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Children’s services is not an obvious source of comedy, but Damned pulls off the difficult feat of being both funny and poignant

  • 27 Sep 2016

Jo Brand's new sitcom Damned stars herself and Alan Davies as overworked employees in a Children’s Services department, who employ black humour to help them get through each day

Jo Brand called her new sitcom about social workers Damnedbecause, she says, “They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t”. 

They never get any thanks, and whenever some terrible case of abuse or neglect hits the headlines, the social workers are always the first to be demonised in the press. According to Brand, “It’s like being a traffic warden without the perks”. 

The comedian, whose 82-year-old mother is still active as a social worker, explains that, “As the daughter of a social worker, who worked for many years in child protection, I grew up seeing social workers go unrecognised for the good things they did and castigated for the bad.

Damned is an attempt to portray the tragic-comic lives of social workers, always under pressure, always in possession of a grim sense of humour and always wrong in the eyes of the public.”

In Damned, which starts at 10pm on Channel 4 on Tuesday, Brand and Alan Davies star as Rose and Al. They are two dedicated, yet constantly overworked employees in the children’s services department at the fictional Elm Heath Council, where black humour helps them get through each day.

The social work team are having to cope simultaneously with government cuts, enormous levels of stress-related sick leave, hopeless temporary staff, a “stool pigeon” colleague, a tyrannical boss and an ever-increasing client list. 

As if they didn’t already have enough on their plates, the social workers are also wrestling with hassly private lives. At one point, Rose jokes about her useless ex: “I took the precaution of marrying a man who was grateful that I’d have sex with him for free.” 

Children’s services is not an obvious source of comedy, butDamned pulls off the difficult feat of being both funny and poignant. Brand and her co-writers Morwenna Banks and Will Smith have managed to mine warmth and humour in the stories of a harassed group of public service workers trying their best to help people in dire straits.

It is rare to see social workers centre stage like this. Davies, who has played Jonathan Creek for the past 19 years, hopes real social workers, “Think Damned is funny, but also think, ‘At last someone has told our story’.”

Chatting to The Independent after filming has finished, the makers of the six-part series concede that children’s services is not a subject that has “sitcom” written all over it. However, they stress, comedy enables you to refresh parts of the audience that other genres cannot reach. 

Brand, who before she became a comedian was a psychiatric nurse, observes that, “What comedy does is enable you to get across to people a message about something that is really awful. But just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean you don’t respect the situation of the people you’re focusing on.

“Certainly I know when I was a nurse, I was dealing with the most appalling circumstances. In those situations, you use humour because it relaxes people. It’s either that or smoking 60 fags a day – something I’d like to have done in this, but we thought that wouldn’t be so entertaining.”

That said, Brand has been fed stories by real-life social workers and confesses that in creating Damned they have had to tone down reality. “What actually happened to generate these comic ideas is much, much worse than what we portray. We’ve made it much nicer. So if you think what we show is bad, it’s nothing compared to what is really happening.”

But, Davies chips in, “Nobody would believe those stories, so we couldn’t put them in the show.”

Filming the series certainly made the actors much more aware of the daily difficulties social workers confront and of the yawning social gulf in British society. 

50-year-old Davies, who is a longstanding friend of Brand’s, recalls that, “We were driving to work on the day after the Brexit vote. On the radio we were listening to David Cameron resigning as prime minister. So if you take the country into a referendum and lose the argument, you can quit the next morning and move into your friend’s £17m house, as if you never did it.”

Davies, who has been a panellist on BBC2’s panel show, QI, since 2003, continues that, “None of our characters in Damned can just resign the next morning if something hasn’t gone well the day before because they feel responsible for the people in their care and for the choices they make. The backdrop to this series is that serious politics is almost like a pantomime, while social workers deal with the day-to-day reality of trying to help people in the face of budget cuts.”

For all that, Brand underlines that Damned is not trying to score overt political points about cuts in vital public services. “I don’t think we’re trying to hit people over the head with that. We are simply trying to show the reality of what’s going on.

”The budget cuts inevitably result in the service being weakened and in fewer staff being around to deal with things. At any one time, 50 per cent of social workers are off sick with stress. 25 per cent of them are replaced with agency staff and 25 per cent aren’t, so they are always short staffed. But Damned is not delivering a direct political message – although I hasten to add I’ve never voted Tory.” A beat. “I’m Ukip normally.”

Brand, who in 2014 was awarded an honorary doctorate from Canterbury Christ Church University, for her work in raising awareness of mental health issues and challenging the stigma surrounding such illnesses, has been steeped in the world of social services her whole life. 

The 59-year-old comedian comments that, “My mum is a social worker. She is 82, but she still hasn’t quite managed to retire. She is like an out-of-control ancient revolutionary. She sticks her nose into lots of things where she shouldn’t. She writes a column for a local paper, but it’s in Ludlow, so there is hardly going to be a revolution up there.”

Brand, who in 2011 won the BAFTA for the best female performance in a comedy role after playing a put-upon nurse at a geriatric unit in BBC4’s Getting On, continues: “My mum’s job has been part of my life since I was a small child. In my head all these years, I’ve had a wish to redress the balance and make social workers seem like real people.”

Even so, social workers continue to endure regular pummelling in the red tops. Why are some newspapers so eager to demonise them? Brand, who also played a social worker in her BBC2 sitcom,Going Forward, reflects, “Psychiatrists do a similar job to social workers. They have to predict how much harm someone will cause to themselves or others. But when they make mistakes and someone they failed to section or admit to hospital goes and kills someone, they’re not castigated in the same way.

“Social workers are seen as hippies with hessian bags and socks and sandals. They are perceived as hippyish do-gooders, and that group is always going to be pilloried. People resent do-gooders because they think they’re offering them some sort of moral code and telling them how to live their lives. So people love to hate social workers because they think they moralise.”

The comedian adds, “The area of child protection is also so emotive. We all know that children’s charities garner far more support than other charities because it’s such an emotive subject. Also, when a social worker does a good thing, how do we find out about it? We never do because it’s classified information. So the only time you ever find out about them is when things have gone wrong.”

So what does Brand hope that audiences will take away fromDamned? The comedian, who also fronts The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, a programme that has a spiritual link with Jo Brand Through the Cakehole, her breakthrough show on Channel 4 23 years ago, muses that, “I hope that they think it’s funny, obviously.”

But, returning to her desire to do all she can to help rehabilitate the reputation of social workers, Brand carries on: “I also hope they think the characters are kind because that’s what social workers are. It is very rare that you come across a social worker who says, ‘Secretly I’m evil, and I’m going to spread my evil throughout the office.’ That doesn’t happen. In the same way, despite Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, most psychiatric nurses are very kind. Most people in the caring professions are.”

Brand continues by expressing the hope that Damned could run and run. “It’s something that could go on. It could be like Casualtyand last 30 years. I could be like Charlie Fairhead in 2046. 

“Funnily enough, there is weird circularity to it as Casualty started the year I started stand-up. How do I know that? Because I love Charlie in an unnatural way.”

Never more than a minute away from the next joke, Brand concludes by revealing which profession she might write a sitcom about next. “We’re going to do ballet dancers.”

That, I think we can all agree, is yet another Jo Brand sitcom we would love to see.

Damned starts at 10pm on Channel 4 on Tuesday