Why Mackenzie Crook set Detectorists in Essex
- Credit: Archant
He may have appeared in Disney Hollywood blockbusters and be instantly recognisable from a generational award-winning comedy series, but it seems the project that gives Mackenzie Crook the greatest satisfaction can be found in a field, deep in the Essex countryside, discovers Danny Bowman
They say the sign of a true actor is someone who completely transforms himself for a role, and whether a swashbuckling sea warrior or centre-parting office jobsworth, the real Mackenzie Crook is so distant from many of his screen personas that interviewing the 46-year-old can feel like something of an out-of-body experience.
Instead, this is someone who is humble, softly spoken and effortlessly interested in everything but himself.
It’s a heartening persona adopted by the North Londoner, whose latest screen time – in the third series of Detectorists – offers a rare outing where the production appears as endearingly modest and simultaneously successful as its writer, director and star.
Set in the fictional Essex village of Danebury, the BBC4 series has amassed legions of fans and high praise from critics alike.
‘I am exhilarated with the way the series has been received,’ Mackenzie begins. ‘Sometimes getting a good reception is all you need to pick up a pen and begin writing the next project. Of everything I’ve done, it’s probably the thing I am most proud of.
‘I made a conscious decision to do something consistent after spending so long moving from one place after another in my career choices. I was aware sticking with one thing could lead to the work drying up, but I desperately wanted to try to have a go at creating something for myself from scratch.
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‘And to see it come out as it has, has made me very proud.’
Starring as Andy alongside Toby Jones’ Lance – the pair of eponymous members of Danebury’s Metal Detecting Club – Mackenzie’s show, as well as being awarded a BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy, has also scooped its creator an individual accolade for Best Writing.
‘It was the relationship between two middle-aged men that I wanted to explore as the basis of everything,’ he says of the inspiration behind Detectorists. ‘The first thing I wrote was bits of dialogue about two blokes out in a field, just talking rubbish. It was only then that I came to the idea of hobbies.
‘I wanted to explore men and their passions, really; especially interests that weren’t sport-related. Historically, there are the types of shows that get laughs from people taking the mickey out of someone who’s not into football – perhaps they’re into birdwatching or something like that. So, I wanted to look at that affection; I wanted to portray that truthfully instead.’
There’s no doubt that there is an autobiographical underlining to the show, too. ‘Lance talks about his friend who collects collections,’ Mackenzie says. ‘I’m a little bit like that; I have a lot of collections going on – fringe hobbies, from botanical prints to coins and antique butterflies.’
And the decision to use Essex as the setting for Andy and Lance’s valiant quest for buried treasure reflected the actor’s own relationship with our county’s green spaces (even if the series is actually filmed just over the border in Framlingham, Suffolk).
‘Nature has been an absolute passion of mine since I was a kid,’ he reveals. ‘When I was younger I had hopes of some sort of outdoors career. I just love that feeling of being free.
‘Of course, that didn’t happen. Far from it, I became an actor!’ he laughs. ‘But to get to a level of comfort in a career where you can go back and explore those feelings you had as a youngster actually feels very special.
‘And if making a character out of something close to my heart meant I could spend days out in the countryside filming, then all the better.’
Not that Mackenzie and his family don’t have their fill of wide-open spaces anyway. Having purchased land in Essex purely as an escape from the suffocation many experience in the capital, getting back out in the field for this work project was the ultimate busman’s holiday.
‘It’s funny how work and pleasure interact sometimes. It all started a few years ago when I was desperate to buy a piece of woodland. I had a look at what was coming up for sale in the south east, as it had to be a drivable distance from my home.
‘I was brought up in Kent and I guess was imagining picking up somewhere down there, but the plot we found in Essex was about an hour’s drive from home and perfect in every way.
‘We spend a lot of time there,’ continues the star of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Office and Game of Thrones. ‘We just do family things – important things. We go camping, learn about forest management and create nice natural spaces. It’s eight acres, which is plenty.’
There’s even time for a spot of treasure hunting on his plot, something he likes to extend to the wider county’s coastline. ‘I didn’t do any detecting before the show, but now I can’t get enough of it,’ Mackenzie laughs.
‘I go about three or four times a year and I’ve found it’s really addictive. I found a 19th century coin and a horse’s bridle. They were incredible finds, but other than those highlights, it’s just some nails and shotgun caps!’
As Mackenzie bids Detectorists farewell – he says this third series is the last – he’s hoping that the show’s success can inspire others to pick up a pen and prove to the industry that big budgets aren’t always essential.
‘There are some really good TV shows on at the moment and the big shows have massive production values – they’re more like feature films really,’ he suggests. ‘But there is still room in there for low-budget productions, as long as the ideas continue to flow. That’s really all you need.
‘I love getting into a creative mindset where I think about England and its place, and also my place in it. I love the potential behind exploring relationships – everything from work politics in The Office to what I do on stage with productions like Jerusalem.’ A project for which Mackenzie received a Tony nomination in 2009.
‘The best inspiration comes from open spaces, without distractions,’ he adds. ‘Look, I understand that standing in a field might not do it for everyone, but for me it’s the best place to stimulate the mind; it’s the ultimate escape.’
And Mackenzie seems to have found his place for inspiration right here in Essex.