Why Jo Brand is making a comedy about social workers

A preview of Damned, the social work comedy from Jo Brand, which is set to air this month

A promotional shot for Jo Brand's Damned sitcom

by Deborah Wain

It’s a new day in children’s services at Elm Heath Council – the fictional setting for Jo Brand’s new sitcom Damned.

For senior social worker Al (Alan Davies), the first challenge is to get into the office, armed with the wrong door code.

It turns out to be a small inconvenience. For, as the action unfolds, Al has to contend with a barrage of other trials in his frustrating, overstretched workplace.

On the personnel side, there is Al’s grumpy colleague, Rose (Brand), who only turned up for work on time the day she forgot to put the clocks back, and Martin (Kevin Eldon) who was signed off a year ago but turns up to offer support and make coffee. Most trying is the temp Nat, with her perennial perkiness and inability to remember the name of the department.

Add to this broken toilets, broken lifts, oh, and broken computers. All the while, call after call, the bizarre and the impossible, are coming in on the telephone system.

Negative portrayal

Damned, produced by What Larks! was first broadcast in 2014 as a pilot. A six-episode series was subsequently commissioned by Channel 4.

Former psychiatric nurse Brand has applied her pen to geriatric nursing in Getting On (BBC Four) and then agency care work in the spin-off Going Forward.

Social work would seem a natural choice for her latest project given it was her mum’s profession (actually Brand says she is still not fully retired at 82) and, by extension, child protection was part of her life for many years.

Damned is Brand’s attempt not only to tap into an underexplored area, but to counter negative portrayal of social workers by showing them as real people faced with complex decisions. The title is a nod to the no-win situation social workers invariably find themselves in.

Brand believes the public “love to hate” social workers because, although in reality they are a mixed group like any profession, they cannot shake the image of “middle-class”, “do-gooders” telling people how to live their lives.

She says: “Psychiatrists have a similar job to social workers because they have to predetermine how much harm someone is going to do, but when they make mistakes, they are not castigated in the same way…

“…when a social worker does a good thing you never find out because it’s classified information. You only find out when it goes wrong.”

Genuine working environment

The production team were keen to recreate a genuine working environment for Damned. Filming was done in offices belonging to Broxbourne Borough Council, in Hertfordshire (although no actual social workers were disrupted!).

The way the sitcom is shot – with two hand-held cameras – serves to further strip away artifice. The observational style of Damned is closer to documentary than traditional comedy.

Of the experience of filming, Davies says “you never know whether you’re in shot or not in shot”. But the actor welcomed swapping the studio, where he does most of his work, for the natural light of an office. “It was nice to feel you were part of a real place,” he comments.

The series’ free flow perhaps belies the fact it is tightly scripted – unlike Going Forward, which was almost entirely improvised.

Brand, co-creator Morwenna Banks and co-writer, Will Smith, an Emmy award winner, each crafted two episodes and then fine-tuned them together. Although the cast were encouraged to improvise there was one fully scripted version of each take.

For their research, Banks visited a social services department and plotlines were checked for authenticity and adherence to actual protocol. Brand reveals the series relies heavily on one insider.

To highlight the pressure social workers are under, Brand quotes statistics showing half of social workers are off sick with stress, with only half of these replaced by agency workers.

“Anything you see is actually much, much worse; we’ve made it nicer,” she stresses.

Dedicated to social workers

Asked if there is a political message behind the series, Brand comments: “I don’t think we’re trying to beat people over the head, but budget cuts do impact on services.”  She adds wryly:  “I wouldn’t say there is a direct political message, although I have never voted Tory.”

Damned is not only television dedicated entirely to social workers, its protagonists are three-dimensional characters. Rose and Al’s lives seem almost as chaotic as those of the members of the public they are attempting to help.

Banks comments: “It was important for us to take the judgement out of it. We see Rose being quite a bad parent. They (the characters) are struggling with their own personal dilemmas.”

left to right: Martin Bickerstaff and Natalie Moore

left to right: Martin Bickerstaff and Natalie Moore

In the first episode, Rose’s ex-husband adds to her stress levels by turning up at work and later teaches their children how to, horror of horrors, cook chips. Meanwhile Al is not great at setting boundaries and is being stalked by a former client who will not let go.

Damned is described by its producers as more bitter than sweet, and it is shot through with gallows laughs. They say their research showed a dark sense of humour was prevalent, indeed necessary, in social care settings. The department’s fearsome temporary manager Denise (Georgie Glen) pursues performance targets like a heat-seeking missile and exhales jargon. Her deft playing of irritating junior Nitin (Himesh Patel) makes for some of the show’s best early moments.

However, Damned is tender too; illustrated, in episode two, by Al’s dealings with new parents who have learning disabilities.

Exploring awful things through humour

So how does Brand think comedy can shine a fresh light on the difficult workings of child protection? She sees it as a way in to exploring “really awful’ things as humour has the effect of relaxing people.

“Just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean you don’t respect the situation,” she says.

Nerys Evans, deputy head of comedy at Channel 4, explains there was a natural pull towards Brand’s work in commissioning Damned. She describes the comedian as having a “brilliant integrity to her writing and a brutal honesty and desire to explore challenging territory with comedy” which fits with Channel 4’s ethos.

Evans comments: “Channel 4 comedy has a history of breaking taboos and showing worlds that are rarely seen across all its genres.

“(Damned) is certainly the first time a group of social workers have been the foreground for a sitcom, which made it a really interesting proposition for us. And the fact it was in children’s services felt like a really fascinating backdrop on top of that.”

Evans says that, commissioners were “as keen as Jo and the other writers to make sure that the joke was never on the service users nor that it was judgemental in any way”.

She continues: “I loved the complexity of the characters in the show, especially Rose, whose own struggles showed that parental challenges are somewhat universal.

“It’s also refreshing to see a depiction of social workers as human and fallible also. We wanted to make sure that the writing was as authentic and well informed as it could be, so we were delighted that the writers spoke to social workers for advice on storylines and to make sure the world they were portraying felt authentic to their real experiences also. But ultimately, it is a comedy and we thought the writing was very funny also.”

The pilot episode of Damned was well-received within the social care sector.

While Davies suggests the series is about a group of characters and not a representation of social work as a whole, he feels “it is not an unfair depiction.”

For her part, Brand, hopes that “very broadly” social workers will “think our characters are kind”.

The first episode of Damned is broadcast on Channel 4, on Tuesday, 27th September, at 10pm.

12 Responses to Why Jo Brand is making a comedy about social workers

  1. chris cheatle September 15, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

    Evans comments: “Channel 4 comedy has a history of breaking taboos and showing worlds that are rarely seen across all its genres. Well that is a grand claim. Perhaps they will do a series on how Production Companies shaft the BBC utilising money from the Commercial Sector? Murdoch should be a lead character with Evans and a Sky Director or two.

  2. LongtimeSW September 15, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

    ” . . . . . broken toilets, broken lifts, oh, and broken computers. All the while, call after call, the bizarre and the impossible, are coming in on the telephone system.”

    . . . .and I never even noticed they were filiming around me!!!!!

  3. Dave September 15, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

    I thibk it’s great that Jo Brand is prepared to put social work out there and she I how difficult it is to make such hard decisions – the difficult fast paced day to day decisions that are made by front line staff.. I do hope The image of social workers working in isolation and being alone going into some really dangerous areas where police and other professionals wouldn’t go is also shown

    And while there maybe limited computers and finding within an office, iteoukdbjave been good to also a how how ‘hot Desking’ due to council cuts in office space also puts pressure on social workers to find a place to sit and work.

    We talk about confidentiality and I know one LA who ask it’s staff to use there woke conifers in costa coffee / mc Donald’s as they an access free wifi an remote work! (Who’s looking over your shoulder?)

    And lastly although I’m looking forward to watching, why so late? 10pm most of the critics of social workers and do gooders won’t be watching at 10pm!! If your going to get the message out there, bring the timing forward

  4. Cheryl Thornton September 15, 2016 at 9:09 pm #

    Are we going to be able to see this in the United States. I. As a retired social worker. Would love to see this.

    • Andrew Tempest September 16, 2016 at 10:41 am #

      Videos on http://www.channel4.com are not available in other countries, so you will not be able to watch it legally. You could try starting a a petition for Netflix to show this.

  5. Ann McCabe September 15, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    l dont think its a comedy subject, there is too much emotion around the subject…….l work in adult social care, so feel there are better subjects

    • LongtimeSW September 16, 2016 at 10:40 am #

      Jo Brand has a good history with punchy, empathetic, realistic, social care subjects – (see “Getting On” and “Going Forward”) – I found them to be scarily accurate, warmly funny with exceedingly believable and well-drawn character’s – The humour didn’t cross any boundaries other than to poke fun and ridicule the faceless and largely unaccountable purse string holders both Private and Government.

      Sadly, as is likely to happen here, the usual suspects in the tabloid (and to their shame some broadsheet) media made sure that the voices of social/health care was not heard even though it was quality entertainment that challenged public belief’s about the crisis in adult elderly care.

      If nothing else can we not see it as something meant well with a good heart?

    • Kitty September 16, 2016 at 11:29 am #

      Yawn

      • LongtimeSW September 20, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

        ? ? ?

  6. Liz September 15, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    I really hope this lives up to expectations. For all of my 30 year career as a social worker in children’s services I have hoped that someone would do this. There are so many great stories in our work – from sad moving ones to hilarious quirky ones. And we desperately need to change our image. The challenge though is whether the general public really want to see the human side of our work or whether they prefer to keep us in our stereotype because seeing the reality of what we do may force them to see their world in a different way.

  7. Tom Hughes September 16, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    Alain Davies as a Social Worker? Hope they don’t let him near any homeless people….

  8. Blair Mcpherson September 22, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    TV does us no favours. I am a big fan of crime fiction and one of my favourite authors is Peter Robinson and his detective DCI Banks. Many of the books have been successfully televised and no doubt his latest “When the music is over ” will also be turned into a two part thriller, if so I hope the tv producers rewrite the social workers cameo role from the inaccurate, poorly researched, stereotype, into something that social workers can recognise. This is all the more important because of the subject matter which involves the sexual grooming and abuse of underage white girls by older Asian men with heavy reference to Rotherham and other recent scandals. The social worker is portrayed as cynical, disinterested and defensive, rather than seeing the thirteen year old girl as a victim the phrase put into his mouth is, ” life style choice”. Whilst there are certainly social workers who are cynical and defensive few if any are disinterested. I don’t remember any of the subsequent enquirers describing the social workers as blaming the victims. In fact I recall social workers raised their concerns repeatedly with the police and senior management only to have them dismissed or ignored.

    To add insult to injury the social worker feature is from adult care not children’s services and says his limited knowledge of the family is through contact with the mother who is a drug addict going through another rehab programme. And yet he seems to know a lot about her daughters non school attendance, being bullied and suspension. But he says, “not my case”.No other social worker features in the story, no manager, no one from the school except the school secretary who is contacted to identify names of fiends who the police want to interview but only have first names or nicknames to go on.

    The public’s view of social workers can only be further damaged by this misleading , bias and inaccurate portrayal. Thousands may be millions will watch the story on tv and no one will be inspired to be a social worker.

    Blair McPherson ex social worker and former director http://www.blairmcpherson.co.uk