'Social workers are not these weird, useless, out-of-touch characters...' | Jo Brand on the return of Damned © C4

'Social workers are not these weird, useless, out-of-touch characters...'

Jo Brand on the return of Damned

Jo Brand’s social worker comedy Damned is set to return to Channel 4  soon. With new unfathomable legislation, much has changed at Elm Heath Social Services – but quite a lot hasn’t. Rose (Brand) remains as irritable, chaotic and resentful as ever, while Al (Alan Davies) apathetically trying to surf a mid-life crisis. Here Brand tells us all about the second series.

Can you give us any hints as to what to expect in series 2?

I suppose I should say first of all that we’ve got a new character, who’s quite an annoying, know-it-all student called Mimi [played by Lolly Adefope], who’s on work experience from her social work training. She’s a kind of reminder to the time-servers that they’re not quite as great as they think they are. And they’re not quite as efficient, and they’re not quite as up-to-date with life as they thought they were.

And I understand that Kevin Eldon’s character Martin is going to be in charge. That can’t be a good thing…

No, it can’t be a good thing, because although Martin is in many ways a rather endearing character, he’s got a little bit of a bossy streak running through him, a slightly obsessional, managerial blip in his character. He’s changed, shall we say. He’s not one of the boys anymore. 

Sometimes when people become bosses they desperately try to still be in with the lads. But Martin has decided not to do that, to the detriment of good relationships.

Are all of the same characters returning?

Yeah, we have Denise the scary boss, we have Nitin, Ingrid, Al, and of course Nat, the world’s worst receptionist.

Is it easier writing a second series, because you’ve already established all of the characters and the feel of the whole thing, or is it more difficult, because you’ve already used up all of your original ideas?

I would say more towards the latter. I think, when you have got the characters, that does help, because you know where you’re going with them, but on the other hand, when you’re writing a sitcom, it has got to have jokes in it, and jokes are hard to write of a consistently good standard.

Do you think you’ve become a better writer, the more sitcoms you’ve written?

What I’ve done with Damned, which is very different from Getting On, for example, is that Damned is very written. Not much of it is improvised.

I really wanted to try to write something that was similar to Getting On in the sense that it’s sad and harrowing, as well as funny, but that it wasn’t improvised.

We actually divided it up between us [the other writers are Morwenna Banks and Will Smith] so we wrote two episodes each, once we’d decided on the narrative running through it. Because I think, for example, Al has decided that he’s a bit jaded and he wants to get out – that runs through all the episodes, so you have to wait until the end to see if he does or not. 

So you need to work out how you’re going to run things like that throughout the series, which is difficult if you’re quite old and your brain has shrunk.

With three of you writing your own episodes, is it difficult to maintain a similar tone throughout the series?

I think we all know our characters so well that it’s not that difficult, but sometimes you might make the odd change. Because Morwenna and I both play characters in it, we might say. ‘Oh, I’m going to change that line a bit so it sounds more like me.’ 

Or, because we’ve got so many great comics in it, like Alan, Isy [Suttie] and Kev, they were also given carte blanche to make suggestions to say anything they wanted to, and I think that really added to it. 

The big rule, as a writer, is don’t be precious about what you’ve written, because other people can always improve it.

One of the funniest, and often saddest, aspects of the show is the phone calls that come in to the office…

All three of us write the phone calls and a lot of them are based on advice from our social worker, who is our mole working in a social work department. So they are very accurate. 

But they are fun to write, because some of them are very silly, but there are others that are very depressing. Again, it’s trying to get that balance right – you want to reflect the reality of the job, but it’s also called a sitcom, so you’ve got to have comedy coming out of the characters in it.

Do you think that having a  mum who was a social worker left an impression?

Yes I do. There’s an odd attitude to social workers. My mother was a very caring, very well-educated; she had real common sense and knew absolutely what was going on. 

But the picture people like to draw of social workers is that they are a bit useless and out of touch, and they all eat quinoa and don’t really know what’s going on. 

So in some ways I wanted to set the record straight about the way I experienced my mum as a person, which was very bright and humorous, and the colleagues she worked with over the years were just normal people trying to get the job done the best they can. They’re not these weird characters that we’ve invented in our culture.

Government cuts are hitting social work more than ever. Is that reflected in the series?

Yeah, I think that’s something of a running theme, really. The demands on the workers are ever magnifying, and the time available to do them therefore is shrinking. There’s a good deal of papering over the cracks going on. 

So although we don’t explicitly make statements about ‘the government’ and ‘the cuts’ it’s always there as a message underneath the surface. 

And it’s not just direct cuts to social services, its things like Sure Start children’s centres. And loads of those have closed down, so that whole rung of support has disappeared. So mothers who are trying to raise their kids on virtually no money and with no support, don’t have those places to go to that they used to.

Before the last series, you said there seemed to be a shortage of compassion around. We haven’t really got a whole lot more now, have we?

No, we haven’t, really. And I think a small number of people who write appalling things online are making it worse, really. Particularly around things like increasing reports of abuse, for example, in various industries and in Parliament. 

There are certain people online who are trying to suggest women deserve everything they get. And I think because it’s a relatively small number of people, it’s not actually that bad, but because the impact is so great with online threats and abuse on Twitter, it seems much worse than it is. 

I think it’s a bit of a weird time, that we haven’t really worked out what we want to do with our culture, because the big social media companies haven’t really done enough to regulate it, so I think we have to work out what to do about that.

When you were on Have I Got News For You, you spoke out about the culture of abuse. Do you feel a sense of triumph that the issue is finally being taken seriously, or dismay that we’re still having this conversation in 2018?

I’m more depressed about the state of politics than anything else. But I’m rather hopeful about the gender pay gap and the whole position of women in society. 

I do feel like it’s moved on massively from where we were when I started doing comedy in the 1980s. Women are getting much more confident, and speaking out much more. Now it seems to be a question of getting a lot more men on side.

• Interview courtesy of Channel 4 Press. Read an interview with Alan Davies here.

Published: 30 Jan 2018

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