As a former psychiatric nurse, stand-up Jo Brand knows first-hand that humour and life’s struggles can closely intertwine - as her new series, set in a social workers’ office, aims to show. Sometimes laughter’s the best way to tackle things, she tells GEMMA DUNN
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.
“She writes a column for the local paper... I mean, it’s Ludlow in Shropshire so there’s not going to be a revolution up there,” she teases fondly, “but her job was part of my life since I was a small child. All of those years, I’ve had a wish to readdress the balance a bit and make social workers seem like real people.”
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 London-born 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-Eighties, 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!” quips the London-born personality.
“I’m not going to do a false modesty thing, but I really was so busy and slightly mentally ill, I didn’t think I could do it.”
But the hounding of the sector is something she hopes to draw attention to, she explains.
“In a way, psychiatrists have a similar job to do to social workers, because they have to predict how much harm someone is going to cause to themselves or other people. And actually, when they make mistakes and someone they failed to section or admit to hospital goes out and kills somebody, they’re not castigated in the same way.
“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.”
With austerity on the agenda, is there a political message amid the humour?
“I don’t think we’re trying to hit people over the head with it,” retorts Brand, who married fellow psychiatric nurse Bernie Bourke in 1997 and has two teenage daughters.
“The reality of what’s going on is in there, and cuts do inevitably result in the service being weakened and there being less available staff to deal with things.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a direct political message, although I have never voted Tory,” she teases. “I’m Ukip normally...”
She hopes the “tightly-written” series will be 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’.
“Obviously you get the odd personality disorder,” she adds, dry humour intact, “but it’s not long before they’re moved away from the object of our concentration.”
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.
“Well, it’s either that or smoking 60 fags a day, which I’d like to have done as well in-between,” Brand adds with a chuckle. “But I thought that wouldn’t be very entertaining.”
n Damned starts on Channel 4 on Tuesday, September 27.