Former Benenden and Tunbridge Wells schoolgirl Jo Brand is back with a new series and a unique take on the world of social work…
With her Bafta-winning comedy Getting On set in an NHS hospital geriatric ward, and its recent spin-off
Going Forward focused on domiciliary (home) care, Jo Brand is no stranger to making light of public services. But when it comes to her latest venture, Channel 4 sitcom Damned – ‘An attempt to portray the tragic-comic lives of social workers’ – the 59-year-old comedian has more reason than most to broach the subject.
“My mum is a social worker,” says Brand, who stars in and co-wrote the six-part series, alongside Morwenna Banks and Veep writer Will Smith. “She’s 82 now but still hasn’t quite managed to retire. She’s like an out-of-control, ancient revolutionary, so she sticks her nose into lots of things that she shouldn’t.”
Poignant in its observation of what it means to try your best amid the most frustrating of circumstances, Damned
follows the day-to-day lives of two jaded social workers, the forever-late Rose (Brand) and Al (Alan Davies), who work in a children’s services department, dealing with all too familiar social issues – and plenty of personal crises too.
“Anything that you see in it,” begins Brand, “what’s actually happened to generate that idea is actually much, much worse. We’ve made it nicer. So if you think any of it’s bad, it’s not!”
As well as her mother’s experiences over the years, Brand, who moved from psychiatric nursing to the alternative comedy stand-up scene in the mid-80s, reveals they also benefited from “a social worker who fed us a lot of information”.
Despite her long-held desire to make something about social work, Brand insists she didn’t plan on being in the series. “I didn’t want to be in it; they made me!” she quips.
But the hounding of the sector is something Jo hopes to draw attention to, she explains.
“When social workers first started, they tended to be middle-class women who were quite tweedy and went to local fetes a lot,” she jokes. “And then it moved through the hippy thing of Hessian bag, socks and sandals and got stuck there a bit. “People resent them because they think they’re offering them some kind of moral code to their lives. The whole area of child protection is so emotive, and when a social worker does a good thing, how do you ever find that out? The answer is you never do, because it’s classified information, so the only thing you ever find out is when it goes wrong.”
She hopes the ‘tightly-written’ series is being received well by those who work in the profession. “I hope very broadly that they think our characters are kind, because that’s what social workers are. It’s very rare that you come across a social worker who thinks, ‘I know I’m meant to be going into this to help you, but secretly I’m evil and I’m going to spread my evil throughout the office’.”
And comedy, Brand believes, is the perfect platform to portray the challenging subject to the masses. “It enables you to get a message – about something that’s actually really awful – across to people,” she notes. “Just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean you don’t respect the situation of the people you are focusing on, and certainly I know when I was a nurse, you deal with people who are in the most awful circumstances and actually using humour relaxes people.”