TV reviews: The Detectorists + Motherland

DETECTORISTS + MOTHERLAND

DETECTORISTS: Wednesday, BBC Four

MOTHERLAND: Tuesday, BBC Two

When DETECTORISTS rambles off forever in a few week times, it’ll be like saying goodbye to dear old friends.

Fans of this beloved cult sitcom will understand my bittersweet conflict when it returned for a third and final series last week. Lovely to have it back, but I don’t want it to end.

Mackenzie Crook, who writes, directs and co-stars, should be applauded for creating a charming little fictional universe which, for all its underlying melancholy, offers sun-dappled respite from the escalating madness of our brutal world.

If you’ve somehow committed the baffling error of never having watched it, a swift precis. Diffident Andy (Crook) and fastidious Lance (Toby Jones) are best friends and metal detector enthusiasts based in picturesque rural Essex. The defining image of the series is the pair of them gently trawling a large field in search of life-changing treasure. They never give up.

The pace is leisurely and comforting. The humour is low-key droll with occasional glimmers of absurdity (Andy and Lance’s buffoonish rivals resemble Simon and Garfunkel). Our laconic duo chat about their frequently complicated lives while out detecting or over a pint in the local pub. A winning cast of mildly eccentric supporting characters mill around them amiably.

Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones in Detectorists (Copyright BBC)

Haunting English folk music glistens on the soundtrack, conjuring ancient ghosts from this green and pleasant land (the latest episode even paid explicit homage to M.R. James’ classic ghost story Whistle And I’ll Come to You).

That, in essence, is all there is to it. And yet Crook, without strain or pretension, conjures something quietly bewitching from this simple template. Detectorists is gentle but never bland, poignant but never saccharine. Lance and Andy are fully-rounded, funny characters, it’s been a pleasure spending time with them.

The final hurdle is a solar energy farm being built on the duo’s beloved terrain. Their shell-shocked expressions when they heard the news spoke volumes. It was as if they’d been bereaved. Their field is an escape hatch, an oasis of calm and enrichment. What will they do without it?

Crook, I suspect, knows we feel the same way about his delightful show.

A new sitcom from Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Graham Linehan and his wife Helen, MOTHERLAND is the cold metropolitan yin to Detectorists’ warm bucolic yang. It appears to be ruthlessly engineered to make parenthood look like an unbearable waking nightmare, especially if you’re comfortably middle-class and white.

I’m all for downbeat comedy when done well, but Motherland is so neurotically intent on exploring this subject matter with a total lack of sentiment, it ends up coming across as faintly depressing. Outnumbered, which covered similar territory, was never sentimental either, but it was full of wit and charm. Motherland is a migraine.

Linehan, Horgan and Walsh have all written good, funny sitcoms in the past – their collective credits include Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Pulling, Catastrophe and the underrated Dead Boss – but this joint effort is surprisingly flat and unlikeable.

Anna Maxwell-Martin in Motherland (Copyright BBC)

It revolves around an aggravating central performance from Anna Maxwell-Martin – an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed elsewhere – as Julia, a permanently stressed and angry mother of two young children. You don’t always have to sympathise with sitcom characters to find them funny, but Julia’s clenched cynicism and intense exhaustion are exhausting to watch.

Episode one lumbered her with that hoary old sitcom standby, the disastrous children’s birthday party. There’s something quite self-satisfied about the way in which Motherland digs parents in the ribs with its pedestrian first-world observations: “I bet you recognise this mad scenario, don’t you?” Well, yes. Maybe. What do you want, a BAFTA?

The only enjoyable aspect of Motherland is a deadpan performance from Diane Morgan (aka Screen Wipe’s Philomena Cunk) as Julia’s best friend. She provides a few smiles. It’s a disappointment otherwise.

TV HIGHLIGHTS of THE WEEK

THE BOY WITH THE TOPKNOT

Monday, BBC Two, 9pm

Based on the memoirs of Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera, this drama follows a young British-Asian man who defies his Punjabi parents when they demand an arranged marriage for him. He also uncovers a painful family secret.

 TOFFS, QUEERS AND TRAITORS: GUY BURGESS – THE CHARMING SPY

Monday, BBC Four, 9pm

This documentary investigates the notorious scandal of the Cambridge spy ring that passed secrets to the Soviet Union. It shows how Burgess, who defected to Russia in 1951, emerged from a world of sharp class divisions, sexual hypocrisy and diplomatic incompetence.

PEAKY BLINDERS

Wednesday BBC Two, 9pm

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders (Copyright BBC)

The latest series of this period gangster drama begins with the Shelby clan being threatened with total destruction. Despite his newfound legitimacy, Tommy is forced to gather up arms and fight for survival.

LOVE, LIES AND RECORDS

Thursday, BBC One, 9pm

Written by Kay Mellor (The Syndicate; In the Club), this new ensemble drama charts the lives and loves of staff at a Leeds register office. Ashley Jensen stars as a senior registrar with an extremely complicated home life.

FILM of THE WEEK

CLIFFHANGER

Friday, ITV4, 10:40pm

Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger (Copyright TriStar Pictures)

Sylvester Stallone stars in this nail-biting action thriller about a retired mountain rescue expert who must negotiate treacherous blizzard terrain in pursuit of dangerous criminals. Their psychopathic leader (John Lithgow) is searching for a lost $100 million fortune. In an effort to stop him from reaching his buried treasure, Stallone must use his wits and skills to stay one step ahead. Viewers with vertigo are advised to stay away from this dizzying blast of blockbuster pizazz.

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