by Colin J Dinnie
So I’m reviewing a TV show less than 24 hours after it aired and it is already too late to have stopped the collective consciousness of the internet from making up its mind.
Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks’ Damned has generally been received by the profession as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a betrayal of social workers everywhere. I found it, however, to be a TV sitcom.
I can’t help feeling that people’s reactions have been fundamentally tied to their expectations of the programme going in. For some these expectations seemed to have been pegged incredibly high, somehow believing this half hour of late night television would undo the years of media misrepresentation of social workers overnight.
Jo Brand is partly responsible for this build-up of hope, having said in pre-interviews how much she wanted to fairly represent the profession, but she can hardly be blamed for trying to build interest in what would be a pretty core audience for the show.
In retrospect perhaps Brand should have also reminded people that she was making a fiction and a comedy. Situations and personalities would be fabricated for comic effect and people’s personal and working lives would interweave in a way which we all try to avoid most of the time in real life.
The vitriol that people have launched at the programme since it aired is remarkable – ‘Trivialises and denigrates profession and service users. Script bears no resemblance to complex and often painful work’ – is one example of a dismayed tweet.
It is the lack of realism that seems to be at the heart of many of the criticisms, along with the unpalatable and unprofessional behaviour of the social workers. Oh, and a lot of people just didn’t find it funny.
They cared a lot
Of course people have different senses of humour and therefore some people would always have not enjoyed it or wanted it to be darker or have more jokes about hot desking. I properly laughed maybe twice, it wasn’t packed with quality gags and some of the ‘situations’ felt a bit tried and tested.
However as it went on I warmed to the characters and I realised that this was going to be a show where the laughs were more subtle and would come with greater familiarity with the characters.
Alan Davies’ character Al came in for criticism for his ‘it’s not my job to care’ line but actually this was delivered in a way that you could tell he did care, he cared a lot, he just didn’t know how to tell a woman who had become dependent on him that actually she could face the world by herself now.
The strength of the show is in the characters and their flawed humanity. However this becomes difficult to watch at times as they behave in ways which no social worker ever would. Would we? Has no social worker ever sworn on a visit? Has no social worker ever used their discretion about what they reported back to their managers and what they didn’t? Go back 10 years, were there no social workers who had a drink at their desks?
Where this goes
This certainly isn’t social work as we would like it to be seen, this is the visit we’d rather forget, the client we couldn’t wait to see the back of, the situation with the less than perfect outcome. Here are our mistakes, shame and guilt distilled down into a handful of tragic characters. That isn’t easy to watch, or to laugh at.
It isn’t perfect by any means. No manager I’ve ever met would ask a social worker to deliberately try to get ‘dirt’ on colleagues in order to fire them (but maybe I’ve just been lucky).
The portrayal of the senior manager as ‘evil’ was cheap given the more complex, conflicted nature of the other characters. However there were moments, such as when an exasperated woman searches her bare cupboards to feed her Grandchildren and Rose (Brand) reaches into her bag and pulls out two Aeros, that made me feel ‘there!’ , ‘there’s the social work’.
I look forward to seeing where this goes.
Colin J Dinnie is a social work educator. He tweets @colinjdinnie