As the only radio series covering social work Clare deserves a listen, but don’t expect reality
Clare in the Community, BBC Radio 4 every Monday until 5 July. Also at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4
Some observers may think there is no humour to be found in the traditionally dry subject of social work.
But Clare in the Community has been proving the doubters wrong for the last six years, and the popular Radio 4 comedy returns for its latest series this month with comic actress Sally Phillips in the lead role.
The series may trade on stereotypes to a certain extent but Phillips is always entertaining as Clare Barker, the well-meaning and at times neurotic social worker struggling in vain to make a difference.
In the first episode of the sixth series we see a new trait in her character: ambition.
Having just fulfilled her “destiny” by becoming acting team leader, Clare is enjoying the undoubted kudos that comes with the role – with no higher honour than chairing team meetings.
Unfortunately, her rapid rise up the career ladder is threatened by the arrival of a bolshy Australian named Libby – “G’day…I’m an Aussie and a lesbo and proud of both” – who immediately sets her sights on becoming permanent team leader.
While some admire Libby’s very un-British, provocative personality, she immediately annoys Clare, who disagrees with a colleague’s description of the Aussie social worker as a nice person: “She’s NOT nice, she’s loud. There’s a difference.”
A controversial joke about disabled people from Libby also prompts an unintentionally hilarious response from the acting team leader, who denies being a member of the political correctness brigade: “We pommy social workers are not averse to the occasional use of black humour – sorry dark humour.”
An amusing first episode concludes with Clare and Libby agreeing to a good-natured contest for the permanent team leader’s job and Clare’s husband Brian overcoming his obsession with their Serbian nanny.
Other sub-plots are less funny, with one joke in particular falling flat as the writers try too hard to be wacky. Social worker Helen proudly announces she is looking forward to an internet date that evening “with brother and sister twins. Apparently they’re inseparable, so it’s not so much a case of bisexual, more buy one get one free”.
CareSpace users have been talking about how much they would like a TV soap about a team of social workers while Community Care has been campaigning for better coverage about social work in the media to improve public understanding.
Clare in the Community will do little to aid the latter – the first two episodes failed to articulate what social workers do beyond booking support groups into community halls.
But the series does reflect one trait that’s prevalent in most social workers I have come across: the ability to laugh at themselves.
This article is published in the 10 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline At Least We Can Laugh at Ourselves