“I hate the word gentle” Mackenzie Crook tells us, “it just sounds like unfunny.” Reviews of Detectorists, a new BBC Four comedy about a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts written and directed by Crook, have relied heavily on the g-word.
It’s understandable in many ways. Crook’s series is difficult to pigeonhole. It rolls along the English countryside telling a low-key story about Andy and Lance’s preoccupation with searching for ancient objects – a search more likely to bring up 1980s ring-pulls than a hoard of Saxon gold. It’s no gag-fest, but it’s certainly not unfunny. Detectorists’ sense of humour is wry, bathetic, and steeped in very British references. Where else would you find a hymn to William G. Stewart’s tenure on Fifteen To One alongside a wistful reflection on the way hobbies help us to escape the world?
We spoke to Crook about Detectorists, which he’ll be following up with a second series, the coup of casting his terrific co-star Toby Jones, skinny-dipping in Iceland with the cast of Game Of Thrones, why he has no regrets about Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, why he won’t be in the David Brent movie, and why he thinks a reunion of The Office would be a terrible idea…
Congratulations on Detectorists. I just finished the series last night and I think you’ve captured a wonderfully wistful slice of humanity in it.
Thank you very much. I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out and the reception it’s been getting. A lot of the reviews have said about how gentle it is and I hate the word gentle, that just sounds like unfunny – I like wistful, the word you said.
As a comedy, it’s not afraid to play the silences.
That was always the idea, to afford a lot of space in between the jokes. A lot of people I think don’t know how to categorise it, because if it’s a sitcom, you need a joke every eight seconds or something but you don’t get that with The Detectorists. That’s the point, really. That was always the intention.
It has a strong sense of humour too though, one that avoids schmaltz. What else were you trying to avoid when you were making it?
I didn’t want it to be a parody of these people and their hobbies. I wanted it to be set in the real world and have a slow pace, nothing edgy necessarily, or controversial, I wanted to avoid that. It’s hard to describe it in any way other than gentle, but…
To me, it felt like it was about how having such a narrow focus like Andy does – he’s constantly looking at the ground, never up – can both blinker people from things, but also be an escape route of sorts. As you say in the show, Andy and Lance’s hobby is their “escape from the rude world and the madding crowd”. On a website called Den Of Geek, we can certainly understand that.
Yes. I’m fascinated by people and their past-times. It happens to be metal detecting that these guys do, but it could be a number of other hobbies. I’m fascinated by the way people use their spare time and get obsessed by a very narrow field.
You’re no stranger to unusual hobbies, I understand you breed tortoises in your spare time?
Yeah, I guess I’ve always had hobbies. My dad always had hobbies. It sort of runs in the family, that gene, whatever it is, that collections thing.
Men and their sheds?
Absolutely, it’s a cliché but I remember my mum complaining about how much time Dad spent in the shed, and she still does. Now I’ve got a shed!
Lance [Toby Jones] gives a speech in the last episode of The Detectorists about men and women, saying that having collections and being really nerdy was a particularly male preserve. Is that something you agree with or is that just what his character – who is a bit retro in his views – thinks?
It’s a massive generalisation obviously, but I think men probably have more capacity to take it too far. As you say, in the last episode Lance talks about his friend’s cactus collection and how a woman would be able to put a lid on that and say, ‘no, I’m not going to go crazy’ but men don’t seem to be able to put the brakes on as often, I think that’s what I was trying to say. But that’s Lance, that’s the way Lance thinks.
Talking about Lance, it’s wonderful to see your co-star, Toby Jones, doing comedy.
Isn’t it? It’s amazing. He doesn’t do it, he said he’s nervous of it and he’s honestly one of the funniest men I’ve ever met, he’s hilarious.
Is that true, that he was nervous about doing a comedy?
Yeah. I don’t think necessarily he was nervous about doing Detectorists, but he has been nervous in the past about accepting a comedy script. I’m honoured that he chose my one to be the first!
He had a stand-out moment for me – one you wrote obviously – with that speech in the field to Sophie in episode 5. It’s a beautiful bit of writing.
That’s one of my favourite bits, that speech. I just really fell in love with the character of Lance. In the first episode you think he’s a bit of a knob, you think he’s going to be a bit of an idiot, then he turns out to be just a really kind and wise man. So yeah, I wanted that to be the moment when you think he’s actually a good guy.
You could have taken that speech for your character, but you gave it to Toby. Do you think that sort of generosity, writing something great like that and then not putting it in your own mouth, is important when you’re writing, directing and acting?
I suppose so. I think I probably could have given myself a few more lines. I was so overwhelmed that we’d managed to get Toby to play Lance I just thought I wanted to get my money’s worth out of Toby Jones! [laughing] I gave him loads of stuff, and I’m pretty much monosyllabic in the background.
There’s a spate of actors and comedians writing and co-writing their own sitcoms at the moment. I suppose there always has been. With Chris Addison and Trying Again, James Corden and The Wrong Mans, Jessica Stevenson and Up The Women, Simon Amstell and Grandma’s House… Do you see yourself as part of that brigade?
I suppose I am, just because I’ve done a series. I don’t know.
Was it a case of just getting tired of waiting for something like Detectorists to come along, so you decided to go ahead and write it yourself?
It was more a case of always being aware that I’d had such an amazing time since The Office going from job to job and I haven’t spent any long periods out of work since then, but I’ve always had it in the back of my head that it could just dry up any moment. When I’m just relying on other people to bring me jobs, that’s quite precarious. So it was an exercise in trying to create something from scratch, an idea by myself, and it worked out.
It does, in my mind at least, slot in with a raft of similarly low-key British sitcoms. I don’t know if you watched Him & Her, or Roger And Val Have Just Got In? It slots in alongside those great character comedies, which are very different in style from say, the Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys studio style.
Yeah absolutely. There are two different camps aren’t there? This couldn’t be more different from say, Miranda, but I love Miranda, I think it’s hilarious. Him & Her was great as well, I’d forgotten about the Dawn French one with Alfred Molina, that was great. What was the other one you said was really good, the Chris Addison one?
Trying Again by him and Simon Blackwell. That went to Sky, but they’ve just cancelled it, unfortunately. Would you say The Office popularised started that strand of non-studio, low-key UK character comedies?
I suppose it did. At the time everyone was just amazed at this new style – it seems obvious now but that was quite ground-breaking.
Your former co-star in that, Martin Freeman, who’s obviously done alright for himself lately, has said he thinks an Office reunion would spoil it. Are you of the same mind?
Yeah, I’m absolutely of the same mind to be honest. People have been asking me a lot whether I’m going to be in the David Brent film, but I don’t think Ricky or Steve would do that, revive those characters, it’s not about that. I don’t think a reunion would ever happen.
You said the same about Pirates Of The Caribbean didn’t you, after the third film, that you sort of hoped it would call it a day then and not make any more.
[laughing] Yeah, I did say that, but now the fifth one is wafting about, and I’m not sure whether I’m going to do that or not.
You’ve had the call though?
I had a call about availability, yeah, so I’m in a bit of a quandary after being on my high horse saying that ‘that’s enough pirating for me’!
I did wonder, because you then weren’t in the fourth film, whether somebody up high had heard you say that and thought, right, he’s out!
[Laughs] They did get in touch about the fourth one, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen – they decided they didn’t need those characters. As I understand it, they’re thinking about writing our characters back in for the fifth one. I don’t know whether it’ll work out or not, we’ll see.
Looking back at your roles since The Office then, what are you most proud of?
To be honest, I think I’m most proud of my theatre work, that’s been a revelation because I didn’t come up the normal way of going to drama school and studying and going to a lot of theatre there. I did stand-up, then TV, then film, and then eventually theatre. So the plays that I’ve done, I did The Seagull at the Royal Court and then Jerusalem is the other one. I’d say those two plays, both directed by Ian Rickson, those are the things I remember most fondly.
Is there anything you wish you could take a magic eraser to and delete from your IMDb page?
[laughs] No, not really, because… I don’t know, I’m not about to say something Zen but I don’t try and go through life with regrets.
It’s all led to where you are now, I suppose.
I’m having a great time, so I’ve got no complaints. My only regret is I wish I’d seen Nirvana, that’s the only thing I’d change. I had tickets, but I didn’t go for some reason.
Mark Gatiss was asked a similar question recently and Sex Lives Of The Potato Men came up. His point was that when it was being made, it was really the hot ticket, all the actors he knew wanted a part in it. Was that your memory of making that?
Absolutely, and that’s why I didn’t say Sex Lives Of The Potato Men when you asked. It was a funny experience. I remember getting the script and reading it and just laughing out loud, it was really funny, and everyone I know that worked on it said that it was laugh-out-loud funny. Somewhere between the script and the finished product, something went wrong and it wasn’t as funny as the script. But it’s the cab drivers’ favourite – every time I get into a London cab, they’ll turn around and say [does London accent] ‘Do you know what’s my favourite movie I was watching the other day, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men’.
We were big fans of Almost Human and were gutted when Fox cancelled that.
Aw, I know! And it got quite a big audience as well, I think it was just too expensive to justify a second season.
Is that what you were told, it just cost too much money?
I don’t think I was specifically told that, but the audience figures were good enough that it should have got a second season. I can only imagine really that it was such a big production that they would have had to have had a lot more people watching and a lot better response to it.
When you heard the cancellation news on that, did you and Karl Urban go out for a commiserating pint?
No [laughing] it was after I came back from Canada filming that we heard it wasn’t going any further. People were disappointed. I was signed in for five years though and I was sort of thinking that I wanted to go away and do The Detectorists, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I don’t think, if Almost Human had been recommissioned, so that’s worked out in that way as well.
Is America calling with more roles now then?
Not really. I’ve been working in the States as much as I want to really. Every couple of years I go over and do a play or a film or something, and that’s great. I don’t need to constantly be flying out to America.
You have to tell us about Game Of Thrones. What was the most memorable thing about working with the gang in Iceland?
There’s loads of stories! It was such an extraordinarily gruelling job. We went to the north of Iceland in November, where there’s about six hours of daylight. One day we drove out to this place and it was just a white field of snow and we trudged across it until we came to this tiny hole in the ground that we all squeezed into, and it opened out into this huge cave with a volcanic pool, and we all jumped in, it was great.
You went skinny dipping with, who would that be… Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie and the chap who plays Tormund?
Yes, the four of us, and it was a boiling, boiling hot pool, seriously hot. Then we all got out and put our clothes back on and came back out into the snow.
Tell me, there’s a moment in Detectorists when Andy is looking up at a bird flying above his head, was that a little nod to Orell in Game Of Thrones?
No! I didn’t think of that. It’s similar isn’t it, when I look up at the eagle. I might claim that was deliberate.
Are you working on any more scripts at the moment? At one point you were working on an English period feature?
Yes. That’s trundling along, nothing much happening with that. I’m always thinking of ideas and trying to keep writing. I’m hoping to get another series of The Detectorists so I can start writing that, because I’m still in the zone now, I’ve still got lots of ideas for that. [A second series commission was announced on Thursday the 6th of November.]
Is your cast secured for another series?
I don’t know. I think we’re going to have to get in there quick, because Toby is in demand.
Sign him up! I have to ask you this because it’s a site tradition – do you have a favourite Jason Statham film?
[laughs] No. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Sorry about that!
My final, Detectorists-themed question, then: did you watch University Challenge this week?
I haven’t seen it this week! No, I haven’t. I love general knowledge quizzes. I don’t like multiple choice. Fifteen To One, Mastermind general knowledge round, all that I love, but University Challenge is the king of them all.
Mackenzie Crook, thank you very much!
The Detectorists is out on DVD on Monday the 10th of November.
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