BBC sitcoms Detectorists and This Country do something previously rarely seen on TV: they capture the England in the cracks between cities.
Too often fictional portrayals of small towns and villages lean on the twee – the heirloom plate version of the England What We Have Lost, where Miss Marple ever knits socks for the eternal Home Guard unit that will return one day aboard a steam train when our country needs it most. But Detectorists and This Country both recognise a space between town and country where people live and work without necessarily thinking of their lives as ‘rural’, and without nostalgia.
The world of Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists is gentle and idealised, but not by much. People have jobs cleaning motorway verges, polishing hospital floors, packing and dispatching vegetables; they struggle for money; they live in red-brick houses or flats above shops, not cottages or farmhouses. The pubs look like real pubs, where people more often drink lager than the ale prescribed by lore. Yes, the countryside is beautiful, and filmed beautifully, but it is also full of cars, vans, litter (“Ringpull… ’83… Tizer.”) and infrastructure. It looks free and open viewed from the right angle but is actually carved up by invisible lines into ‘permissions’, not only a human landscape but one that has been that way for thousands of years, filled with the debris of a million past lives.
If there’s a ‘but’ with This Country it’s the sense that the writers, actually middle class, are chuckling at ‘chavs’, turning out a form of prole porn. I’m very sensitive to this as the bearer of a working class shoulder chip sufficiently hefty that it causes me to walk in circles if I don’t compensate but, on the whole, I credit Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, who write and star in the series, as acute observers rather than sneerers. Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in the kind of plain post-war council houses of pre-cast reinforced concrete that you’ll find in every town and village the length of England, and any hint of the bucolic is undercut by the sight of pylons and motorways in the background. There are moments when I think, hold on, wasn’t I walking down that street last week? Didn’t my aunt and uncle live in that house?
Both shows depict ordinary people with ordinary un-town accents having complex relationships, deep feelings, and pursuing strange obsessions. If you think Kurtan taking the scarecrow competition deadly seriously is far-fetched then you don’t know Bridgwater Carnival. An obsessive detectorist would have fit in well on the estate where I grew up among the scooter fetishists, boat restorers, woodworkers, quilt-makers, Hammond organists, gooseberry growers and CB radio enthusiasts. Even the cool boys from school would gather in the playground to peruse catalogues of angling equipment.
I have a bias towards the south and the rural, of course, but I might just as well have mentioned Car Share, created by Paul Coleman and Tim Reid and brought to life by Peter Kay. It depicts an only slightly heightened vision of the suburbs, retail parks, ring-roads and roundabouts where so many people live lives nonetheless full of feeling.
If this is a golden age for British programmes about ‘boring people doing boring things’, as John Lennon once said in dismissal of Paul McCartney’s social realist songs, then it might be just what we need at a time when it feels as if half the country doesn’t know or much like the other, and when the question of what it means to be English has once again become so grimly present.