Are social workers damned if they do, damned if they don’t? So suggests the title of a new Channel 4 sitcom that documents the ups and downs of a group of social workers.
Jo Brand and Alan Davies play Rose and Al, slightly jaded colleagues in the children’s services department at a local authority, struggling to deal with various personal issues – a cheating (soon-to-be ex) husband and a demanding girlfriend respectively – as well as their own exhausting caseloads.
There’s also Nitin, the constant target of Rose and Al’s teasing, and Martin, who’s been signed off sick for months but still comes into the office with a fake work pass to support his overstretched colleagues.
Damned was first broadcast in 2014 as a one-episode pilot for Sky and a six-part series was later commissioned by Channel 4. Inspiration for the series – written by Brand, Morwenna Banks, who starred in Skins, and Will Smith, a writer on The Thick of It – partly came from Brand’s mother, a former social worker.
“She’s 82 now but she still hasn’t quite managed to retire,” says Brand. “She’s like an out-of-control, ancient revolutionary.”
Brand says she has long hoped to make social workers “seem like real people” and address the negative stereotypes of “middle-class, tweedy women” and “hippy do-gooders”.
“Psychiatrists have a similar job to do; they have to predict how much harm someone is going to cause themselves or other people. But when they make a mistake … they aren’t castigated in the same way,” says Brand. “When a social worker does a good thing, how do you ever find that out? You never do because it’s classified information. The only thing you ever find out is when it goes wrong.”
Comedy, says Brand, seemed the best medium to redress the balance. “It enables you to get across a message about something that’s actually really awful. I know from when I was a nurse that humour relaxes people,” she says. “It’s either that or smoking 60 fags a day.”
But Damned does have its serious moments and the writers were careful to strike the balance between humour and sobriety. “It was difficult to mix it, but that’s the piece we wanted to write,” says Banks. “We knew there’d be moments when it would be a bit shocking, as well as moments when it would be funny.”
For the most part, those humorous moments are reserved for scenes in the office or for glimpses into Rose and Al’s rather chaotic personal lives. The scenes where we see the vulnerability of the people Rose and Al work to help are some of the shows most poignant.
In the first couple of episodes, for example, Rose visits an old school friend struggling to look after her critically ill husband and grandchildren while her daughter is in rehab. And Al grows concerned about the parental capabilities of a couple with learning difficulties after he tries to convince them their baby is too young to eat chocolate ice-cream.
But any of the cases depicted in Damned are toned down versions of those the writers came across in their research. “We spoke to social workers and asked: ‘So, would this happen or would that happen?’ and they would come up with five things that were way more extreme,” says Banks.
“We’ve made it nicer,” says Brand.
As well as depicting some true-to-life cases, the writers wanted to the show to be topical, fair and representative of the realities of the sector.
“There’s a moment where Ingrid goes off [to have an operation] and Al is told that he will handle her caseload on top of his,” says Davies. Meanwhile Denise, the terrifying departmental manager, deals with budget cut after budget cut and secretly recruits Nitin to spy on his colleagues and report back to her with his verdict on who should be fired. “The reality of what’s going on is in there,” says Brand. “I wouldn’t say it’s a direct political message, although I have never voted Tory.”
Damned was filmed in an actual social services office. The real-life social workers decamped to an office next door and the cast “used their desks, with their stuff in the drawers”, says Davies. “It was nice to mingle in the kitchen with the planning department from next door and feel you were part of a real place. It felt like the right thing to do.”
The cast filmed during the EU referendum campaign in a Hertfordshire town where, Brand says, 70% of people voted to leave. “I had a row with a few people. I didn’t say any nasty words or anything but there was a bit of tension,” she says.
For Davies, the post-referendum resignation of UK prime minister David Cameron brought home the resilience and commitment of social workers to return to work every day. “I don’t want to be flippant, but none of our characters can just resign the next morning if it hasn’t gone well the day before,” he says. “They feel responsible for the people in their care and for the choices and decisions they make.”
Brand hopes that real social workers think the show is funny, and that the characters are nice. She says: “I hope they think our characters are kind, because I think that’s what social workers are.”
Damned starts on Channel 4 on 27 September