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Expert Comment: Damned on Channel 4

Ms Nicki Blundell Monday 3 October 2016

Nicki Blundell from the Department of Social Work, Care and Justice gives her view on channel 4's new comedy set in a busy social work team.

What with Clinton and Trump’s presidential spectacle, the antics of the Labour party and the Great British Bake off debacle, TV hasn’t been particularly joyful of late. However, the anticipation of a new comedy series set in a local authority children’s service, seemed something worth staying up past 10pm for.

Co-written by Jo Brand, Morwenna Banks and Will Smith (writer on the ‘Thick of It’ not a Man in Black) this channel 4 series made its debut as a one off pilot back in 2014 and received mixed reviews. Community Care, the publication for “everyone in social care”, was ambivalent about the show, noting that it had not been afraid to address the impact of austerity and cuts to public services, but it had exaggerated and underplayed the reality of the job.  IMDb gave the pilot 7.9 out of a possible 10-star rating. The hard to please Guardian, awaiting the new series this week, was optimistic and complimentary about the balance of seriousness and humour and celebrated Jo Brands dedication to representing social work in a positive light. Here are my thoughts.

The title is excellent, social workers are ‘damned if they do and dammed if they don’t’, constantly berated by the press for heartlessly removing children from innocent families or leaving children in families that are deemed unfit. We can’t win. Confidentiality and codes of conduct mean social workers can’t go out and talk about all the successful cases they have worked on, so it is only when a serious case review comes to light that their work is exposed to public scrutiny, and this is always negative. Good social work is kept hidden, even in the world of entertainment this is true. For example, one of the BBC’s longest running dramas ‘Casualty’ could have been a perfect vehicle to reveal the role social workers take in emergency departments, but instead it is the medical staff and porters that carry out ‘social work’ with the patients. So as I sat, ready to watch this social work based comedy, there was a sense of excitement and hope.

It started slow, I understand that the characters needed to be established, but the office setting and ‘banter’ was rather dull. I was looking forward to seeing Isy Suttie’s “interim worker, not temp” but found her character just plain annoying. It was chaotic (as are social work offices) but did touch on some interesting truths regarding the job, for example the statement that 50% of the workforce was off with stress, although a slight exaggeration, is one of the challenges facing children and families’ frontline services. The ‘evil’ manager is a familiar archetype of social work departments, gatekeeping resources and cost cutting at the expense of those in need. The highlight of the episode was the home visit carried out by ‘Rose’, Jo Brands social worker character. This had poignancy, emphasised by the mise en scène, for example the struggling grandmother searching through the empty cupboards and making dried noodles for the children’s tea was indicative of the levels of poverty being experienced by many.

I decided to ask a colleague, who is nearer to direct practice, what he thought, and here’s his overview.

 “I think it worked. I'm not a big fan of fast moving camera work, but it gave a feel of the busyness of a social work office, which barely ever has time to catch its breath. The characters were all interesting, but clearly enhanced for comedy effect. In fact, I actually forgot it was a comedy and surprised myself the one time I laughed out loud. Reading the paper's mixed reviews, there is a general comment about lack of comedy.

“I did feel relieved when we saw Jo's character visit a struggling family and along with early comments about reduced resources, the writers showed they are not afraid to address the realities of social work and the people we support. If future episodes strike a clearer balance between the office banter and authenticity of the role, then I think it will be a success. It will be interesting to see if the general public find it as absorbing as I did.”

Department of Social Work, Care and Justice

Nicki Blundell - profile

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