The Version Interview.... Jo Brand on Channel 4's new comedy, Damned
Starring Jo Brand (Getting On) and Alan Davies (Bob & Rose, Jonathan Creek) DAMNED is a new six part comedy series for Channel 4. Based around the lives of two rather jaded social workers, it is a sharply written, warmly comical and frequently poignant observation on what it means to try your best amidst the most frustrating of circumstances.
Social workers Rose (Brand) and Al (Davies) work in a children’s services department, dealing every day with the all too familiar social issues that flood the media. Swimming against a tide of bureaucracy and pedantry, and contending with the absurdities and irrationalities of life in a county council office, DAMNED follows Al and Rose, and their colleagues, as they navigate their way through their equally trying professional and personal lives.
You’ve co-written, and star in, a new show for Channel 4, called Damned. Can you explain a bit about the show?
It’s a six-part sitcom, and it’s set in a social services children’s department. It’s really an attempt to portray, to some extent, the reality of social work, but obviously our major effort was to produce a funny, warm comedy about a group of workmates who, in some ways, just happen to be social workers. I’d never really seen social work done on the TV before, particularly as a comedy, so it seemed a good place to go. I play a social worker called Rose, and Alan Davies plays another senior social worker who is, rather conveniently, called Al so we don’t have to keep remembering his name. Then we have Isy Suttie playing the receptionist, Nat, and Kevin Eldon is in it too – there’s a lovely cast of varied actors and comics. I always think they’re an interesting mix when they’re working together – very different in some ways.
Your last sitcom, Going Forward, had a lot of improvisation.
Yeah, it was pretty much all improvised.
Is that just an excuse to not bother having to write a script?
Oh yeah, totally! But this one is very scripted. It’s quite tight. If you improvise everything, you run the risk of it not being funny enough, because you can’t think up jokes quickly enough on the run. But what you do get is a very natural feel to it, whereas if you write it all, it can feel like it’s very structured and sitcom-y. I like experimenting with different things – I don’t think I’ve ever really written a proper sitcom before.
Your mum was a social worker who worked in children’s services for a while. You saw her coming home from that at the end of every day. What do you think the experience was like for her?
I think the thing is, about working in children’s services and social work, the whole experience for the public is overlaid with the horror of how appallingly some children are treated, and stories in the press about that. The good stories don’t get written about. So there is a huge, depressing cloud that hangs over the profession. The fact is that people who work as social workers aren’t the archetype that we tend to think of, hippies with socks and sandals who have falafel sandwiches. Social workers are a mixed bag, like any other group of workmates. I suppose a bit of me wanted to humanise them to some degree. They have such a hard time, because people don’t really know what they do or how they work. Someone said to me “It’s so weird seeing them all in an office.” What’s weird about that? They have to have somewhere they can go and write things up and take phone calls. They don’t all live in a hut on the motorway. And there are a lot of real positives about social work, where you do intervene and make a difference. The problem is, when you make a mistake, people are really ready to jump on you. Doctors make mistakes all the time, cutting the wrong leg off, or giving people the wrong dose of stuff and all the rest of it, but because we love doctors, and have positive, warm feelings towards them, we forgive them that, but we don’t forgive social workers anything.
Did you talk to people working in the profession today?
We have one particular individual working in social services today with whom we discussed everything, and went through stuff with a fine-toothed comb, just to make sure we weren’t dropping any massive clangers. So if they’ve told us a load of old bollocks, we’re in trouble, because we’ve relied very heavily on him.
There’s clearly a link between your work on Getting On and this show. They’re both warm but quite bleak comedies in the care industry…
That sums up my personality – warm but bleak!
And you and your mum both worked in caring professions. Was compassion a big part of your upbringing?
Yes, I suppose it was, really. I think compassion’s in short supply, in certain areas of our society. And I think people think compassion and kindness is boring, and they don’t want to hear about it. They’d far rather have something more challenging to watch, or to imbibe. As a society, we are in danger of losing compassion, because of the way that we’re all quite happy to believe the myth that we read, for example, about asylum seekers. We’re happy to think there’s a load of ISIS coming in disguised as asylum seekers, so we shouldn’t have any of them. Or “These people from Eritrea, they just want to come here and rob everyone.” I think it’s all too easy for us to convince ourselves of those things, in order to rationalise not helping, and being cold and heartless. The stuff I read on websites sometimes is so appallingly depressing. And it’s probably a minority of people, but when you’re immersed in it, it doesn’t seem like it.
When you worked as a psychiatric nurse, did gallows humour help you cope with the more stressful aspects of the work?
Yeah, it plays a huge part in it, and I think the more stressful your job, the more gallows-y your humour becomes. I think it’s important to remember though, certainly in psychiatric nursing, the focus of your humour is not the people you’re looking after. It’s either the situation or it’s the behaviour of people around them. In the 1980s, have to say that the police were less than impressive in their handling of people with mental health problems, and would just display extreme ignorance. So that was the sort of thing we’d laugh about or take the piss out of. It’s a given, when you work in nursing, that actually people with mental health problems are suffering, and they’re not really a figure of fun.
The only real butt of your jokes is yourself. Are you conscious of not abusing people who can’t answer back?
Very conscious of it. I’m quite happy to abuse people who can answer back. I consciously set out to do self-deprecating stuff. You go on stage and there will be people who shout “Oh fuck off, you fat lesbian!” All this sort of thing. So I chose to go on there and do funnier stuff about myself than they would do as a heckle. 99% of the time, that does work, people think “Oh, she’s addressed that, there’s no point in me shouting ‘You’re fat’ because that wouldn’t be funny.” So I did deliberately do that.
You’re a very political person. Does Damned, have an explicitly political message in it? Do you have to try and rein in your instincts so it’s not too political?
I don’t think there’s an explicit political message in it. There’s an explicit political message in my head, but I wrote it with two other people, so we’d have to divide the political message between three, which I think’s a difficult thing to do. I kind of feel it’s not the arena in which to make political points, so I tried really hard not to do that. So instead this is more about humanising people who work in these places, and also demonstrating the entanglement of home and work with each other – when you’re a parent, or in a relationship, or bringing in your personal prejudices, or your illnesses, or whatever. It’s all tangled up. And I wanted to have a spread of characters, where you’d think “Why on earth are they a social worker?” I think the popular image of a naïve do-gooder is so way off. People who give a shit about these things are a wide range of types, they’re not politically all left-wing, they’re not all vegetarians, or people who read The Guardian. Given half a chance, I’ll slag Tories off til the cows come home, but I think you’ve got to realise that there are different levels and complexities. It’s a much more complex world than perhaps I used to give it credit for.
When you’re writing this, is there a temptation to give yourself all the best lines?
It’s the opposite! I think it’s easier to write your own lines, you know your own voice. But I’ve tried really hard to divide it up evenly. And then once you’ve really got to grips with a character, they become much easier to write for. If you look at something like Only Fools and Horses, they became very defined characters, and you could almost predict what sort of thing they were going to say in any given situation. But that didn’t mean you didn’t find it funny, it just reinforced their likeability.
Did you have Alan in mind when you wrote the script?
Yes, because I think Alan plays that sort of part very well. You could imagine him as someone that would work in that job. Also, I like Alan, and I like working with him. The accusations of nepotism are true. There’s nothing nicer than working with a group of people that you feel comfortable with.
When you’re creating, writing something and starring in it, is it not quite difficult to hand over directing duties to someone else?
No, it’s really easy. I know a lot of people in my position that don’t find it easy at all. They want to have their tentacles wound around every aspect of the production. But, to be honest, I only really want to be in it. I’m happy to give away all the responsibility for everything else to other people. Particularly because, I think, as a performer, you’re not the best judge of your own performance. You can’t see your own performance.
Are there moments when you see things done and you think “That’s not how I envisaged this”? And if so, will you say something to the director?
Yeah, I would say something, but I’d be prepared for the other person to argue their point, and if I thought they had a point I would say “Yes, that’s fine.” Also, I would hope those sort of things would get ironed out at a much earlier stage. Luckily [co-writer] Morwenna [Banks] was there all the time. She played a part in it, but she was there the rest of the days, so to have an extra person watching it all going on when you’re in it is extremely useful. I don’t know how stars star in something and direct it as well. I think that must be so weird.
We’re living in a time when female comedians are enjoying more success than ever before. Are you proud of having blazed that trail, of being in the vanguard of it?
I’m very pleased that female comics are doing well. As far as the other part of the question is concerned… I don’t know… I hope I was a little part of it. It’s very difficult to tell. Female comics have evolved into something much more sophisticated than I ever was. I used to stand on stage and basically do a bit of swearing and slagging men off. The next generation have gone beyond that huge chasm between feminists and everybody else. It’s all come together a bit more, and they’re much more relaxed about it than I ever was.
But isn’t that because the environment has changed, because people like you broke down those walls?
Again, I don’t know. I hope so. I think it’s also because we’re a much more global environment, communications are so much better. American female comics have always been slightly ahead of us. They’re brimming with much more confidence. It took much longer for British female comics to get going. So it’s been coming in from everywhere, and I’m really pleased. Before, you had female comics lumped together. You had male comics who were surreal, male comics who did one-liners, male comics who were political, and then you had female comics. That some of us were very different from others was never really acknowledged.
I read in an interview that the thing you missed most about psychiatric nursing was being part of a team. Is that why you quite like making sitcoms?
Yes. I loved being part of a team on this. When you make TV it’s not always like that. Sometimes it’s a struggle, because there are people you don’t get on with, or because it’s not working the way you were hoping it would. But once you get a group like we had on Damned, it felt like reliving those days. We had such a great time. There’s nothing better than a good atmosphere where people actually get on with each other, respect each other, and all laugh about the same things.