Damned wasn’t a betrayal of social work – it was a TV show

A social worker defends Jo Brand's social work comedy, Damned, amidst a negative response from the sector

A promotional shot for Jo Brand's Damned sitcom

by Colin J Dinnie

So I’m reviewing a TV show less than 24 hours after it aired and it is already too late to have stopped the collective consciousness of the internet from making up its mind.

Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks’ Damned has generally been received by the profession as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a betrayal of social workers everywhere. I found it, however, to be a TV sitcom.

I can’t help feeling that people’s reactions have been fundamentally tied to their expectations of the programme going in. For some these expectations seemed to have been pegged incredibly high, somehow believing this half hour of late night television would undo the years of media misrepresentation of social workers overnight.

Hope

Jo Brand is partly responsible for this build-up of hope, having said in pre-interviews how much she wanted to fairly represent the profession, but she can hardly be blamed for trying to build interest in what would be a pretty core audience for the show.

In retrospect perhaps Brand should have also reminded people that she was making a fiction and a comedy. Situations and personalities would be fabricated for comic effect and people’s personal and working lives would interweave in a way which we all try to avoid most of the time in real life.

The vitriol that people have launched at the programme since it aired is remarkable – ‘Trivialises and denigrates profession and service users. Script bears no resemblance to complex and often painful work’ – is one example of a dismayed tweet.

It is the lack of realism that seems to be at the heart of many of the criticisms, along with the unpalatable and unprofessional behaviour of the social workers. Oh, and a lot of people just didn’t find it funny.

They cared a lot

Of course people have different senses of humour and therefore some people would always have not enjoyed it or wanted it to be darker or have more jokes about hot desking. I properly laughed maybe twice, it wasn’t packed with quality gags and some of the ‘situations’ felt a bit tried and tested.

However as it went on I warmed to the characters and I realised that this was going to be a show where the laughs were more subtle and would come with greater familiarity with the characters.

Alan Davies’ character Al came in for criticism for his ‘it’s not my job to care’ line but actually this was delivered in a way that you could tell he did care, he cared a lot, he just didn’t know how to tell a woman who had become dependent on him that actually she could face the world by herself now.

The strength of the show is in the characters and their flawed humanity. However this becomes difficult to watch at times as they behave in ways which no social worker ever would. Would we? Has no social worker ever sworn on a visit? Has no social worker ever used their discretion about what they reported back to their managers and what they didn’t? Go back 10 years, were there no social workers who had a drink at their desks?

Where this goes

This certainly isn’t social work as we would like it to be seen, this is the visit we’d rather forget, the client we couldn’t wait to see the back of, the situation with the less than perfect outcome. Here are our mistakes, shame and guilt distilled down into a handful of tragic characters. That isn’t easy to watch, or to laugh at.

It isn’t perfect by any means. No manager I’ve ever met would ask a social worker to deliberately try to get ‘dirt’ on colleagues in order to fire them (but maybe I’ve just been lucky).

The portrayal of the senior manager as ‘evil’ was cheap given the more complex, conflicted nature of the other characters. However there were moments, such as when an exasperated woman searches her bare cupboards to feed her Grandchildren and Rose (Brand) reaches into her bag and pulls out two Aeros, that made me feel ‘there!’ , ‘there’s the social work’.

I look forward to seeing where this goes.

Colin J Dinnie is a social work educator. He tweets @colinjdinnie

9 Responses to Damned wasn’t a betrayal of social work – it was a TV show

  1. Claire Devereux September 29, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    I for one really enjoyed it! It was spoof! It wasn’t meant to be real! Having been a social worker for some 25 years it was pretty accurate, though of course a thousand times more exaggerated! I sm looking forward to next week already!!!!

  2. Dave James September 29, 2016 at 7:23 pm #

    As a foster carer i wish the characters worked for our local authority but in reality Brand would have been promoted above her ability as a service manager, Davies would be dodging the bullets ss a supervising social worker and the manager would be on the promise of a safe parliamentary seat next time by Corbyn.

  3. Hels September 29, 2016 at 7:50 pm #

    It wasn’t funny at all!

  4. Fran September 29, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    I must say I did have high hopes for this especially after the initial pilot last year which was shown on Sky. Personally I thought it was slow and missed some opportunities to represent what a true ‘client drop in’ includes, endless swearing, shouting and requests for food vouchers and to see a manager. That aside I am hoping that the first episode was an introduction to the main characters and that future episodes will have the dark moments which happen to all of us, those families we really should not laugh at behind their backs. The ones where you really can not sit on the sofa because of the fear of being covered in fleas and cat urine. The ones where you bang your head against the desk because they have rang you 30 times within an hour with the same question you only really have one answer to…. alongside the ‘muck ups’ you try to hide in paperwork because you have had to write it 5 minutes before a core group. Or the face palm moment when a parent decides to pack a child’s belongings in banana crates for a removal to a foster family… anyways every social worker is different and every individual will have their own view. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  5. Lizj September 29, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

    I agree this is just a comedy and like others in the profession I probably had unrealistic expectations. What I think we really need though is our own version of casualty – social work has loads of fantastic stories to tell – funny , sad, moving . We need characters and stories the public can empathise with . Ok they may be stereotypical and unrealistic but they can help to get a message across.

  6. Pancho September 30, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

    I don’t like Jo Brand. I don’t like Alan Davies and I don’t like Nick Hancock (it was Nick Hancock wasn’t it?) I don’t like sit coms. I do like some social workers. My expectations of this were low, but I found it alright. Not good, but given the car crash it could have been, not bad.

    Porridge wasn’t an accurate reflection of life in prison. Benny Hill didn’t portray milkmen as accurately as he might. Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em wasn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the life of a conscript in India. There probably weren’t as many laughs in a medical unit in Korea as you might think if MASH is your reference point. Local government isn’t as fun filled and wacky as Parks and Recreation suggests.

    Expecting a sit com to show the world YOUR truth is just plain irrational.

    • Andrea October 3, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

      Pancho – LOL the best response yet !! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  7. Martin Porter October 7, 2016 at 8:31 am #

    I’m not sure it works as a comedy, but it might as a drama.

    The family with learning disabilities were wonderful, I’d want them in every week, and I really want to know the back story of the client who fancied Al (Davies).

    I don’t suppose it will get a second series, but with a slight rewrite it could work.

  8. graham October 18, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    The danger of comedy is expected to be funny, the safety of drama he can be all things including funny. like all Dramas related to local authorities and services, it may reflect the job and slide into the personal life.