Alan Davies says that he think that comedy is always close to tragedy.
Can you explain a little about Al?
Al is an experienced senior social worker who is described as burnt out at one point, he's quite fatigued by his constant attempts to do well in his job being thwarted by the workload, budget cuts, and any amount of day to day difficulties. But he's a good person.
It's co-written by Jo Brand, who's a good friend of yours. She wrote the role for you - how did she pitch it to you?
Well, it's a while ago now, I don't really remember how it came about. We did the first one a couple of years ago, and we waited a long time for the chance to make these six eps, and it came as much through Claire Whalley [executive producer] at What Larks. And as soon as I saw that it was Jo and Morwenna [Banks, writer and co-creator] I was more than willing to come and do it. And that was only made more fun by all the other cast - I know Isy Suttie well and I've known Kevin Eldon half my life doing radio and various things over the years. So it was a nice bunch of people. And Himesh Patel and Georgie Glen became good colleagues as well.
Did Jo Brand call your character Al because she can't get used to calling you anything else?
Possibly! It was Alastair not Alan, so that's the only thing that really is different. It makes it easier!
Why did you decide to get involved? What attracted you to the project?
Well, when you do a pilot episode, you really don't know what it will be often. I was very impressed after the pilot with the way it was all shot and cut together. I haven't worked in this style before - it's all very handheld and you get to improvise takes and play around a bit. I'm used to a more formal, conventional shooting style so the pilot was a really good experience. And I think the outcome was something more than the sum of its parts, which is a good sign. Committing to doing six episodes: I didn't just do it because of Jo, I did it because I thought it was good!
Did you do anything by way of research, or is it all there on the page for you?
It's in the writing. I talked to Jo and Morwenna about that and they have a social worker contact, and Jo's mum has been a social worker, so it's a subject close to her heart. If something came up when we were shooting, we would check - 'is this the right way someone would do this?', 'would they make this call?', 'how would they address this?' etc. They took a lot of care to make it correct.
The show is very poignant at times. Do you think a lot of the best comedy has a sad aspect to it?
Yes, absolutely. I think that comedy is always close to tragedy. They're two sides to the same coin and there's always room for a little pathos. This is a serious world, and you can't really write about social work without encountering difficult situations and emotional situations, and it isn't a show that's a knockabout cartoon version of social work, it's an attempt to portray social work truthfully but comedically. It's inevitable, you're bound to come across things that make you wince - I mean some of the things social workers have to deal with are hard to face.
The stuff the social workers have to deal with is pretty full on. Do you think that social workers are given the credit that they deserve in this country?
I think, like a lot of jobs, you're not going to get any attention till something goes horribly wrong. It's a bit like that ferry captain who ran his ferry aground who then got off and ran away - he's the only ferry captain who was in the news that year not the thousands of them who got their ships full of people safely to and from their destinations. And it's a bit like that with social workers, if something goes wrong or something slips through the net, or something gets missed, especially when children are involved (and this series is about children's services) then it's national news. It would be a shame if people believed social workers were incompetent because of a news story. I don't think that's what most people think, I think they know that they're faced with very difficult work.
What kind of a social worker would you have made?
I don't know! I'm quite empathetic with people. It's a hard balance to strike between helping people and then people becoming dependent on help. So you want to help people to help themselves. But it's hopeless to imagine that the whole of society will function just through its own willpower. That's just not how the world works. It's not always the choice of the individual whether they're sinking or swimming when there are other factors out of their control, and I think that's why social work exists.
How was the experience of making the show? Presumably, with a cast largely made up of comedians, there was a lot of laughter?
It was a nice environment. It was helped particularly that we finished at 5pm every day! We did a continual shooting day which meant you had to eat lunch out of a polystyrene box at some point, but it meant we got to go home early. But they're a very funny and bright bunch the cast, and Morwenna Banks is the nicest person you could meet. So it was a good atmosphere and I liked Ian, our director. He didn't do the pilot, but he was good and great with the cast.
Does your friendship with Jo make it easier, or more difficult, to have a forceful exchange of opinions?
No - we're both pretty candid with one another! She's a good, close friend and the thing with Jo is that she's completely trustworthy and that's a great quality.