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.