On Toby Jones

IN a year notable for strong performances – Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall, Vicky McClure in This Is England, Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker in River – there is one man who, curiously, stands out. Curious, because standing out should not be his thing. He should, by rights, be a character actor, a comic player there to add texture to the background; always the Porter, never Macbeth. Curious, because a sense of questing bewilderment is often the key note of his performances. Curious that it has taken until now for us all to realise that Toby Jones is, arguably, the finest actor working in Britain today. He is the turn who turned.

I first saw Jones fourteen years ago when he was appearing in The Play What I Wrote at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, and then forgot all about him until 2007 when he popped up as Quilp, the “hunchy little villain and monster” in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, to which charming self-description one might add wife beater and pederast. He was superbly horrible, horribly superb. Now Jones is appearing in two programmes, Capital (BBC1) and the second series of Detectorists (BBC Four) which show him at his best.

Actually, I had hoped that there wouldn’t be a second series of Detectorists. Not because the first was bad. Quite the opposite. More in the spirit that it would be wrong to add even a single further note to The Lark Ascending. The six episodes broadcast last autumn constituted, for me, the best British sitcom since The Office, possibly better, and its concluding moments were pitch-perfect, a bittersweet unresolved chord; to move the story on, to resolve that chord, was to risk spoiling the whole.

Well, I was right about the risk, but wrong to think that it wasn’t worth taking. Detectorists still gleams in the gloaming.

Mackenzie Crook writes and directs the show, and co-stars with Jones. They are Andy and Lance, two metal detectorists – please, please, never “detectors” – who live humdrum lives in rural Essex, dreaming of Saxon hoards but unearthing, instead, ringpulls and rusty Matchbox cars. This series opened around a year after the first ended. Andy and his partner Becky (Rachael Stirling) had married and become parents. Lance, meanwhile, was in a bit of a slump, a brown study, drunkenly strumming sad songs to his ex-wife in a flat full of takeaway boxes and rumpled clothes.

The theme of this series has been family, the way ties can tame you but also give life meaning. So we have seen Lance make contact with his long lost daughter, and Andy fret over whether to move to Botswana with Becky and their son.

Plot, though, is not really the point of Detectorists. It’s all about character and atmosphere. The word “gentle”, when used in relation to comedy, is usually pejorative. It brings to mind Last Of The Summer Wine and has become a synonym for “unfunny”. Detectorists, however, reclaims the whole idea of gentleness, even kindness, and puts those things at the heart of its aesthetic, its mood and the things it suggests are important.

It is also beautiful. Again, not a word much applied to TV comedy, but the look of Detectorists is central to its appeal. Denim skies, cotton clouds, corduroy fields. Bird song. Lens flare. The saughing breeze in the trees. Seeds blowing through the cidery late afternoon. This is sitcom as pastoral symphony, as folk ballad. Its antecedents and influences are not other shows. It sits more comfortably alongside the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or the stories of MR James than it does anything else on television. There is, all the time, this feeling of an olde weird Englande rubbing up against the melancholy mundanities of the 21st century.

Mostly, though, it’s about that unalloyed currency, friendship. The best moments are those tender, funny, quiet scenes between Lance and Andy, perhaps sitting beneath a dead tree, sharing a flask and a joke and a chat, say, about the previous evening’s quiz shows, each at ease in the other’s company. Crook and Jones have extraordinary faces, old beyond their years, but somehow callow, too, and it is a delight to watch the golden Essex light play across them.

“My heart has followed, all my days, something I cannot name,” said Lance in episode two, quoting the poet Don Marquis. That’s Detectorists right there – a sweet ache of a story, in search of intangibles. Look out for the Christmas special, but most of all do please, please watch the exquisite final episode (December 3, 10pm) which is set around the metal detecting club’s annual rally and the Dickens-themed school fête. Pure television gold.

Capital is adapted from John Lanchester’s novel, described widely on publication in 2012 as “Dickensian”. The final episode (December 8, 9pm) confirms what the first two suggested – that the series does not live up to that adjective, despite a strong ensemble cast in which Toby Jones (again, excellently human and humane) is the nominal lead. He’s Roger Young, a disillusioned middle-aged investment banker struggling to cope with life and work post-crash, a struggle made more difficult by his rapacious wife Arabella, played by Detectorists co-star Rachael Stirling. Capital wants to be a “condition of England” drama, but somehow Lanchester’s big idea that the inhabitants of one London street represent the whole city, even the nation, at a time of great economic and social change never quite comes off. The micro fails to become macro, the particular general, and despite all the great swooping aerial shots, the overall feel is one of soapy shallowness rather than novelistic depth. It’s EastEnders – well, SouthWesters – but without the drums.

Tony Jordan, the former lead writer of EastEnders, is the man responsible for a new drama to which that word “Dickensian” can be reasonably applied. In fact, it’s the title. Dickensian has a fascinating premise: what if lots of characters from the novels of Charles Dickens all lived and worked – like those in Capital – on a single London street?

The BBC1 series will debut over the festive period. It opens on a snowy Christmas Eve; the year is not specified, but the chronology of where the characters are in their lives hints at 1836. The young Miss Havisham, dressed in mourning black, not yet in the yellowing bridal white of Great Expectations, a colour which suggested even deeper grief, steps out of her home, at the side of her brother, en route to their father’s funeral. Everywhere are characters who haven’t reached the point at which Dickens writes about them. Jacob Marley is alive, as is Little Nell. Fagin is alone in his den, lacking an Artful Dodger. Honoria Barbary has not yet had the fall and rise that will lead her to become Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock. It is the best of times. The worst of times lie ahead.

Each of the 20 episodes is just 30 minutes, so it races along, but a total of ten hours offers the opportunity for real substance. Having only seen the first two, I can’t appraise it fully; however, early impressions suggest that Ned Dennehy’s unblinking, unfeeling Scrooge, a cadaverous predator peering with baleful blandness from beneath the brim of his top hat, is going to be the stand-out performance.

Christmas 2015 offers plenty of television highlights – the Victorian Sherlock, the final Downton, a delightful adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man – but Dickensian may yet turn out to be the most enjoyable of the lot. God bless us, every one.

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