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British 'Detectorists' on Acorn TV uncovers a comedy treasure

British 'Detectorists' on Acorn TV uncovers a comedy treasure
Toby Jones, left, and Mackenzie Crook in a scene from BBC's "Detectorists." (BBC/Starz)

"Detectorists," a wonderful sitcom set in the south of England among a group of treasure hunters and the winner of the 2015 BAFTA award for scripted comedy, has crossed the Atlantic by way of the streaming subscription service Acorn TV.

It's the work — as writer, director and star — of Mackenzie Crook, probably best known to American audiences as Ragetti, the sailor with a wooden eye in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film franchise. Many will know him, too, as Gareth Keenan in Ricky Gervais' "The Office," the role that in the American version became Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute; or as the wildling warg Orell on "Game of Thrones."

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"I'm not a metal detectorist myself," Crook said recently on the phone from Britain, where he has just finished filming a second season. (A metal detector, as his characters will repeatedly insist, is not a person but the machine a detectorist uses to detect metal.) "But I saw an archeology program on British TV, and it featured a couple of these guys. It just struck me that they were an odd bunch of obsessive characters, with this really interesting, sort of lonely, melancholy pastime. And so I started to look into it and discovered this subculture of mainly blokes, who go out and stare at the ground for hours on end, hoping to find gold but usually finding absolutely nothing. And I just thought that was quite a rich vein of comedy."

Crook plays Andy, a temp worker with vague plans to return to school and pursue a degree in archeology; his vagueness extends to his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Becky (Rachael Stirling), a schoolteacher. Toby Jones (lately seen here in the Fox series "Wayward Pines" and the voice of Dobby in the "Harry Potter" films) plays his best friend, Lance, a fork-lift driver with a strangely expensive car, and an ex-wife (Lucy Benjamin) he can't get over. Aimee-Ffion Edwards plays Sophie, a student who stumbles into their midst.

The fields and countryside and the local detectorists club to which they magnetically return produce little in the way of riches — though a lot of buttons and beer-can pull tabs — but it is something to do, an organizing principle. Behind it there is the hope of real treasure — Saxon gold — but even this is less a way to get rich than to connect with something bigger, and older, and outside of themselves.

Like the ordinary lives it magnifies, "Detectorists" has the air of seeming to be small and immense at once, to be about hardly anything and almost everything. It is full of space and packed with life.

"I wanted it to be a love song to the English countryside," said Crook, who grew up in southwest England, "right on the brink of it."

And, indeed, there's something about the series almost Shakespearean in that respect: It's 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," whose exiled Duke says, "And this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in every thing."

"I like that very much," Crook said of the comparison, adding that "I'm a big fan of the novels of Thomas Hardy, and I think there's quite a lot of that in there."

Nature, said Crook, "is where Lance and Andy go to escape from their relationship troubles or their work troubles. And it's a meditative hobby, much like fishing would be or bird-watching or something like that. They get out there, and they listen to the earth — that's something Toby pointed out, that these guys just spend hours with their headphones on listening to the sounds of the earth, listening for where the treasure is."

A sunken-eyed string bean, Crook, 43, has been acting, mostly in character roles, in films and on television for nearly 20 years. But writing and directing are new, or more or less new, to him. As a stand-up comedian in the years before he turned to acting, Crook had penned all his material; more recently, he wrote the children's books "The Windvale Spirits" and "The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth." And though he had written scripts that never were made, "this is the first time I got anything commissioned to go on TV. And it felt like the natural choice to direct it, as well, because I had such a clear vision of how it should look."

It also gave him a chance to play a different sort of character: "The parts I usually get are the quirky, the geeky role," he said, "just 'cause of the way I look, I guess. And I don't often to get to play a real-life person. Andy — I mean it's basically a more pathetic version of how I actually am — was a nice opportunity to play a more downbeat character; it probably was a conscious decision to write myself a role where I could do some proper, realistic acting.

"I wanted to portray realistically what guys talk about when they're together without their girlfriends or wives around, and there's a lot of space and a lot of just talking about nonsense, absolute just rubbish, and quite happy to be talking about it. I wanted spaces between the jokes; quite often with sitcom writing, commissioners [programming executives] are very keen to have a joke every eight seconds or something. And I knew this wasn't that kind of show. But the BBC trusted us and understood the concept right from the outset; at no point did we have any pressure to put car chases or gags or slapstick into it."

With Acorn TV the only way to see it here, "Detectorists" is not likely to create a major media storm, as much as it merits one; I can't recommend it highly enough. But even at home, where it ran on the artier, less-watched BBC 4, it was considered somewhat out of the way and a dark horse for the BAFTA.

"People seem to think that BBC 4 is an obscure channel and hard to find," Crook said. "But it sits very well there — it's a channel with a lot of quite geeky, nerdy subject matter and documentaries, and it fits in among them very well. And when people do find it, they feel like they've discovered something for themselves and being sort of special and holding it close to their hearts."

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Like buried treasure.

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'Detectorists'

Where: www.acorn.tv

When: Anytime

Rating: Not rated

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