probably had a lot in common with some detectorists … because he was often being called upon to play the geeky character! Mackenzie has been detecting for eight years and started with a Viking VK30, upgrading to an X-Terra about 5-6 years ago. He laughed as he related how his wife Lindsay referred to detecting as ‘your imaginary hobby!’ That reference, of course, is to the fact that he has all the know-how and equipment, but seldom has time to go out searching because he is so busy!
It may come as a surprise to learn that Mackenzie isn’t a member of a club, on-line forum or any organisation to do with detecting, but seems to understand so much about what goes on, especially club dynamics. With what appeared to me as his evident lack of practical experience, I asked where he had gleaned his information.
“From reading detecting magazines cover to cover, watching online videos and detecting on my own land”, was his answer. He agreed that he didn’t have much practical experience. The idea of knocking on a farmer’s door asking for permission to search also filled him with dread. Believe it or not, in real life this brave and swashbuckling pirate is a shy guy …
A male dominated hobby?
According to the BBC the series, ‘taps into the world of the male hobby, which is very funny and touching.’ These words, coming from the BBC commissioner for the programme, have already upset several of the female detecting fraternity.
Although he would have preferred to leave out the offending word, Mackenzie explained that his show was an exploratory (and hopefully funny) look at a predominately male dominated pastime. “Men are completely obsessed by their hobbies whether it is model railways, stamp collecting or whatever! They can get so immersed and obsessed whereby a lady is able to keep everything in proportion … if you see what I mean.”
I was interested to know if there was a stereotypical archaeologist in the script, somebody with a beard, flyaway hair and a knitted jumper. In a deadpan manner accompanied by just a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Yes, there is an archaeologist … she’s a woman!”
The conscientious detectorist
He told me a little more about the programme, but prefaced his remarks with the reminder, “I don’t want to give too much away you understand! The story that I’m doing is about two guys, their relationships and this hobby, which enables them to escape from the ‘madding crowd’ and find a refuge from the stresses of ordinary life. The majority of the time our two heroes don’t find anything. It’s not a rip-roaring roller-coaster side splitting hilarious comedy. In fact not much happens at all … just two middle-aged guys talking rubbish most of the time!”
He confided that the character he played was the more conscientious detectorist. His partner Lance (the talented actor Toby Jones) plays the ‘treasure hunter’ with a liking for wearing full camouflage gear.
I was surprised to learn that in ‘real life’ Mackenzie would have loved to be an archaeologist. History was one of his passions. His favourite television programme was Time Team, which he found ‘brilliant’.
Like most detectorists he has a wish list, but his is ‘modest’ … a good condition hammered coin, but with some evidence of circulation wear; something Anglo Saxon and perhaps a piece of our social history that can be researched, an element of the hobby that he enjoys very much. Over the years he has collected and found many things like whole clay pipes and assorted flints.
On his uncle’s farm in Rhodesia where he spent many a holiday as a child, Mackenzie went off exploring and found a cave adorned with primitive art on the walls. He proudly showed me the pictures taken at the time. And it was there, on the floor of the cave, that he found something special … the head of a spear. He dipped into the cavernous man-bag and proudly extracted the implement to show me.
Mackenzie is a conservationist with his own eight acres of woodland in Essex, a site that he manages and detects. “Whenever I go up to my woods I always take the detector. I’ve never been on farmland.”
At one time Mackenzie contemplated buying a Ferrari, but his passion for conservation won through. I’m sure that his eyes took on an extra sparkle as he talked about managing the ancient woodland. “Now that I live in London” (in Peter Seller’s old house) “I wanted my children to appreciate the countryside as I have done. Sometimes we even camp there,” he told me …
The club’s fundraiser – Detectorists: Episode 6 Preview – BBC Four
In an email later, Mackenzie said that it was refreshing to do an interview where he got to talk about things that really interested him, instead of the usual banal showbiz questions. Next day I received a beautiful, original and signed piece of artwork (shown above) showing a dejected detectorist holding a tin can … he looked very familiar!
Anyway, I sincerely hope that you are looking forward to this series as much as me! I can hardly wait! In these gloomy and uncertain times the ability to have a good laugh at yourself makes life just that little bit easier.
In the meantime, perhaps I can enthrall you with the breeding habits of Mr. Crook’s elderly tortoises, Joshua and Josephine … if only I could find a metal detecting peg on which to hang the story!
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of The Searcher magazine
April 26th 2015
Mackenzie receives a BAFTA award for best comedy writer
May 10th 2015
Mackenzie receives his second BAFTA for best scripted comedy!
Detectorists series 2 includes a Christmas special and will stay on BBC Four
Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones will be searching for festive items in a Christmas special of Detectorists later this year. The critically-acclaimed BBC Four comedy will return for a six-part second series in late 2015, followed by a festive episode in December.
The BBC want a third series of Detectorists … but Mackenzie is not so sure:
Johnny Flynn performs “Detectorists” for The Line of Best Fit