by Deborah Wain
It’s a new day in children’s services at Elm Heath Council – the fictional setting for Jo Brand’s new sitcom Damned.
For senior social worker Al (Alan Davies), the first challenge is to get into the office, armed with the wrong door code.
It turns out to be a small inconvenience. For, as the action unfolds, Al has to contend with a barrage of other trials in his frustrating, overstretched workplace.
On the personnel side, there is Al’s grumpy colleague, Rose (Brand), who only turned up for work on time the day she forgot to put the clocks back, and Martin (Kevin Eldon) who was signed off a year ago but turns up to offer support and make coffee. Most trying is the temp Nat, with her perennial perkiness and inability to remember the name of the department.
Add to this broken toilets, broken lifts, oh, and broken computers. All the while, call after call, the bizarre and the impossible, are coming in on the telephone system.
Damned, produced by What Larks! was first broadcast in 2014 as a pilot. A six-episode series was subsequently commissioned by Channel 4.
Former psychiatric nurse Brand has applied her pen to geriatric nursing in Getting On (BBC Four) and then agency care work in the spin-off Going Forward.
Social work would seem a natural choice for her latest project given it was her mum’s profession (actually Brand says she is still not fully retired at 82) and, by extension, child protection was part of her life for many years.
Damned is Brand’s attempt not only to tap into an underexplored area, but to counter negative portrayal of social workers by showing them as real people faced with complex decisions. The title is a nod to the no-win situation social workers invariably find themselves in.
Brand believes the public “love to hate” social workers because, although in reality they are a mixed group like any profession, they cannot shake the image of “middle-class”, “do-gooders” telling people how to live their lives.
She says: “Psychiatrists have a similar job to social workers because they have to predetermine how much harm someone is going to do, but when they make mistakes, they are not castigated in the same way…
“…when a social worker does a good thing you never find out because it’s classified information. You only find out when it goes wrong.”
Genuine working environment
The production team were keen to recreate a genuine working environment for Damned. Filming was done in offices belonging to Broxbourne Borough Council, in Hertfordshire (although no actual social workers were disrupted!).
The way the sitcom is shot – with two hand-held cameras – serves to further strip away artifice. The observational style of Damned is closer to documentary than traditional comedy.
Of the experience of filming, Davies says “you never know whether you’re in shot or not in shot”. But the actor welcomed swapping the studio, where he does most of his work, for the natural light of an office. “It was nice to feel you were part of a real place,” he comments.
The series’ free flow perhaps belies the fact it is tightly scripted – unlike Going Forward, which was almost entirely improvised.
Brand, co-creator Morwenna Banks and co-writer, Will Smith, an Emmy award winner, each crafted two episodes and then fine-tuned them together. Although the cast were encouraged to improvise there was one fully scripted version of each take.
For their research, Banks visited a social services department and plotlines were checked for authenticity and adherence to actual protocol. Brand reveals the series relies heavily on one insider.
To highlight the pressure social workers are under, Brand quotes statistics showing half of social workers are off sick with stress, with only half of these replaced by agency workers.
“Anything you see is actually much, much worse; we’ve made it nicer,” she stresses.
Dedicated to social workers
Asked if there is a political message behind the series, Brand comments: “I don’t think we’re trying to beat people over the head, but budget cuts do impact on services.” She adds wryly: “I wouldn’t say there is a direct political message, although I have never voted Tory.”
Damned is not only television dedicated entirely to social workers, its protagonists are three-dimensional characters. Rose and Al’s lives seem almost as chaotic as those of the members of the public they are attempting to help.
Banks comments: “It was important for us to take the judgement out of it. We see Rose being quite a bad parent. They (the characters) are struggling with their own personal dilemmas.”
In the first episode, Rose’s ex-husband adds to her stress levels by turning up at work and later teaches their children how to, horror of horrors, cook chips. Meanwhile Al is not great at setting boundaries and is being stalked by a former client who will not let go.
Damned is described by its producers as more bitter than sweet, and it is shot through with gallows laughs. They say their research showed a dark sense of humour was prevalent, indeed necessary, in social care settings. The department’s fearsome temporary manager Denise (Georgie Glen) pursues performance targets like a heat-seeking missile and exhales jargon. Her deft playing of irritating junior Nitin (Himesh Patel) makes for some of the show’s best early moments.
However, Damned is tender too; illustrated, in episode two, by Al’s dealings with new parents who have learning disabilities.
Exploring awful things through humour
So how does Brand think comedy can shine a fresh light on the difficult workings of child protection? She sees it as a way in to exploring “really awful’ things as humour has the effect of relaxing people.
“Just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean you don’t respect the situation,” she says.
Nerys Evans, deputy head of comedy at Channel 4, explains there was a natural pull towards Brand’s work in commissioning Damned. She describes the comedian as having a “brilliant integrity to her writing and a brutal honesty and desire to explore challenging territory with comedy” which fits with Channel 4’s ethos.
Evans comments: “Channel 4 comedy has a history of breaking taboos and showing worlds that are rarely seen across all its genres.
“(Damned) is certainly the first time a group of social workers have been the foreground for a sitcom, which made it a really interesting proposition for us. And the fact it was in children’s services felt like a really fascinating backdrop on top of that.”
Evans says that, commissioners were “as keen as Jo and the other writers to make sure that the joke was never on the service users nor that it was judgemental in any way”.
She continues: “I loved the complexity of the characters in the show, especially Rose, whose own struggles showed that parental challenges are somewhat universal.
“It’s also refreshing to see a depiction of social workers as human and fallible also. We wanted to make sure that the writing was as authentic and well informed as it could be, so we were delighted that the writers spoke to social workers for advice on storylines and to make sure the world they were portraying felt authentic to their real experiences also. But ultimately, it is a comedy and we thought the writing was very funny also.”
The pilot episode of Damned was well-received within the social care sector.
While Davies suggests the series is about a group of characters and not a representation of social work as a whole, he feels “it is not an unfair depiction.”
For her part, Brand, hopes that “very broadly” social workers will “think our characters are kind”.
The first episode of Damned is broadcast on Channel 4, on Tuesday, 27th September, at 10pm.