In her BAFTA-award winning series Getting On, Jo Brand shone the spotlight on nurses getting on with things despite the challenges of the NHS. In her new series, Damned, she turns her focus on to social workers and is joined on screen by fellow comedian Alan Davies.
Jo, why did you decide to focus your new comedy on social workers?
Jo Brand My mum was a social worker and they’re such an unpopular, stereotyped group of people. They have to deal with massively complex problems and it drives me nuts when the press say either, “They’re all hippy do-gooders and they don’t know what they’re doing”, or “They’re incompetent”.
Alan Davies There is a feeling that being a social worker means being an interfering, politically correct busybody. It would be quite nice to redress the balance a little bit.
They have important and difficult work to do for disadvantaged people and it’s not fair to suggest that everybody, in effect, should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I feel there are lots of people who’ve found themselves on the edge of coping because of government policy. It’s not that Damned sets out to address all of those political issues in particular, but it does seem to be an important area to consider.
And it’s called Damned after the phrase “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?
Jo Exactly. If something bad happens, social workers are castigated for their lack of foresight – but it is a really difficult thing, predicting what might happen. Psychiatrists have to do that all the time as well – predict whether someone should be sectioned or let go.
When I was a psychiatric nurse, there were some terrible cases where psychiatrists got stuff wrong – really awful incidents involving murders. But somehow, psychiatrists don’t have an image problem like social workers. And when social workers save a child’s life, no one reports that, so we have no idea what the percentage of success is. You don’t see anything about social workers on TV unless a child dies.
Does Damned portray big decisions being made around things like child safety?
Alan There’s a scene where my character [who’s also called Al] goes to see these disabled people with their kids and has to report on what he’s seen, but how he reports it can be taken by his superiors in a certain way and lead to certain consequences for those people. No one knows what the right answer is.
Is this too sensitive a subject for a comedy?
Jo It depends how you address it. It’s not the actual subject, it’s your attitude towards it. You can joke about race, but that doesn’t mean you have to be racist. Everything’s up for grabs. When I was spouting my uncompromising feminist rhetoric in the 1980s and pissing everyone off, I learnt if you’re not funny first, then there’s absolutely no point doing it.
Also, people who work in highly stressful jobs, such as social workers, paramedics or the police – they have a hideous sense of humour, they really do. It’s a kind of coping mechanism.
Alan Al and Rose [Brand’s character] are good friends – they’ve worked together a long time, so there’s lots of dark humour between them. He is quite experienced but burnt out by the workload and the frustrations of not being as effective as he’d like to be. Things like budget cuts, services being outsourced to private firms… stuff that shouldn’t be happening
to children’s services or the health service.
You’ve both expressed support for the Labour party in the past – what do you make of its current situation?
Jo I wish I knew what was going to happen. My disappointment goes back a very long way and it just builds and builds, but what I’m disappointed about at the moment is that they can’t just sit down and sort it out for the good of the country – we need an opposition.
One of the big issues I have with politicians these days, is that they’re professional politicians. They went to university, they did Philosophy, Politics and Economics and they’ve not done anything that would bring them into contact with people who are struggling.
Alan I’ve been a Labour Party member for a long time. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn
the first time. This time I voted for
Owen Smith – I don’t think Corbyn’s been a good leader of the opposition. Brexit and all it entails is going to be a very important period in our history and I feel we have an ineffective opposition. The thing that really disappointed me about the Labour Party was when Nigel Farage ran that poster with the words “Breaking Point” on it and featuring the refugees crossing into Slovenia. It was misrepresentation and an exploitation of people in desperate straits. The Labour Party didn’t go after him for that out-and-out racism. Regardless of what you think about the European Union, or about Brexit, if you can’t go after an out-and-out racist there’s something wrong.
Jo Where we were shooting this series near Broxbourne [in Hertfordshire], they were 70 per cent Leave. Some very triumphalist woman came out shouting about it and we shared a few words… (laughs)
You seem very much on the same page – is this the first time you’ve worked together?
Alan We first met on the stand-up circuit. When I left university in 1988 and wanted to do stand-up comedy, I went to The Red Rose Club and Jo was on, storming the place. When you’re on the circuit, you almost think of people as being in your year at school – so in those terms Jo was a couple of years above me.
Jo These days stand-up comedy seems to
be seen as a pathway to being picked up and getting a series or heading to America. Back then no one decided to go into comedy because they wanted to be rich and famous, so there was a real camaraderie around.
It seems that spirit also infuses QI, which you appear on quite a bit Jo. It feels collaborative, where as shows such as Mock the Week are more combative.
Jo I have been on Mock the Week. It wasn’t
my cup of tea – it did feel very pressurised. Interestingly, most of those people you see on Mock the Week have all said to me on one occasion or another that they don’t like the way the show works, yet they obviously feel that they have to fulfil that brief. You’ve either got to be prepared to compete with them, or just to accept that they’re going to say four times as much as you are.
Alan I sit on QI every week and if people are talking, I’m delighted. If they don’t talk, I have to say loads. If I haven’t said anything for ten minutes, I think, “Oh this is good. Everyone else is doing the funny stuff!”
Damned begins tonight at 10pm on Channel 4