Damned. Image shows from L to R: Natalie Moore (Isy Suttie), Rose Denby (Jo Brand), Nitin (Himesh Patel), Al Kavanagh (Alan Davies), Denise Donnelly (Georgie Glen), Martin Bickerstaff (Kevin Eldon), Natalie Moore (Isy Suttie). Copyright: What Larks Productions.

Damned

Channel 4 and Sky Arts comedy drama about a social services department. 13 episodes (pilot + 2 series), 2014 - 2018. Stars Jo Brand, Alan Davies, Himesh Patel, Kevin Eldon and others.

BBC Audio Drama Awards 2015. Morwenna Banks. Copyright: BBC.

Morwenna Banks interview

Morwenna Banks explains that the writing team wanted to honour the complexity of the subject matter but also to try to create laugh-out-loud funny moments.

You created and wrote the series along with Jo Brand, tell us a little about it?

Initially Jo was approached and, when she spoke to me about it, it happened to be an area in which I had some experience (although in a different department) and so the subject matter chimed. We've written together before and really enjoyed the process and share a comic vision. So it worked well. We had a very small amount of time in which to produce the series and so we decided to bring in a 3rd writer. We asked Will Smith to join us. Jo and I had storylined the series and so we agreed on where the episodes should go. And we thought it would be good to have a male perspective on the team. Will is a terrific Emmy-nominated writer and an incredibly lovely collaborative person.

What was it about the lives, professional and personal, of social workers that you felt deserved a closer look at?

Well, Jo's mum was a social worker and I've had some experience of different departments. Jo's experience as a psychiatric nurse also came into play. We felt it was a largely underexplored area so we thought we'd take the bull by the horns...

Social work is often under intense scrutiny and pressure, and social workers have to deal with some really challenging and sensitive cases. Was it challenging to write a comedy in this context?

Social services are an easy target. I don't think we were on a crusade but the show is called Damned for a reason. Social services and social workers are generally in a no-win "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation. We wanted to represent all the characters - social workers and clients alike as people struggling against all sorts of constraints and personal issues, making good and bad decisions - we wanted them to be flawed and dimensional. We wanted to take out the judgement - on both sides.

With many of the cases that the team investigate in Damned, there's a real sense of pathos and sadness. How important do you think this is in comedy?

We both like a dash of social realism with our comedy so the tone of it was agreed on very quickly. We wanted it to feel real, to honour the complexity of the subject matter but also to try to create laugh-out-loud funny moments. In our research we found that this particular area was one where a dark sense of humour was prevalent and indeed often necessary for survival.

What research did you do when writing the series?

We discussed all our storylines and plot points with professionals in the field. I spent time in a social services department and we talked to certain individuals and checked all our storylines for veracity on both sides - i.e. "would this actually happen?" and "what would be the protocol for this particular situation?". Rather sadly, it turned out that no situation we created was more outlandish extreme or shocking than actual events.

You've gathered together a really brilliant cast for the series - many comedians but some from other backgrounds. What do you think they each brought to their roles?

We were very lucky with the cast. Each of them brought a real skill and authenticity to their characters. And with great actors who are also funny, they can put a spin on the characters in a wonderful and unexpected way and then things can change as you go along.

Jo brings an incredible authenticity to whatever she does. And I think that Alan Davies is one of the most brilliant comic actors I've ever worked with. Likewise, Himesh Patel was a revelation as a fantastic comic actor, Kevin Eldon bought pathos and is an extremely gifted physical comedian so we tried to write to those strengths. Isy Suttie brings warmth and a beautiful off-the-wall aspect to her character and Georgie Glenn - the nicest woman ever - is totally terrifying as Denise. All of our guest actors, including the children we cast and all the other actors, all were chosen for their ability to feel real and authentic.

We understand there was a lot of improvisation on scenes during filming - as one of the writers did you feel any anxiety about that or did you embrace it?

We actively encouraged it. All the actors were so good at it. I've always worked improvisationally and I love the freedom of it. And of course Jo's show Going Forward was pretty much entirely improvised. We always had one fully scripted version of each take, though. Then if there was time do an improv version at the end, we did one.

As well as creating and writing the show alongside Jo Brand, as you say Will Smith was also part of the writing team. How did you all work together?

Jo and I did the initial research and storylines - then we all three took on the initial writing of certain episodes, and then brought them all back into the room to punch up, cut, add jokes and polish. And we kept working at them as we were filming.

You have a small part in Damned, but most of your time on this project was spent behind the camera. In your career, having done work on both side of the camera, which side do currently you prefer to be on?

Well, I really love performing and acting, but I've done a huge amount of writing in the past few years Miss You Already, Goodbye, Shush, Absolutely Radio... a mixture of dark and dramatic and sketch and sitcom. Jo, Will and I thought it would be a laugh for me to do a small bit in Damned, but equally I was a writer and associate producer and so it was important to be there everyday at the monitor, making sure it was all going to plan, fixing any dialogue, helping to make decisions, working on the background action etc so it would have been hard to do both in this instance.

More Damned interviews

Published: Monday 26th September 2016