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The Detectorists:
Communal Roots & Communal Movement

1,859 words

The Detectorists
BBC Four, written, created by, & starring Mackenzie Crook
2014-2015

In October 2014, The Detectorists debuted on BBC Four. It has since made it to this side of the pond via Netflix and, while certainly imperfect, can be heartily recommended to White Nationalists or any of our sympathizers who might long for television programming that does not inspire thoughts of finding a baseball bat and reducing one’s “electric Jew” to a pile of broken glass and smashed Chinese plastic. The Detectorists is, despite a few (surprisingly few, in fact) eye-rollingly obvious and forced attempts to “politically correct” itself, is a white show about white things, and is most certainly aimed at white people.

In it, we see the tensions between community roots (in this case, a specifically English and implicitly white national identity) and modern pressure to reject the desire for the security, cultural stability, and personal bonds of community life for adventure and the myriad unknown challenges of the larger world – not necessarily an unhealthy idea (as we will see), but one which has been fetishized in the modern world, and is often seen as a requirement for a kind of “pop” self-fulfillment, a “YOLO” hedonism which is ultimately hollow and meaningless, disconnected from anything of substance.

The message of this show is that change can be good, but it depends on what is being changed and for what reason. Movement for the sake of movement is not a value. It must be deliberate, consciously-directed movement and, unless it originates from a solid footing on the foundations of one’s past, collective and/or individual, it can render any potential value moot. This might seem like a somewhat shallow or trite thesis, but when dealing with whiteness in any context, explicit or implicit, nothing is shallow or trite. Due to contemporary sociopolitical circumstances, whiteness, even in its most ordinary manifestations, is always significant. And in the form of popular culture, minor details are magnified exponentially in importance.

Written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, perhaps most famous for playing Gareth on the brilliant, original British version of The Office, The Detectorists focuses primarily on the relationship between Andy (played by Crook) and Lance (played by Toby Jones), two metal detectorists in a small fictional town in Essex, England. The two characters spend much of each episode walking the bucolic pastures and rolling hills of their homeland, metal detectors in hand, searching for lost items of historical interest. For Andy, a middle-aged archaeology student and part-time janitor, these searches revolve around connecting to history. He longs for a big find, one that will ensure both his place in metal-detecting history and the ability to provide a deeper and broader historical connection for his fellow Englishmen to their own history: a find of the magnitude of Sutton Hoo, for example, is mentioned more than once as the ideal outcome of his efforts.

The character of Lance is no less interested in the historical importance of any potential finds, but freely and unapologetically lists items he has found on eBay, something which Andy finds distasteful and refuses to do. Early on in the series, Lance seems not to fully appreciate the significance of his hobby in the same way that Andy does. Granted, the vast majority of their finds are junk, which becomes a running joke throughout both seasons, but still Andy holds onto his collected cans, coins, and belt buckles. It is as though each item has a story – an insignificant one, perhaps, but when combined into a collection, offers him a sense of awe at the magnitude of English history. At one point, he tries explaining to his girlfriend why he is so excited about a relatively worthless one-hundred-fifty-year-old coin. She cannot understand his enthusiasm, but, for Andy, the coin is a tangible piece of a past to which he feels a profound connection. It is solid evidence that someone of his own kind walked those grounds before him, and he seems to marvel at the idea that he is now its caretaker. In digging up small and lost remnants of his historical continuity (collective racial memory) in his village, it engenders feelings similar to those that many white New Worlders experience upon visiting Europe for the first time; that is, the terrific, palpable realization of the scale of history.

There are various subplots involving both of the main characters’ romantic relationships with women, an eccentric collection of fellow hobbyists, and a pair of rival detectorists who seek to thwart Andy and Lance’s progress. It is all charmingly amusing and certainly holds one’s interest. The characters are well-developed and heartfelt, and one quickly becomes involved in their lives as a sympathetic observer. We are aware of their motives and one cannot help but hope that, in every scene in which a metal detector beeps, they are about to find some rare and valuable item of historical interest. But there are two subplots that are of particular interest and speak to the larger theme of the series. The first is Andy’s girlfriend Becky’s desire to move to Africa, which makes explicit the primary thematic tension of the series: community rootedness versus movement.

At first, this idea of a move to Africa strikes the viewer as just another typical example of pathological white altruism. However, this proposed move is not one based in some kind of bleeding-heart savior complex. The idea is to have an adventure, to reignite the spark of youth in what she feels is a banal life in their small village. She loves Andy but is annoyed at his refusal to apply himself to a career, as well as with his constant trips out into the country with Lance, which are often followed by nights in the pub to which she is often uninvited. For Becky, Andy seems too embedded in the local, too attached to his friends and his fields, and too content to spend his days simply and quietly.

Later in the series, an opportunity to move to Botswana arises: Andy, who has attained his degree in archaeology by the second season, has a chance to work on a dig in Botswana for a year, and Becky, a schoolteacher, could potentially work in the school near to the site which will serve the children of the archaeologists. So, rather interestingly, this is not some charitable “save the children” nonsense, but rather an attempt to make a living, even if temporarily, by pursuing their individual passions. It would have been so easy for Crook to have written this subplot as a pathetic, Bono-style crusade, but he did not. In this case, Africa is more of a stand-in for intellectual passion and the excitement of adventure – deliberate movement towards a spiritual and cerebral goal, the conquest of knowledge, a uniquely white attempt to understand the world – rather than a move towards a specific geographical location tainted with bourgeois racial equalitarian overtones. In the context of the rest of the series, this is hardly insignificant.

The second subplot of importance does not occur until the end of the series. As Andy and Becky wrestle with the desire to move to Botswana (ultimately deciding to do so), Lance continues to pursue his goal of finding rare artifacts. Towards the end of the second season, he does in fact find something of value hidden beneath the ground. He is, of course, overjoyed. The item even ends up on display in the British Museum. Lance goes to visit it (in a scene in which his small, white body is swamped by the hustle and bustle of hordes of brown people and foreign tourists), and is extremely proud that he has contributed something new to his country’s history.

He returns to Essex, however, and feels strange. He becomes disturbed by the sterility of the museum’s display case. The bit of English treasure seemed unnatural, almost sad, stuck in its “cage.” He also becomes convinced that a curse has been placed upon him by some spectral, historical entity. He finds that even his ability to find mere bits of junk while metal detecting has disappeared, and various problems occur in his personal life at an abnormal frequency. What he does to remedy the situation is rather interesting: he uses the money he receives for his find to purchase gold coins at a shop across from the British Museum, returns to Essex, and buries them in a field. After doing so, Lance is freed from the curse.

What is the message here? It is certainly an action with foundations in something more than self-interest. Lance has transformed from an eBay seller to an archaeologist: uncredentialed, but real. While it is true that he wants to remove the curse, his solution betrays the fact that he has given deep thought to its meaning. By burying the gold coins, he is acknowledging that he has a debt to his race and his community. He cannot plunder English history, cannot extract profit from the land of his ancestors without giving back at least as much as he took. He unearths and publicizes an ancestral “truth” and creates another one to take its place. On a strictly material level, Lance’s actions are anti-capitalist: he has every legal right to profit from his luck and effort, but he instead chooses to “break even” for the sake of posterity – and he feels good and proud in doing it, despite not mentioning it to anyone.

On a spiritual level, Lance’s actions are a humble tribute to his past and a sacrifice to the future, for the future. He has realized the great paradox of racial belonging: the magnitude of one’s individual contribution to the race is proportional to the degree one accepts his ultimate insignificance. What truly matters is not Lance’s personal desires, not his ego or his imagination, not his particular material goals, but to what extent these can be harnessed to serve his people. By submitting to the awesome force of history, by humbling himself before his ancient race, he has assumed a more important role in both.

Both Andy and Lance are engaged in forward movement. But, for both characters, this forward movement is rooted firmly in the past. Their futures are intertwined with history, both local and global. Theirs is an existence on a spiritually sound arc of chronology: past and present mingle, the future merges with antiquity, their individual dreams are dependent on the past actions of their forefathers, and the dreams of their forefathers are awakened and set into motion once again. Englishness and whiteness are mobilized and reoriented towards the future. Their lives are given meaning by absorption into the vastness of history. The unburied treasure, exposed to the world, is evidence of the tangibility of the historical English racial collective and is a testament to its unending vitality, its promise to future generations. Lance stays in his village, basking in the glow of the spiritual promise of the integration of the past, present, and future. Andy thrives in Botswana as an explorer, a scholastic conqueror, and a distinctly white adventurer, risking security for the sake of truth. Each moves forward on markedly different paths but are intimately connected to each other and to the history they both share.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted March 7, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Great interpretation of the show. Through film and TV, implicit whiteness, and a subconscious yearning for white identity — is being channeled and expressed through various shows (e.g., from Dirty Harry and Death Wish to The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Taken, etc.) I had not heard of this show, but will definitely check it out. I’m a big fan of British comedies and was a big fan of the original BBC “The Office”. (Who can forget Gareth’s “Dirty Berty” doll?)

  2. Old Bullion
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Or you could just go to YouTube and watch all those amateur “detectorists” digging up Nazi memorabilia on what used to be the Eastern Front of WWII!

  3. Tom macintosh
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Great reveiw and a quite deep understanding of the show. I watched this show and found it is as satisfying as you did. It is a great show. I think one thing you missed was that this is a mans television show. It is about two men pursuing their hobby, relating to each other. It is about male bonding and as well it is about everything you wrote. Mens hobbies are often dismissed as senseless unless they are football or some other mass merchandised operation. This show means to repel that notion and offer a counter look at other ways men simply live their lives.

    • Donald Thoresen
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for the nice comment, Tom. And yes, I certainly should have mentioned that in the review but I was indeed aware of it while watching. It is a very important aspect of the show. Glad you took the time to mention it here.

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