Finding inspiration

Finding inspiration

By Michael Pickard
January 29, 2024

The Writers Room

DQ tracks down Finders Keepers creator and writer Dan Sefton to talk about the making of the Channel 5 series, which introduces two characters who hope their discovery of buried treasure will solve all their problems – only to find it brings them a host of new troubles.

For three seasons, BBC comedy Detectorists followed the exploits of two metal-detecting enthusiasts hoping to find a fortune. Channel 5 thriller Finders Keepers now takes that idea and adds a dark twist, as the central characters do discover buried treasure but decide to try to sell it without alerting the authorities – and anyone else who might try to claim it as their own.

“In one way, it’s the anti-Detectorists,” explains creator and writer Dan Sefton, “in the sense that Detectorists is fantastic, but it’s so warm and I thought, ‘What’s the cold-hearted, cynical version of this?’ Then there was some inspiration from a newspaper article I picked up and saw some guys not a million miles away from where I live had tried to sell some silver coins in London.

Dan Sefton

“I thought, ‘That’s an interesting story.’ It just felt very British, and I was looking to do something that reflected where I live at the moment, in rural Somerset, with people I recognise.”

It was an idea that also piqued the interest of Channel 5, which has built a reputation for commissioning four-part thrillers with a simple premise in common: what would an ordinary person do in an extraordinary situation?

Sefton also drew inspiration from Sam Raimi’s feature A Simple Plan and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo to tell a story about a man who quickly finds himself out of his depth as he becomes involved with some shadowy figures who don’t have his best interests in mind.

Neil Morrissey (The Good Karma Hospital) stars as detectorist Martin, who discovers a hoard of buried Saxon treasure worth millions of pounds while on a boys’ trip to the idyllic fields of Somerset with his soon-to-be son-in-law Ashley (The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley).

Legally, they should declare it to the authorities, but Ashley insists they try to sell it on the black market, leading them to become entangled with local bad lad Rocky (Shane Atwooll) – and the Metropolitan Police.

With Martin’s behaviour changing as the situation starts to spiral out of control, could he be putting his marriage to Anne (Fay Ripley) in jeopardy? And is their daughter Laura (Jessica Rhodes) having second thoughts about her impending marriage to Ashley?

Finders Keepers has been a fast-turnaround project for Sefton and his Seven Seas Films production company after Channel 5 gave the greenlight around 15 months ago and it was delivered to the broadcaster last autumn.

Finders Keepers stars James Buckley (left) and Neil Morrissey

The idea for the series had been in his head for a little while, and after he mentioned it to Nicola Shindler, who heads up Quay Street Productions (After the Flood, Fool Me Once), she dropped it into a conversation she was having with commissioners at Channel 5. They immediately jumped on the project, and Quay Street became an associate producer on the show.

By that time, Sefton had outlined the story and then went “hell for leather” to get the four scripts in shape over a four-month period, “which is the perfect time in the sense that there was enough time to go through three or four drafts on each one but not so much time that everybody ends up overthinking it,” he says. “What we’ve got in the can is very much our intention, which is fantastic, and we had enough time just to get it done in a way that I think does it justice.”

But if the idea of metal-detecting brings a genteel image to mind, Sefton wants you to think again. Finders Keepers, he says, “is really dark, and got darker through the making of it.” With Morrissey and Buckley on board – two actors known for comedy – the drama has naturally funny moments as their characters banter and bicker together. “But then it really does turn darker and darker as you go through it,” the writer continues.

“It was quite satisfying to see how dark it got, and how – it’s no spoiler to say – it doesn’t end well and nobody comes out of it looking particularly good. It was meant to be edgy but it’s slightly verging on black comedy. I hope people watch it in that space, which is something quite new for Channel 5. It hits all those thriller beats, we’ve got some big hooks at the ends of episodes – deaths and murders and carnage and stuff like that – but I think it’s still grounded rather than being completely off the planet.”

The protagonists hope to strike it rich after uncovering buried Saxon treasure

For that reason, Sefton believes Finders Keepers goes against the current trend for “things that go really big, really quickly.” “It’s not as outrageous as some things that are on,” he adds, “but it feels real. It’s about real people, real stories, real jeopardy, and I think we’ve probably gone as far as we can go on the ‘absolutely wild’ type.’”

Part of what grounds the series are the problems and challenges Martin is trying to overcome in his day-to-day life, and the potential windfall from selling the Saxon treasure could set him and Anne up for life. They also want to bring their son Josh, who has learning difficulties, back to the family house and out of the care home where he is currently living.

“I’ve known people like that, and I always wondered at the quiet dignity with which they deal with huge issues in their lives, and they just get on with it,” Sefton says. “I think most people would know somebody like that, who’s doing something caring for somebody, struggling quietly and also going to work and getting stuff done. Then when something lands on their lap, like a lottery win or a big break, how do they react? A lot of people tell themselves they deserve it – nobody thinks they’re the baddie – and that’s when characters get interesting in these situations. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing and they’re owed. It’s only when you look back, you can say this isn’t the right thing to do.”

After writing four seasons of India-set hospital drama The Good Karma Hospital, Sefton is now back in the thriller territory he previously visited with BBC series Trust Me, which ran for two seasons. His comfort zone, he says, is writing “fun, light and entertaining” series like his crime show The Mallorca Files, but Finders Keepers gave him the chance to do something slightly different.

Morrissey, who stars in fellow Sefton-penned series The Good Karma Hospital, is Martin

That included a bit of historical research into Saxon relics, and one of the biggest challenges came when it was time to recreate the Saxon hoard Martin uncovers. Sefton realised the treasure needed to look really good or else the series might not work from the start, so designer David Roper was tasked with making replica artefacts based on the look of the real-life Staffordshire Hoard. Some of the eye-catching props now sit in a Tupperware box in Sefton’s house.

He then wrote all four episodes, and was delighted to have the chance to write a closed-ended story that comes to a definitive conclusion.

“There’s no Finders Keepers 2, or Losers Weepers as you might call it,” he jokes. “It really does end. It’s like a long movie, really, and I think it’s a good ending. With a lot of shows, and I’ve been guilty of this in the past, you end up pressured into leaving it slightly open because there might be a season two. This is very different from that, and it’s lovely because you can actually seed in stuff in the first episode that pays off with the last episode. It’s much more like a movie script, where sometimes with TV series it can be a little bit scattershot and you get through it, you make it make sense. But this was much more planned, so that was nice to do.”

Director Philip John (The Good Karma Hospital) joined the project early on, and Morrissey was their first call to play Martin. Sefton had also previously worked with Buckley on a non-broadcast pilot Seven Seas had made, and he knew the comedy star was keen to do more drama. Ripley joined the series a little later, and Sefton was then able to edit the scripts with the on-screen trio in mind, and input from the actors as well.

Buckley is Martin’s son-in-law Ashley, who believes he has the connections to sell the treasure

In production, Sefton credits John and the production team for pulling off the show on an “incredibly small” budget. Two days were spent filming on location in Somerset, while the majority of the series was shot in Buckinghamshire.

“If you watch it, I don’t think you’ll see any budget cuts on it, but part of being a writer and producer is I’m able to not write really expensive stuff, and when the guys go, ‘Look, we’ve got this, but we haven’t go this,’ I go and rewrite it to make it work for the scene.

“For me, that’s great fun. It’s making it slick, streamlined and shootable. If the writer’s not deeply connected to the production and there’s not a good line of communication, that doesn’t really work. If the writer’s at arm’s length, you don’t really understand why it has to change. That’s where being a writer-producer has huge benefits for production.”

Sefton describes his role on his shows as a lighter take on the US showrunner, a writer-producer who has creative control over every aspect of a show. He will oversee the scripts and discuss various elements with other members of the creative team, but you won’t find him on set every day.

“There is a compromised British version of being a showrunner, which allows you to be across important, creative things, but also allows you to be slightly arm’s length when people are making the show in a more traditional European way with a non-writing producer on the ground,” he explains.

Cold Feet’s Fay Ripley also stars in the drama, playing Martin’s wife

“My version is knowing just enough about aspects and also knowing when you want to make an intervention like in casting. I’m not going to watch every single casting tape for every single role, but you pick which ones you think are important in terms of the show. With locations, for example, I can think of a couple of times on shows where I’ve held the line on location because I didn’t think it looked right. But I don’t do that very often because you end up just being a pointless dictator – and there are plenty of people who are better than you when it comes to costumes, art direction, lighting, cameras and directing.”

Sefton pitches Finders Keepers, which debuted on January 17 and continues on Wednesdays until February 7, as a “cool, fun, funny, thrilling show about ordinary people living in a part of England you don’t see very much on screen.” He also hopes viewers imagine themselves in Martin’s position, with a hoard of treasure worth millions at their fingertips, and ask what they might do in the same circumstances.

“Everybody who’s been asked that question comes up with a slightly different answer. That’s the interesting thing,” he adds. “What would you do if you found this and decided not to tell anyone? Would you get into as much trouble as Martin does?”

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