As the show opened with the familiar social work hubbub of constantly ringing telephones I was hopeful that we were about to see a fair representation of child protection on British television. After years of being caricatured as ‘child catchers’ in the soaps, I was looking forward to a comedy portrayal that took the genuine gallows humour in our profession and used it in a positive way.
The pedigree was there with a cast of familiar faces including Jo Brand and Alan Davies. Brand, whose mum is a social worker, talked the show up in her promotional interviews by sharing her worries about child protection professionals being demonised in the press. How disappointing it was to then see her character use the term ‘balls deep’ in conversation with a client, flippantly discuss her past use of Class-A drugs in the office and act in a terribly unprofessional manner during a home visit that reeked of collusion.
When it comes to social work humour there’s a fine line between crass and clever. Sadly, the first episode of this show veered on the crass side by relying on swearing, unprofessional behaviours and inept workers to get a laugh from the audience. Watching it with a group of non-social workers, not one person laughed and their attention soon drifted from the screen to their mobile phones. When I found humour, it was in the familiarity of seeing the character ‘Al’ dressed like me and hearing the word ‘quorate’ (a term I’ve only ever heard used in child protection conferences) on the telly.
For me there was a missed opportunity to find genuine warmth in the situations the characters found themselves in. A particular low point here was when the character ‘Al’ told a former client ‘it’s not my job to care’ when it could have been a poignant opportunity to explore the contexts of these relationships (there is surely scope for humour here as well… how many of us have had to hide from service users when out for a drink with friends and slightly worse for wear?).
Although there were some serious issues raised regarding 50% of the workforce being on sick leave and people needing practical help instead of helplines, these were lightly touched upon as the set pieces of the show focused on negative humour. Again, there is lots of scope for humour in these situations (the farcical nature of some lengthy referrals to other agencies, agency workers who come into the office and disappear hours later etc.) but the show, for this episode at least, missed the chance and apparently failed to set up the scenario for such jokes in future episodes.
Running a live discussion as the show aired, the vast majority of fellow professionals watching shared similar views, with people commenting:
“Having watched “Damned” I’m left wondering if doctors watching Holby City have the same overwhelming sense of despair?!”
“Just what our profession didn’t need ….. it was diabolical”
“They had so much opportunity with a comedy about social workers to bring out the humility and brilliance in the professionals. it was naff in too many ways”
However, there were some more positive points from people reminding us this was supposed to be a comedy after all:
“I think it has potential. It wasn’t ‘laugh out loud funny’ but I warmed to it, especially Jo Brand’s character, by the end. Sitcoms are inevitably about people being inept and failing. Name one sitcom where people are amazing at their jobs?”
I had high hopes for this show but, on the strength of the first episode alone, I feel decidedly underwhelmed by what I’ve seen so far. Stale cardboard cut-out characters (the mean boss, ditsy secretary, jaded radical) and crass humour that relies on a lack of professionalism leaves me praying for a drastic improvement over the coming weeks.
Do you agree with Social Work Tutor’s take on Damned? Leave your comments below.