On Detectorists and Dad’s Army

Praise has rightly been heaped on Detectorists since its first appearance on BBC4 in 2014; indeed, it was hailed as an instant classic. Like all the best sitcoms, it transcends the genre and often appears to be a serious and emotionally affective drama which also happens to be very funny. A short collection of essays, Landscapes of Detectorists (Ed. Innes M. Keighren and Joanne Norcup, 2020), and a recent fanzine Waiting for You have skilfully analysed some of the qualities of the programme: its underlying geographical, historical, ecological and cultural concerns; what it tells us about a certain kind of English (mostly male) identity and friendship; and the strong streak of melancholy, enhanced by the beautiful camerawork capturing the light and details of the north Essex countryside.

What, as far as I know, hasn’t hitherto been considered is the similarity of Detectorists to arguably the greatest British sitcom, perhaps greatest per se: David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s Dad’s Army. I say ‘greatest’ because it maintained a phenomenally high standard of writing, drama, humour, pathos and, above all, ensemble acting brilliance, across 80 televised episodes, in nine series over 10 years (1968–1977), plus a feature film and radio versions. Whilst the longevity of Detectorists – 19 half-hour episodes in three series plus a Christmas special between the second and third series – is meagre in comparison, the two shows have many affinities.

Foremost among them is that, as with the Local Defence Volunteers / Home Guard in Dad’s Army, metal detecting would appear, at first glance, to be an unlikely source of material for a sitcom. As Isla Forsyth notes (p.44) in Landscapes of Detectorists, “[D]etecting has—like so many British pastimes beyond the mainstream triumvirate of football, cricket and drinking—remained a fringe hobby; a peculiarity spied from a car as it speeds past fields, or a curiosity encountered on a weekend country walk”. But it’s that very sense that the activities concerned are unorthodox and anorak-ish which is the basis for their wealth of hilarious yet endearing and resonant situations; their comedy gold.

The bearing of rifles by a bunch of misfit old-timers and a ‘wet’ teenager to defend England/Britain against possible Nazi invasion in Dad’s Army is echoed in Detectorists by the wielding, often at ‘sloped arms’, of metal detectors by an array of similarly oddball characters to uncover the histories of the land – the trivial present and recent past as well as much older. Such eccentric frippery is much derided, though less so than a generation ago, when Thatcherite economics completed what the Luftwaffe started, and what remained was a predominantly insincere reverence for the past refracted through the lens of jingoistic nonsense. In a 1994 film for the BBC, The Architecture of Beer, Jonathan Meades perfectly articulated that trend:

The new oldness is bereft of irony; it’s a bolster against the present. It isn’t sodomy that’s the English disease, it isn’t snobbery; it’s the pusillanimous retreat into the past, or into the pretend past.

Thankfully, the past as it’s portrayed in Dad’s Army and Detectorists isn’t rosy-tinted: in the former, the comedic antics are always framed within an awareness that the Nazi jackboot could arrive any minute by parachute, boat or submarine; and in the latter, the treasures which the DMDC and their rivals seek are buried deep down – metaphorically as well as physically – because of brutal, historical violence, as is made explicit by the ‘flashback’ scene at the start of series two, showing a Dark Ages monk in fear of his life quickly digging a hole for the aestel which Lance eventually finds.

Several of the actors in Dad’s Army would have been keenly aware of their material – John Laurie (Frazer) fought on the Western Front in the Great War; Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring), John Le Mesurier (Wilson) and Edward Sinclair (Mr Yeatman, the verger) all saw army service in the Second. Arnold Ridley (Godfrey) had the misfortune to be of the age to fight in both wars, was badly wounded on the Somme in the First and suffered severe shell-shock in France in the Second. The overt, albeit volunteer/almost-hobbyist, military aspects of Dad’s Army are mirrored in Detectorists, by the wearing of camouflage gear, including the official DMDC fleecy jackets which Lance buys as a job lot. The stake-out in Detectorists (series two, episode 5), which encompasses Louise’s amusingly aggressive capture of Paul Lee, is organised as a military action, with Terry as the general: planning in the ‘Operations Room’ in his house, maps and all, and then commanding from afar (at a Lindy-hop night at a former RAF base, Spitfire and all) via walkie-talkie.

Aside from Terry as President, the DMDC is explicitly non-hierarchical, yet there are clear similarities with Dad’s Army: Hugh, in his apparent* youth and gullibility, is reminiscent, to an extent, of Private Pike; Russell’s non-conformist eccentricities have several precursors among Dad’s Army’s core protagonists – Jones, Frazer and Walker; and Varde’s near-silence, despite a running joke about her (unshown) garrulousness, is akin to the (usual) passivity of Godfrey. The Nazi bomber and ‘bad gold’ storyline in series two of Detectorists is of course reflective of that perpetual watch for the Nazi menace in Dad’s Army; but whereas the latter originated only a generation after the real Nazi threat was vanquished, the much greater time distance in Detectorists enables a German character, Peter, to be initially and unreservedly welcomed though he is subsequently revealed to be an unrepentant nighthawk. Perhaps the apogee of these connections was Toby Jones – Lance Stater in Detectorists – making a decent fist of playing Captain Mainwaring in the otherwise wretched and unnecessary 2016 film of Dad’s Army.

A strong moral core underpins both sitcoms, expressed in an English/British identity which is not rabidly nationalistic though many fans of Dad’s Army, who unironically and wrongly see it as representative of their values, most certainly are but is intrinsically bound up with companionship and the inclusivity and decency which that entails. The time lag between the two means that Detectorists is more reflective and embracing of the diverse nature of its contemporary society, through its representations of BAME and gay characters . In both programmes, that sense of decency is expressed by, and through the relationship between, the two male lead characters: for Mainwaring and Wilson read Lance and Andy. But there the similarity ends: for the former, it is ‘class’ difference which adds layers and tension to their relationship, expressed through superb acting which emphasises the quirks and nuances of each character’s flaws and strengths.

Both situations are male-dominated, to an exclusive extent in Dad’s Army, but not in chauvinistic ways. Detectorists, as Joanne Norcup astutely perceives in Landscapes of Detectorists, “subtly subverts and critiques myopic normative representations of what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’” (p.91); a view furthered in the book’s afterword by the show’s producer Adam Tandy: “The men in Detectorists are, almost by habit, almost by choice, emasculated by strong, no-nonsense women” (p.102). The same applies to Dad’s Army’s principals, Mainwaring and Wilson, who are ‘hen-pecked’, respectively, by the never seen Mrs Mainwaring (Elizabeth, forerunner, surely, of ’Er Indoors in Minder) and Mrs Pike (Mavis, with whom Wilson lives ‘in sin’, much to Mainwaring’s disgust). In both, the most natural and loving heteronormative relationships are hinted as involving highly active sex lives – Jones and Mrs Fox in the older show and Terry and Sheila in Detectorists. It’s the peripheral, gay relationship, between Louise and Varde, though, which provides as loving a moment as any in Detectorists, when, shown from a distance in the soft light of a beautiful summer’s evening, they embrace one another after what we presume was a marriage or civil partnership proposal by Varde. (I should add that Laura Checkley, whose cameos as Louise provide one of the many pleasures of Detectorists, is given much fuller rein in her series-stealing performances as the title-character’s wife, Terri, in another recent, superb BBC sitcom, King Gary.)

And then there are the physical similarities. The largely blank space of the church hall where the platoon meets in Dad’s Army is very similar to the village hall in Detectorists where the massed ranks of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (DMDC) meets. Exterior shots in Dad’s Army were shot each summer in and around Thetford, in south Norfolk, 30 miles as the crow flies from the equally flat lands of Maldon and its environs where Detectorists was filmed, also in the summer months (bar the 2015 Christmas special).

The constant cartoonish ‘baddies’ in Detectorists, ‘Simon and Garfunkel’, who are revealed, in fact, to share the surnames of another singing duo, Peters and Lee, are similar in spirit, attitudes and childish capers to Mainwaring’s nemesis Hodges and the latter’s sidekick, Yeatman; figures of fun to be ridiculed by the ‘good guys’. Rapprochements with these rivals are usually destined to fail – except in the heart-warming cessation of hostilities between the DMDC and ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ in the final episode of Detectorists.

And now a digression: I’ve written before about the use of characters’ names, including those in Dad’s Army; in Detectorists, too, they are well assigned. Lance’s surname is Stater and lo and behold he finds a stater. Thieving Maggie echoes the ‘thieving’ magpies. Varde’s name recalls, and is pronounced the same as, the Polari word ‘vada’. Terry and Sheila’s surname, Seymour, is apposite because Terry is the strategic leader of the DMDC, able to see the big picture, and because Sheila has a mystical ability to see things which are not of this world. Lance finds real treasure in the person of Toni (“with an i”), reminding the viewer of his ex-wife Maggie’s Pizza-Hut-manager-boyfriend Tony.

Whether Mackenzie Crook had Dad’s Army anywhere in his mind as a model for Detectorists is probably neither here nor there. The fact is he created, wrote, directed and starred in a television masterpiece worthy to mentioned in the same breath – and not many people can say that.

It’s sad to hear that the Toryification of the BBC has already led to BBC4 being targeted by the new Director-General as a repository not for the quirkly, leftfield mixture of new documentaries, dramas and recent arthouse films which have been its signature since it started in 2002 but solely for repeats. For that reason alone, it is timely to celebrate the brilliance of Detectorists, which exemplifies BBC4’s best output as much as any programme.

* Therein lies a fantastic joke and arguably the show’s greatest line, delivered by the ever acerbic Russell.

8 thoughts on “On Detectorists and Dad’s Army”

  1. Superb post, Matthew. The Detectorists is a clever and gentle comedy with classy acting. I have to admit to a pash for Simon and Garfunkel.

    Dads Army was fascinating as a kid. That Pike, almost a grown man, could be ordered to go to bed by his mum. I found that alluring. When my son was 11 in 2009, nearly all his year 6 class got boxsets of that Dads Army. There’s an everlasting appeal obviously.

    H x

  2. Like Dads Army, it’s tender, beautifully detailed and has many many layers. The difficult relationship with his mother in law, and Toby Jones’s meeting his estranged daughter. Love Terry’s wife too. I could go on…..

    That’s it! I’m going to watch it again now!

    H x

  3. …yes, Matthew – for example, and as well as what you have already written about, the unspoken parallels in The Detectorists between the search for treasure/wealth and happiness. Like the Harry Potter books, I think The Detectorists operates at so many levels depending on age, outlook, etc.

    Read this with great interest.

  4. Thanks, Matthew. Great to read your piece. I love Dad’s Army and have yet to catch up with The Detectorists so, after your praise, I’ll see if I can find it on iPlayer. The film version of Dad’s Army was dire, but Toby Jones was exceptional as he always is. Did you see him in Don’t Forget The Driver?

    1. Hi Ali, All 19 episodes are currently on BBC4 iPlayer. I guarantee that you will love it! No, I’ve never seen Don’t forget the Driver, but, as you say, TJ is brilliant in everything. I especially liked his performances in Marvellous and Berberian Sound System.

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