Why did I watch a show about two saddos schlepping around an unappealing part of the British countryside, finding soda tabs and 10 pence coins with metal detectors? Why did I write about it? Originally, I was curious about how a premise like this could be compelling. I was surprised and enlightened. Because it contains so much more than the offbeat, slightly ridiculous idea. Detectorists, created, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, starring himself and Toby Jones, is a marvel.
To begin, the theme song is magical and as beautifully organic to the show as I have almost ever heard. I was enchanted going in, already. This tiny show is about the history of the world. It is about who we are. The theme song lyrics, “I’ve felt the touch of the kings, and the breath of the wind…” is a lyrical hymn to nature, to our smallness on this planet, to true treasures: loyalty, love, companionship, connection. Nothing else that lasts is that important.’Will you search through the lonely earth for me
Climb through the briar and bramble?”British soil is ancient and deep and rich. Each millennia of which this dark earth has been part is a thing of impossible scope to wrap your head around. These two sensitive men and their divining rods are seeking out any piece, any shard of a civilization far removed from this one, to touch some of the enormity of this. Of course, they are, above all, looking for gold. History may be mind blowing, but gold is real and necessary.
Their modesty and lack of posturing tells of their awe, their bone-deep understanding that they are part of something bigger than themselves. As they are stepping on Roman ruins, their lives are small and mortal in the grand scope. They take things less seriously due in part to this, and they can be seen by others as flimsy excuses for human beings. In reality, there is a piety to them, to their quiet daily dedication to finding that connection, that link to another moment in the veins of the earth. This is their essence.
The pride they take in what they do is endearing. Whenever they are called “detectors,” they correct the person, explaining that detectors are the device used by detectorists. This is scoffed at by most of the world, but it is important to them because they do deserve the title. They do something important.
This is not just a British story, but universal lore that runs through all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. We know about the finite. We grasp it more when we hit the time of life where Andy and Toby are, in our forties. I think McKenzie Crook used this unpretentious, quiet show to put his mark on time, his moment on earth that can be uncovered one day. This may be the story of how he came to terms with mortality. Crook made two seasons and did not want to go any further, despite the fact that the show had acquired a following. He told his story in two short seasons and one special.
Another point is the idea of life as a journey, not a fixed place. In all the time Toby and Andy find nothing but crap, complaining incessantly, they are living history. Those 10 pence coins will be more valuable the Roman ones are now…
At the end, Lance’s find is a holy grail among detectorists and the achievement of this long-term, life-consuming goal was supposed to lead to some sort of release from all the reasons that kept him detecting. It was, in reality, an anti-climax. Once it was in the museum, it failed to do anything but sit there. He realizes, I believe, that the companionship you find with another seeker is, literally, worth more than gold. That history is living and there is always more worth seeking. That you can’t cheat time, but you can make the most out of the content of your life. Make the best of the precious time you do have.
In addition to all this existentialism, there is the matter of just how incredibly funny this show is. The wit is dry as paper and quick. It is absurd and self-deprecating in the best way. A realistic view of a difficult life, lightened by the ability to skewer anything with razor sharp wit. Bullshit and affectation are not tolerated. Quiet and unassuming Mr. Crook may seem, but he is brilliant. While I may be pondering immortality, this also made me laugh in a way few shows have. It is absurd and wildly clever in a Pythonesque way. I would be surprised if McKenzie Crook hasn’t spent many hours watching the Monty Python lads. This rare weaving of fun, artistic depth, flawless acting and spot-on writing creates a rare tapestry.
This month I discuss the tour de force that is To Walk Invisible, the television special from Masterpiece PBS. It’s a hard-yet-passionate look into the truth behind the vague and whispered stories about the enigmatic Brontë sisters who lived on the bleak, windy moors of Yorkshire.
The three sisters, Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and Anne (Charlie Murphy), who wrote, among other novels and poems, Jane Eyre (Charlotte) and Wuthering Heights (Emily) and became one of the most important literary voices in history. had to initially write under men’s names in order to have any chance at publication. They had to “walk invisible.” Obviously, there is a far deeper wound implied here, felt by all women who have had to walk invisible through history despite their groundreaking, astonishing talents and achievements. This particular gem was written and directed by the wildly talented Sally Wainright (Last Tango in Halifax) which makes it even more significant; she has advanced remarkably in a field in which women have had an uphill struggle to be recognized. It is a new level of television – artistically, ethically, and technologically. This one will haunt you for a while.
The sisters live with their poor, frail curate of a father (Jonathan Pryce) – a good man, but terribly worn down – and a weak, narcissistic addict of a brother (Adam Nagaitais), watching their father aging rapidly and their brother toppling towards rock bottom. Survival instinct has no gender, and they had to find a way to endure in a world in which women were chattel. If you were unmarried by your mid-twenties, you were generally out of luck, and without a family fortune, your prospects for the future looked dim indeed. Highly intellectual, intense girls from poor families, with no traditional good looks to speak of, undomesticated, incomprehensible to many, Emily and Charlotte weren’t big catches, and I don’t think they wanted to be caught and separated.
Charlotte (Finn Atkins) who is ambitious and refuses to be infantilized, knows that the girls’ writing has merit. They have written since they remember themselves. But she isn’t sanguine about their future as writers until she breaks into Emily’s jealously-guarded secrets. Emily was always intensely private and when Charlotte finds her poems, she is incandescent from the betrayal. Nonetheless, Charlotte opened the door to a future that we would be far poorer without.
The poems, voiced by Emily (Chloe Pirrie), are dizzying; the sweeping words, pounding like hoofbeats, amaze Charlotte, and she is almost physically overtaken. That reaction, in that small space, makes it grander still, because it cannot reign in the words with the raw power of Emily’s. She tries to convince Emily that they could try to publish them, and Emily furiously scoffs at her “grubby little publishing plans.”
The abuse Branwell heaps upon his father is unbearable. He tortures money out of him to go down to the pub, and the women watch as he slowly wears the father down, badly fraying his will to live. There is a moment of levity when Anne says “I think we should tell Papa about Jane Eyre.” But Papa dismisses Charlotte’s work, as usual, saying he would be interested in her scribblings if the letters weren’t so tiny. When she shows him the published books, he is amazed when she tells him her pen name, Currer Bell. The day after Charlotte barely escapes Emily’s wrath, Emily stops outside the paper shop and says “If we’re going to be writing novels, we’ll need more paper.” This from the woman who had already written Wuthering Heights by the time she was twenty-five.
Not only do they have to deal with the merciless world of publishing, they have the added difficulty of having to commit federal crimes just to get their mail from publishers or be able to publish at all. “When a man writes, it’s his work he’s judged for. When a woman writes, it’s herself she’s judged for,” says Emily, with a barely-controlled rage. This is necessary practicality, which, ironically would be the last thing three highly-strung females would be known for in 1842. This paradox is left up to the viewer to understand, and Ms. Wainright doesn’t feel the need to engage us with clunky character exposition, plot devices or cliches, like neighbors’ opinions or village gossip about them. Their single status is never mentioned; it is just taken for granted. One can put together the pieces of their probable journey to spinsterhood.
The acting is phenomenal, especially from the tiny and powerful Finn Atkins as Charlotte, Chloe Pirrie as Emily, and Adam Nagaitis as Branwell. Chloe Pirrie, in an interview, said that Sally Wainright trusted her actors, which is rare. She also describes the intense experience of working on this project and how much she learned from it. She knew almost nothing about Emily coming in. Now, she has a profound bond with her. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/podcasts/getting-inside-the-mind-of-emily-bronte/
Ms. Wainright is a pilgrim in many ways. I think more and more in television, showrunners are entrusting actors with their words and message, as dialogue can get sparse and minimalist with no loss of clarity. The visual connections we have to the scene and characters’ faces, with every expression etched in sharp, crystal HD and a level of lighting artistry that adds form to the content that can not only support the drama but heighten it to levels that only a perfect marriage of the two can create. I will argue this point even more so in television than in film, as the form can be restrictive and can easily fall into the formulaic.
Television is new again, a limitless, visceral stripper bursting out of a stale cake. This profoundly fleshed-out level of visual and emotional reality leaves little room for the actors to do anything but commit utterly to their decisions and interpretations. Nothing can compare with a perfect moment between actors that conveys all, but says nothing. An entire story can be told with a smear of blood on someone’s lip.
A perfect example is a short but powerful scene between Branwell and Emily, when he comes home utterly drunk. Instead of ripping him apart, she shares a perfect moment with him sitting on the wooden gate with their heads together, the desperate, strained loyalty and love obvious in Emily, and the complete self-loathing, especially poignant in Branwell when he sees himself through Emily’s eyes. They bay at the moon together along with the dogs, a ritual that feels like it has been there since childhood. Since always.
The other powerful intimate scene between reclusive guarded Emily and warm, grounded Anne uses Emily Brontë’s real words as they sit, Anne leaning against Emily. Emily shares her poem with Anne. The extreme difficulty she encounters trying to say it out loud, so much like her poems in the drawer, made me wince and cry and laugh at the raw vulnerability of bringing someone your creation, a chrysalis of your soul, and awaiting their judgment. It’s even harder because the poem is for Anne in Emily’s heart. She starts hesitatingly and then the words, the rhythms pound; like the winds on the rocks and the grasses, opening up and rising, utterly unbridled by the boundaries of language. She recites “No Coward Soul Is Mine” the line “Oh God, within my breast” soars and brings the viewer closer to the divine in nature in a way never done before on television. Mixing poetry and the visual is tricky, but when done well, few things are more powerful.
The moment that for me, embodied the message of this film: Charlotte’s validation and success give her the strength to become the person she knows she is, but could not be under Branwell’s shadow and his spattered fury about not becoming a writer. The most important moment consists of fourteen words. When Charlotte’s name is impugned due to a corrupt American publisher who is tying her and Anne’s pen names into a shady deal, she is horrified by what it will mean about her as a person, as an artist, and them as a family if she does not show herself as she is to her publishers and keeps her good name. She does the almost unthinkable, and travels with Anne seventeen hours in a carriage to see Mr. Smith, ”Currer Bell’s” publisher, to explain that Ellis (Emily), Acton (Anne), and Currer Bell were three separate people, no, three separate women, of moral character and strength of convictions. When Mr. Smith is unsurprisingly astonished and insists she can’t be Currer Bell, she asks him “And what makes you doubt that, Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?” The power in the way this line is delivered and filmed, directly and relentlessly on Charlotte’s face, is a balm to the heart of every overlooked, patronized, talented woman and also a reminder of the dagger in the gut, reminding us that our size, our outer being will always define us, no matter how much we want to pretend we have come such a long way, especially woman of size, who have always been treated like third or fourth class citizens.
This is not a Hollywood movie about three plucky sisters overcoming adversity and living happily forevermore. This is a real and gutting struggle against poverty, abuse, addiction, oppression, and illness. These are not three models in period dress, wide-eyed and melodramatic. These are mistresses of their craft. Finn Atkins is 4′ 9” and plump. Chloe Pirrie is glorious, strong, powerful, vital, but in no way traditionally pretty. Charlie Murphy is nice looking, but it’s beside the point. Branwell, played by Adam Nagaitis, is no looker – skinny, red-headed and awkward, but he had a scene which should land him twenty awards. There are awards for streaming TV now, so I don’t think it will take long. Branwell (Nagaitis) stands in an oppressive, dim stairwell where he burns like a naked flame of true pain. The gorgeous cinematography, lighting every streak in his ginger hair, HD etching out every line of his shockingly vulnerable despair. Few television films have gone this deep.
I could take this work apart for a long time, and practicality is also of an essence, as it was to our girls, notwithstanding their brilliant, luminescent minds. Lack of such was, in fact, the reason for so much of the sad fragility of their lives, their poor devout father, their raging fantasist of a brother. Writing was their way out, but also their way in, their way to touch the world, not to just pass invisible through it. To have a Heathcliff, a Mr. Rochester, even an Edmund. Their real lives, so narrow, so suffocated, did not stop their voices from becoming an eternal echo thrown into the winds of the moor. A heartbreaking arc of what was, and what could have been, resonating in all who have encountered their work. With To Walk Invisible, people may be introduced to their work after seeing their lives, and have a different perspective from those of us whose questions and love were a quiet, little-known place.
I’ll begin this dialogue by laying out the current shows I want to discuss. I want to be clear from the very start that my choice of series can be eclectic, but there are certainly common themes and styles that may create a niche for me. Can I talk about Supernatural knowledgeably? Yes. Do I adore Detectorists and worship PennyDreadful? I do. Currently, the two main places I draw my content and inspiration from are Acorn TV, a wonderful streaming service, and http://www.pbs.org.
In the wake of the existential threat to PBS, I have found myself deeply enmeshed in their Masterpiece series, which has painstakingly been offering brilliance for 45 years and offers so much on its website. For a down-at-heels romantic like myself, it’s heaven. I remember the classic intros as a little girl, fascinated by the odd, darkly humorous animation to “Masterpiece Mystery.” Coming to it as an adult, I see much more. I’m drawn by historical series of a certain tone. If a conversational landscape had a color palate, the series I will be discussing are soft, delicate, and luminous with sharp, dark shadows.
Is it obvious that I have a secret love for a cozy mystery, lemon tea, and my fluffy tortoise-shell cat? That’s not the whole picture. I can do a unit on something completely different in a few months. I have a penchant for gritty shows like Shameless, police procedurals, and taut thrillers with real substance like Homeland or The Affair. I also love me some Schitt’sCreek and Catastrophe. But for now, let us enter the hushed drawing rooms, well-scrubbed East End kitchens, and see haloed, golden sheaves being brought in by floppy-haired men in their shirtsleeves.
I want to credit the gorgeous screenshot on my Homepage to Victoria on Masterpiece, PBS. Available on http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/ .The site logo is from the opening credits for Indian Summers, Masterpiece, PBS. The screenshot on “A New Art Is Born” is from Poldark, Season Two, Episode 4, Masterpiece, PBS. The screenshot above is from Harlots, A Hulu original.