Portrayal of social workers on TV

Real-life social work cases are packed with drama, so their absence from TV is puzzling. But recent portrayals suggest producers are waking up to their potential.

Television plays a major role in shaping public perception of different professions. Holby City’s doctors may have god complexes and posh voices but they will save your life; all nurses look suspiciously like former cast members of Hollyoaks; and policemen may not play by the rules but they do get results.

But what about social workers? The interim report from the Social Work Task Force linked the poor public image of social workers to a lack of understanding about the role, something that isn’t helped by their almost wholesale absence from TV drama.

Research (see below) has shown that, when social workers do make it on to the box, most are shown in a positive light. But it’s also worth considering that, with major news stories an obvious source of plotlines, a scriptwriter could right now be pondering how to portray social workers in a drama on the baby Peter case.

Programmes that show social workers in well-written roles make for great TV, and a competent social worker who worked well alongside other professionals came in the form of Norma Fredericks in BBC One drama Criminal Justice this month, which drew more than 4m viewers.

“Like any profession there are really good and really bad staff – I wanted to have a go at showing both sides,” says the programme’s writer, Peter Moffat.

“Norma was trying her absolute best, but she faced problems. I wanted to show her as being in the job long enough to remember when there was far less bureaucracy, when more time was spent on the work. She also had a boss who used New Labour-speak about how to perform, so it was about seeing how she did against that. She was a brave, strong woman doing her hardest to do the best she could, but facing problems because of the way social work was set up.”

Moffat consulted a social worker while writing the script and interviewed another social worker and women with histories of domestic abuse to ensure a realistic portrayal.

Uncritical stereotypes 

But when programmes fail to make the effort to do thorough research, it can be reflected on screen in the shape of crass social worker stereotypes who appear solely as plot devices. An episode of BBC One school drama Waterloo Road this year showed a woman’s children taken away from her in circumstances deemed sufficiently unrealistic to draw criticism from Community Care’s readers on our online Carespace forum.

It may be tempting to suggest that all mass-market dramas eschew responsible programme-making for plot lines, but some content reflects more extensive research efforts. Ruth Cartwright, professional officer for England for the British Association of Social Workers, says she feels like an “unofficial script consultant” for BBC One daytime soap Doctors, due to the frequent contact she has with its makers.

“It’s not major storylines but often just bits and pieces,” she says. “They would ask, ‘we want to take a child away from its parents, would this happen like this?’. The answer is normally ‘no’, but they are keen to get it right.”

To encourage more dramas to match the effort of Doctors, Cartwright suggests that BASW could be more active in approaching programme makers to ensure they depict social workers realistically.

Received wisdom suggests that the public are more interested in police and medical dramas because they are universal services with which most people have contact.

To improve social workers’ visibility, Moffat believes that more writers should realise that they can make good TV, even in soaps, and that it can be achieved by using them in serious dramas to make the public more relaxed about the profession.

“We can make viewers comfortable by seeing social workers in something like Criminal Justice,” he says. “Social workers come across people in real trouble; it sounds a bit crass, but it’s natural drama territory. God knows we’ve got enough dramas about doctors and police.”


Sad, not bad: positive portrayals in television soaps

A study published in the Journal of Social Work in 2007, “Sad not bad”, examined six major soaps in a three-month period in 2003.

Only 16 of 249 episodes included social care characters, most of whom worked in child protection.

Coronation Street had none, while The Bill, Holby City and Hollyoaks included characters in one-off episodes.

It wasn’t all bad news: surprisingly, just one portrayal was seen as negative, 18 were positive and three were neutral.

Lesley Henderson, a lecturer from Brunel University who produced the study, says: “We didn’t find the stories you’d expect, such as of children being taken away without any reason – what we did see were sad, isolated individuals worrying about bureaucracy.

“They didn’t speak much and were often just referred to as being at the end of a phone; they weren’t part of the community they were serving.

“The main issue is that when you have a group that is portrayed so rarely, when they are portrayed, there is an incredible scrutiny. If we had more diversity of representation there wouldn’t be such a problem.”


Clare in the Community waits for her big break

Harry Venning’s creation, the uncaring social worker par excellence, Clare in the Community, has run as a cartoon strip since 1996 – previously in Social Care magazine and now in Society Guardian – and for five series on Radio 4 with Sally Phillips as Clare. But it has never made the leap across to TV, despite Venning’s efforts.

“We were first approached to put the strip on TV by producer Anil Gupta, who had just done Goodness Gracious Me and was about to start work on The Office,” says Venning. “His mum had drawn attention to the strip, and he’d asked us for a Yes Minister for social workers, to introduce people to this world that they don’t really know. We [Venning and co-writer Dave Ramsden] tried to provide that.

“However, the head of BBC One wasn’t convinced, and it was turned down. It’s been rejected by the BBC twice, and by Channel 4, and even made a full pilot for ITV. We heard back that the head of ITV liked it. Then we heard that he’d left the job.”

Venning suggests that people should contact the BBC if they think the show should be transferred to TV, because the corporation tends to pay attention to the opinions of viewers and listeners.

But although the show will continue on radio, a move to TV will depend on whether a commissioner is willing to take a gamble on a show that covers social work, even though most of Clare in the Community is workplace humour rather than social work in-jokes.

“Everyone is terrified of it being miserable, and that’s why we’ve never been able to place it on television,” says Venning.

“Earlier this year the BBC did give Dave and I a brief to write a comedy script for basically doing Clare in the Community somewhere else [about different professions], like in a school or a hospital. We tried to do it, but the character just doesn’t move. It didn’t make sense in another setting where she was just a really unpleasant character that no-one would want to spend any time with.

“It’s the contrast with her being in a caring profession and being so uncaring that makes it funny. She’s got to be a social worker or nothing.”

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This article is published in the 29 issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Social work screen test

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