‘The social work office was stark and brutal’: BBC1’s The Casual Vacancy

The dramatic impact of social work scenes in The Casual Vacancy come at the expense of reality, writes social worker Alan Fisher

By Sunday night my brain has usually turned to mush. It’s all I can do to collapse on the sofa in front of some suitably undemanding television to postpone the start of the working week for as long as possible. Then I turned over to BBC. Social work has become peak-time viewing.

The dramatised version of JK Rowling’s book, The Casual Vacancy, was set in the fictional village of Pagford, a picture-postcard idyll in the Cotswolds whose middle-class elitism is under threat from the council estate on the other side of the tracks.

The opening half-hour rapidly set the tone as the veneer of gentility and community hid a multitude of back-biting and prejudice.

Enter Kay, an Afro-Caribbean woman who seems out of place. Turns out she is a social worker and we accompany her on her first visit to Terri, who lives on the estate and is ‘known to social services’, struggling to bring up her two children and stay drug-free.

‘Stark and brutal’

Kay finds Terri comatose on the sofa, her three-year-old playing on his own next to a tray of sharps and other paraphernalia. The house is a mess and there’s no food. Terri’s teenage daughter returns home while Kay goes to tell her manager about the visit.

The scene in the social work office is stark and brutal. Without even making eye-contact, the white middle-class supervisor slaughters Kay’s assessment that the child should be removed. She says they have lots of worse cases on the estate, and if this had been a complex family it would not have been allocated to Kay.

The BBC synopsis indicates Kay has fled from London after a child abuse scandal, but that’s not referred to directly. Anyway, the supervisor concludes, social services are £3m over budget so they can’t take children into care just like that.

This highly charged 30 seconds made for great drama, and that’s the problem. The dramatic impact came at the expense of reality. The child was at immediate risk of significant harm and it’s debateable whether or not Kay should have left the house at all.

Not only is there a duty for social services to act, in these risk-averse times it’s highly unlikely no action would be taken in these circumstances. The callousness of the supervisor in the face of child neglect just did not ring true.

Social work on TV

Social work has been well-served over the past couple of years by documentary-makers – Protecting Our Children on the work of a Bristol child protection team and a series about the adoption process were insightful, considered pieces – but less so in drama, even though programme makers have featured the profession more frequently.

Holby City introduced a social worker and the recent Silent Witness provoked a strong reaction with its portrayal of a committed but burnt-out social worker undermined by numerous procedural inaccuracies.

The Casual Vacancy has extremely high production values – the acting is pitch-perfect as a large of number characters in this ensemble piece have to establish themselves quickly. However, on this evidence the series has fallen into exactly the same trap.

Programme-makers must believe that the viewing public have a greater consciousness of children’s social work so we may see more social workers on television in the future. No one knows this better than advertisers, so the makers of the new Kentucky Fried Chicken advert must be delighted with themselves.

A forlorn but unnaturally neat boy stands framed in the doorway, filled with trepidation. Never fear – settling a child into a new placement is dead easy, just buy a bargain bucket and tuck in. Fostering is finger-lickin’ good. More awareness is welcome, such a pity therefore that programme-makers take a stupendously superficial approach.

‘A dramatic device’

People may not know much about what we do. The trouble is, they think they know what we do. Not in detail, but enough so they don’t want to dig any deeper. Also, social work is still not embedded in our culture. It’s easy to portray us as interlopers, outsiders who ‘do things’ to a community rather than be part of it.

Social work is vulnerable. Scriptwriters can get away with anything. Programmes always seek advice regarding the technical aspects of the work of any profession, so why have they chosen to ignore this in Silent Witness and The Casual Vacancy? We’re in danger of becoming relegated to the role of a dramatic device to enable the plot to move along smoothly. It does us no service whatsoever.

I’ve not read JK Rowling’s book, but the BBC has apparently changed the original ending because it was too bleak. I suspect Kay may play a part in that. But the BBC’s other Sunday night drama, Call the Midwife, allowed the episode’s central character, a doctor called Dr Turner, something that is denied to social workers in fiction or reality – redemption.

Questioning his self-belief and his future in the profession, Dr Turner hides at home behind drawn curtains. Then, a stream of gifts from the grateful locals arrive and he performs an emergency operation to save a patient’s life.

I suspect it will be a while before Kay or any other fictional social worker is allowed the chance to be the hero.

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15 Responses to ‘The social work office was stark and brutal’: BBC1’s The Casual Vacancy

  1. Stephen James February 18, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    As someone who was directly involved in shaping the scripts for the 2012 episodes of Emmerdale, where an elderly man was being physically and psychologically abused by his son, the local vicar, I can say without hesitation that the producers accepted and used all my advice, and the social worker’s role was depicted with great authenticity. It’s a shame that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ and other programmes do not reflect social work with the same degree of realism, as it really need not detract from a strong storyline, and in many cases can add to it.

  2. BuddhaPest February 18, 2015 at 10:59 am #

    I have been a social worker since 1981, and I have yet to see a dramatised TV portrayal of social workers which satisfies those in the profession. The TV schedules are full of dramas involving the police, hospital workers, publicans, politicians, etc, and most of these are probably not exact representations of the jobs these people do, and yet social workers remain hyper-sensitive to anything they see as less than a pitch-perfect representation of them and their work.

    I also haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, but watched the TV dramatisation. A social worker was appalled by what she found when she visited a family, but was over-ruled by her manager. And this doesn’t happen to social workers? The manager seemed to have an agenda of her own on her interaction with the social worker. This never happens?

    Social workers seem to watch dramas which FEATURE a social worker character as if they are dramas ABOUT the social worker, in which the dilemmas and problems of the social worker have to be absolutely representative of their own experiences.

    My advice is to accept that this was a sympathetic portrayal of a social worker, who was however not the main subject of the drama, but rather just one of the vehicles for moving the story along. The unsympathetic manager is one of the problems she faces.

  3. ExSocialWorker February 18, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    I found the lack of eye contact so reminiscent of my last manager who I didn’t get on with. ‘Stark and brutal’ is how I would describe my last place of employment last year: nowhere to call my own due to hot-desking (but the manager had her own spacious office). All files and papers locked away along with every one else’s, so each day would be a trawl through hundreds of files in another room listed by NHS number as names on the outside of files were not allowed. In terms of my own SW experience, a fairly typical portrayal, so I will continue to watch the JKR. For others who found it realistic, then we might get into a ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch. For those who found it unrealistic, then I am pleased that at least some social workers are getting their attachment needs met.

  4. Trevor McCarthy February 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    The Casual Vacancy is a TV drama based on a novel. It’s nor a documentary and it wasn’t based on textbook.
    From the first episode I think the characterisation has been true to the original. The social worker was portrayed as human and assertive; the supervision from her manager was poor. It seemed like an accurate portrayal of the lay understanding of social work activity to me.
    If that understanding is flawed (it is from my perspective but service users might have a different take on it) then we could consider:
    a) reading the book
    b) advocating that our social work agencies issue media releases pointing out that fiction doesn’t represent practice and offering reassurance by describing the service people can expect.
    After all, online social work forums probably won’t change public perceptions especially if they (like many of us, apparently) haven’t read the book.

  5. Ray February 18, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

    If everything in fictional drama was exactly true to life, it wouldn’t be fictional drama – it would be a documentary. Talk to anyone about how their occupation/trade/profession is portrayed in TV drama and they’ll tell you it isn’t an accurate portrayal. If you want everything in drama to exactly represent real life you’re probably missing the point.

  6. Richie February 18, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

    I’ve read the book and seen the show and I felt both do a good job of portraying the challenges in social work. None of the characters in Pagford are perfect, the characters are all flawed including the social worker, there are bad social workers and managers, and there are some situations that aren’t ideal but for whatever reason no intervention is started. I do feel the TV show greatly exaggerated the conditions Robbie was living in because I remember the social worker having misgivings but not all out take the child away, though it has been while since read it, but these embellishments are needed to compete on prime time TV, this isn’t a documentary

  7. mary finn February 18, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    The social worker in the a Casual Vacany was presnted in a more realistic manner and facing more realisitc challenges than is often portrayed not 100% accurate but it is a drama not a documentary, it is also infinetly preferable to the ridiculous patronising Clare in The Community

  8. Need Help February 18, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    I thought that social workers were supposed to help and where given bad press until I actually (indirectly) came into contact with one.

    My girlfriend’s brother is disabled. The parents are split up. The mum looked after the disabled brother for years. Dad decides he wants custody of the brother. Mum, who is a very anxious and easily bullied individual, agreed that brother should go live with dad during the week, as dad lives next to a farm where the brother can ‘help out’, on the condition that brother would see mum every school holiday and every other weekend. Brother moves, and dad decides actually brother can’t see mum, says she’ll never have him again. Says yes she can, then when she turns up to collect him, physically restrains brother and calls the police on her.

    Social workers turn up. Their assessment? Brother not in immediate danger, so there’s nothing they can do. Despite the fact that the house is the mess, dad is a a chain smoker, brother is now ill all the time (and never was before). Social workers try to pressure mum into signing an agreement that she is happy not to see him (she, of course, is devastated). She won’t sign it, of course. Social workers say that they don’t want to hear from her again. This woman is alone and lives for her son – wants nothing more than to see him. I could go on and on. But ‘callous and cruel’ completely sums up the situation.

    I still believe that there are good social workers out there. Can one of them please give me some advice about what can be done so that my girlfriend’s mum can see her son again?

    • Linda Merris February 19, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

      I advise the mother to seek legal advise as the Courts can become involved in deciding what is in there child’s best interest . The process should involved a multi- agency assessment to identify the risks, needs and support required by the child and who is best placed to meet these. The child’s wishes and feelings will also be sought.

  9. Ruth Cartwright February 18, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    Most worrying is when TV dramas represent SWs doing something they could not legally do as when a child was removed on Eastenders a few years ago. This could really have made people reluctant to refer to or engage with social services and could ultimately have put children at risk. I worked for BASW at the time and we were able to get much publicity to spread understanding about what a SW could and could not do in these circumstances by publicly criticising the BBC. Most programmes do take professional advice (have done some of this myself for soaps) but the drama always has to take precedence.

  10. Tom Hughes February 18, 2015 at 7:08 pm #

    It is based on a fictional book written by an author famed for a series of a fantasy wizard. I never expected a realistic portral of Social Work and this article seems to convey an expectation that not giving the audience one is a let down.

  11. Scampi101 February 18, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Joining the Social Work Profession in 1989, taking early retirement in 2014 I have witnessed many changes within the profession. There are indeed managers who treat workers in the manner portrayed as I am sure there are in many professions. The office environment description is a luxury to some workers who have to desk share to meet the constraints of the financial restrictions placed on the Employers. Resources are shrinking yearly, demands on the service are increasing. In reality this could be a scenario faced by many social workers, with managers having to deal with financial constraints, staff shortages, and rising caseloads.
    BBC DRAMA is just that drama not a documentary insight into the daily life and times of a Social Worker and their profession.
    I am glad to have been a member of the profession for twenty five years, but am happy to have had the opportunity to retire early from a profession which is underfunded, not always recognised for the stress and demands people in the profession have to deal with. Money is the mighty sword it’s cuts into resources forcing very difficult decisions made by some, which decides the fate of what others receive.

  12. Teresa Thornton February 19, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    Has no one else seen Oranges and Sunshine: in which the social worker was allowed to be the heroine? Admittedly it is set in the past: when social workers were allowed more scope and there was less bureaucracy.

  13. Stuart Holmes February 19, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    Oranges and Sunshine omitted to make clear that most of what the social worker was portrayed doing (and in real life did do) was either in her own time or in time paid for by her generous employer in a post specially created for her to continue the work. She wasn’t in the role of ‘mainstream’ social worker so I think we’re still waiting for accurate portrayal of that role in TV drama.

  14. Patch February 19, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    Re: Kentucky Fried Fostering. Isn’t the most significant aspect of this advert. which will have been researched up the yinyang – the ‘normalisation’ of foster care, and the complete disregard of the effect that such scene might have on the natural parents, who, since they don’t have children anymore, don’t feature in the demographic. Brutal and stark indeed… and plump full of unnatural additives. A bit like Kentucky Fried Chicken farms…