Screened out

Unlike policemen, firemen, nurses and garbage
collectors, social workers have failed to make a major impact on
the nation’s television schedules. Graham Hopkins asks television
industry figures why this might be and finds that the answer is not
entirely unconnected with beards and tank-tops.

In the last series of Cold Feet, two
of the characters, Rachel and Adam, were meeting with a family
adoption worker, when they announced that Rachel (unable to have
children, hence the adoption) was – miraculously – pregnant. Rather
than deal calmly and professionally with this revelation, the
worker – displaying more cold shoulder than cold feet – panicked.
She refused to engage with the prospective parents and exited
hastily, muttering that this was “not good” and that she would have
to talk to her “superiors”.

That there were no “Social workers outrage
over Cold Feet” headlines demonstrates just how old hat
this stereotyping is. Social workers are almost invariably
presented in roles which confirm suspicions that they are – take
your pick – incompetent, arrogant, or obstructive. Television tends
to prove itself no friend to the profession. It has no drama
serials, few documentaries, and one-off dramas, if made at all,
concentrate on scandals – including last year’s Bafta-winning
Care based on a horrifying history of systematic child
abuse in children’s homes in Wales and elsewhere.

But why isn’t there a drama series about
social services? Certainly, at last year’s social services
conference, Melvyn Bragg – a man who knows his TV onions, when
asked if social care could break through the glass ceiling of
sympathetic TV, believed there to be no good reason why not.

Others, however, seem to have many a good
reason why not. BBC producer Ruth Caleb, who co-produced
Care, explains: “Television drama is essentially about
heroes and so heroic services are targeted – whether it’s
hospitals, police or fire-fighters. Social workers are not
perceived as heroic because they are not at the cutting edge of

“I think social work has a right to have a
grievance against the way it is portrayed,” says Terry Kelleher, an
independent producer who runs Platinum TV and Films. “If it’s any
consolation, I don’t think others – accountants, for example – are
particularly portrayed as heroic figures.”

Interestingly, KPMG, looking to present
accountancy and the company as a hip place to work, part-financed a
1998 movie – The Sea Change – in which the “handsome,
dashing and funny” lead character worked for KPMG. Sadly, in
publicity the accountant hero had been spun into a “financial

Social workers are not the only professionals
to feel misrepresented, says Kelleher. “I’m sure surgeons watching
Casualty are thinking ‘oh my God – they got that wrong!'”
The truth is, even supposedly authentic dramas are highly
fictional. In Tellyland, nobody pays cab fares, everyone finds a
parking spot outside the building they’re visiting, and lipstick
stays on – even underwater.

Indeed, as an ex-policewoman, a senior nurse
and a Derbyshire doctor confirm about The Bill, Casualty
and Peak Practice: police officers placing their hands on
the heads of criminals when putting them into the squad car?
Hogwash! The heart monitor in intensive care displaying a flat-line
to denote a death? Eyewash! GPs rushing down to hospital to make
sure a patient attends? Quackery!

Couple its “unheroic” nature with its public
image problem and social work is in telly trouble, says Chris
Oxley, Bafta-winning director of the documentary Death on the
. “Their image, set in the stone of the 1970s and 1980s,
is not one that’s attractive in TV terms,” he says. “They simply
wouldn’t come across as lively enough for television that wants
stories of money, progress, getting on.”

Social workers have the further disadvantage
of always coming to people who have got troubles, adds Caleb: “So
potentially you are looking at a drama that’s going to be
miserable.” On top of that they are flawed sartorially. As Kieran
Prendiville, writer of Care and creator of
Ballykissangel, observes: “Television likes its drama
series in uniform.”

As head of drama at BBC Wales, Caleb rejected
a series about social workers called The Gatekeeper.
However, it later surfaced in 1999 as Jack of Hearts. The
social services setting was dumped and the main character had
become a probation officer. Despite these supposedly
audience-friendly changes, it was a ratings disaster. On 8
September 1999 it managed only 1.9 million viewers, a record

With no serials to milk, could one-off dramas
provide a more wholesome alternative? Prendiville believes that
social workers “get a lousy press, a better TV and an even better
radio.” Caleb agrees that TV can be sympathetic to the profession.
She cites When I Was 12 – a drama documentary about a
runaway girl. “The social worker in that was a real social worker
and was adviser to the film,” she says. “He was portrayed in a very
positive light. His scenes were brief but potent.”

Caleb is working on three single dramas
covering a young offenders institution, a drug rehabilitation unit
and a halfway house for “mentally unstable people”. Ironically, in
all three stories social services plays no part. This is probably
more worrying than being portrayed incorrectly. “They’re not seen
as part of problem-solving. So they’re just not there,” says

Television is much more a business than a
creative process, and those who run television are driven by
audience share, says Kelleher. “There are more channels and
possibly less variety, less risk. It’s quite unusual that a
programme like Care was made in the first place.”

Prendiville was drawn to Care by a mixture of
emotions: pity, anger, despair – and a feeling that somewhere in
the unremitting darkness there was a huge story that had to be told
and voices that had to be heard.

“What helped,” he continues, “was realising
that Care wasn’t a film about abuse at all, it was about the legacy
of abuse. How do you behave if you have suffered such evil? I
didn’t suppose an absolute truth, simply that in one particular
case, love didn’t conquer all. Sometimes evil triumphs.”

So, with drama almost a closed set, what about
factual programming? Workplace, fly-on-the-wall documentaries have
been buzzing around our screens in recent years. But here, for
social services, the big problem is confidentiality. “It’s that
much more difficult with this area because a social worker is
nothing without a client,” says Kelleher. “And that [means] members
of the public. Frequently it’s children – and that’s an absolute

In 1995 Oxley worked on a successful
documentary on adoption in the London Borough of Hackney
Playing God
– for BBC2’s Modern Times. “They were
very suspicious of us – perhaps rightly so,” he recalls. “But we
filmed for a year and it took about three months to break down the
barriers. Some were really good but a number of people lived down
to their image.”

Oxley’s fear for social work’s case is more
real than most. He has tried – and failed – to get a drama series
off the ground. “There was potential. We even had an influential
producer on board but were told that nobody wants to watch social

Many would argue that television is too
dumbed-down for such a series. As evidence Oxley points to the
tag-line for Footballers’ Wives: “They’re young, sexy and
rich…” Do the same for social work in six words, he challenges.
But perhaps “A Volvo. A tank-top. A beard,” will only cause the
nation’s pulses to race as they search for the remote to switch

However, there might be one way to succeed in
getting social services onto the screen and into the nation’s
hearts. And that is comedy. In a recent interview, a senior officer
at Bedford prison said: “Of all the TV programmes I’ve ever seen on
prisons, there’s only one that’s ever been remotely true to life.
Porridge.” It’s only a matter of timeÉ

And if programme-makers think this is “not
good”, perhaps we should insist on speaking to their superiors.

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