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18 September 2016

How Jo Brand found comedy in the world’s most thankless job: social work

New comedy Damned reveals the dark humour of working in the front lines of healthcare.

By Andrew Harrison

When we see child welfare services on TV, it is usually in parables of Victorian squalor and modern blame-seeking: the middle-class social worker whose fear of appearing judgemental leads to a fatally wrong move, the cynical senior management arse-coverer, the lost child in the photograph identified only by an initial. We only ever hear about it when it’s awful. So a children’s social services department is, you would guess, the least promising premise for a work of comedy since Chris Morris decided to investigate the humdrum lives of everyday suicide-bombing folk. Where’s the humour in this waiting room of human misery? And if there is any, should we sensitive, bien-pensant liberals really be laughing at it?

Channel 4’s social work sitcom Damned manages to flip these apparent turn-offs into a clever ensemble comedy that locates fresh reserves of black humour in what the caring professions refer to as “chaotic lives”. In its bleakly funny way, it might provoke you to anger that we have allowed our social safety net to become so threadbare, and left it with so many clients, too.

Co-written by the formidable Jo Brand – a former psychiatric nurse – together with her fellow comedian Morwenna Banks and Will Smith (of Veep and The Thick of It), the new six-parter depicts the daily grind at a down-at-heel London children’s services office. Some of its clients are plain mad and tiresome, incapable of tying their shoelaces without input from the Social. Some are in deep despair. Others are quicker-witted than their supposed benefactors. Meanwhile, the head of department, a desiccated calculating machine called Denise (Georgie Glen), has given the reskilled policeman and management mole Nitin (Himesh Patel) ­responsibility for finding people to sack, so that she can “streamline the cluster teams”.

With its thankless workload, its humourless, target-driven bosses and very C4 topicality, this is a post-Office workplace comedy about a job that would terrify most of its viewers. Following Brand’s largely improvised BBC4 sitcoms Getting On and Going Forward, which covered the nursing and home-care professions, it forms the third element in a kind of dismally entertaining welfare state triptych. It’s called Damned because, in social work, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

“The thing is, all workplaces are ridiculous,” Brand says, as we chat over high-end biscuits in a glassy room at the channel’s headquarters in Victoria, central London. “They’re all funny. But social workers are treated especially unfairly in the press. When they get it wrong, everyone says, ‘Oh yes, they always were crap.’ And when they get it right, by definition nobody knows about it. My mum was a social worker and I’d worked in that area, too. So I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before, and maybe make it a bit of an hommage to my mum, too.”

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Her mother worked in Hammersmith, in Hastings and in Ludlow, Shropshire, witnessing the spread of social exclusion from deprived west London to picturesque country towns that were adept at hiding their problems away. The tales she brought home (“heavily redacted”) seem to have influenced Brand’s downbeat humour. One involved a family upon which life had visited terrible misery. The father had been sacked from his job at the abattoir, the mum was labouring under a chronic chest infection, one of the children had cut himself badly and was bandaged up . . . “It was this terrible tale of woe and no future,” Brand says, “and then the cat walks in with a plaster on its leg – even the poor bloody cat has broken its leg. Things like that, you had to laugh.”

Brand’s own patch, before she gave up social work for the less daunting pursuit of stand-up comedy in the mid-Eighties, was a 24-hour psychiatric emergency clinic in Camberwell, south London: the mental-health equivalent of A&E. After three years as a staff nurse she was promoted to run the place. Her clients were walk-ins and police arrests – the desperate, the confused and the aggressively drunk. “An unpredictable, sometimes violent, interesting, fascinating place to work,” she recalls.

Three decades later she, Banks and Smith researched Damned using a combination of professional journals, the confidential insights of social work insiders and necessarily limited personal observation. “The problem is, I can’t actually go into anybody’s workplace any more,” she says glumly. “The moment I’m there everybody goes, ‘Oooh, look who it is,’ and they stop doing anything normal.” What the writers discovered is that the solutions of the Blair years – throw money and graduates at the problem – are, after a long gestation, producing unintended consequences.

“Social services have been doing fast-track university recruitment,” Brand says, “which means that you get very bright candidates who perhaps don’t have enough life experience. The whole sector is suffering at the moment from a lack of older, experienced social workers. Maybe that’s where you get mistakes being made.” And when the blame lands, it lands on our favourite scapegoats: the middle class, the academic, usually women.

Has Jo Brand inadvertently invented a subgenre – welfare state black comedy? She demurs. “There are a lot of comedies set in hospitals.” But on reflection she accepts that few medical series ever have anything to say about the real-life National Health Service. “They’re not political, are they? Medical drama is always romantic and beautiful. Nobody ever has to empty a bedpan. [And] the comedies are fairly bright and optimistic. With Damned, we wanted to be the absolute opposite.”

Key humorist of the caring professions or not, Brand owns another strand of British comedy, one that is hard to name but undeniably exists. It’s the shared humour of older women who do all the work and get none of the thanks. It’s in both the killing jokes of drudgery, silence and invisibility and in the warmer, collective oddness of what gets talked about when there are no men around. Some of my older female relatives call it “women’s comedy”. Victoria Wood was beloved for it; Brand deals in the extra-caffeinated espresso version. Yet there is still precious little of it around. The edgy Sarah Millicans, Sara Pascoes and Bridget Christies that she cites seldom make it into the cosier, mainstream BBC1/ITV schedules where those older female viewers are watching.

“That is true, but what about Mrs Brown’s Boys?” says Brand. “I mean, I slightly resent the fact that Brendan [O’Carroll] has taken a woman’s role – I’ve met him, he’s lovely – and to me the characters are just too stereotypical. But that female humour you described is definitely in there and it’s incredibly popular. I’d never say ‘don’t watch it’. Why do we find it impossible to accept that people don’t like the same things we do?”

Perhaps that show’s success illustrates how, as in the wider world, we now live in two Britains. University-educated, metropolitan ponces like us watch shows such as Fleabag, Catastrophe, PhoneShop and Damned (and we probably all voted Remain in the EU referendum) while out in the suburbs and neglected provinces, Brexit Britain loves Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda.

“Is it an age thing, is it urban v suburban? I don’t know,” Brand says, “but think it’s true, and it’s a shame. If the Mrs Brown’s Boys audience got to see shows like Fleabag I think they would really enjoy them, but apparently these are niche programmes.”

She originally offered Damned to the BBC but they passed on it. “And that’s OK. Maybe a mainstream audience doesn’t want to see miserable daily life reflected in comedy. I can understand that. I can understand ­escapism. But you know,” she leans forward over the biscuits, “we make a lot of comedy in this country and – it’s boring to say, I know – there is room for everything.”

Brand has been a member of the Labour Party “since forever, really”. Mortally depressed about the party’s prospects, she doesn’t want to come out for either Smith or Corbyn. The damage started, she thinks, long before Ed Miliband. “I’m not a moderate,” she says, “I’m on the left, but you cannot just be ideologically led without the personality to carry through what you need to do. That’s why Tony Blair worked.”

For her, the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, when certain Labour MPs were exposed and shown to be every bit as venal as the Conservatives, was just the start. “If you’re on the left, it’s like being in the police. It’s not enough to be mostly good. If you’re about supporting the weak then you have to be 100 per cent above suspicion.”

She views the party’s present agonies through knitted fingers. “As things are at the moment, I find it hard to have respect for any of them. Grown-ups should know how to sort this out.” They should, but they don’t. Maybe that’s the message of Jo Brand’s mini-genre of public-service comedy: there are no grown-ups coming to sort it out. I wonder which harassed and hated profession she will do next. Teachers seems too obvious. My vote: journalists.

Damned begins on Channel 4 at 10pm on Tuesday 27th September

This article has been amended to clarify the distinction between NHS and social services.

This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation