Damned review – pitch black comedy finds the funny in social services

Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks’s sitcom is scathing and subtle as it makes unfunny subjects hilarious. Plus: playing bigamy for laughs in Bliss

Cuts notwithstanding, the team at Elm Heath social services still have their jobs. Damned (Channel 4), created by Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks, is usually described as a black comedy, although that implies that it has its heart in the wrong place. It doesn’t.

It is, however, dry to the point of aridity; if it wasn’t funny, you could still take it at face value as an accurate and terribly bleak portrayal of a dysfunctional office environment: petty politics, casual cruelty and a fair amount of grinding futility. Added to this is the thankless and difficult nature of the jobs they do at Elm Heath, although real work doesn’t often get in the way of proceedings.

Beginning with a grim cold-opening – a young girl getting into a stranger’s car – Damned quickly reverts to business as usual. Martin has secured a promotion, Nat still can’t work the phones, Al is still hapless, Nitin is still an arse, Rose (Brand) has arrived at work with shit on – and in – her shoe and Ingrid (Banks) is preparing to take on a foster child permanently.

“Is this the same foster kid that stole your microwave?” asks Nitin.

“Lemal – yes, it is,” says Ingrid. “He brought it back, though. He said he couldn’t sell it on because it was too effing S-H-one-T. His words. Sort of.”

The girl in the car relates to this week’s central social-work case, which is not as grim as it first appears – a sex worker is seeing clients at home while her children are there. OK, that sounds grim. This leads to what is possibly the funniest emergency child protection conference you will see on TV this year. In fact, I can almost guarantee that.

It takes tremendous skill – not to mention nerve – to find humour in such resolutely unfunny subjects, but Damned manages to stay just the right side of a lot of blurry lines. How do you poke fun at social workers without belittling social work? How can you send up absurdly liberal views of sex work without accidentally endorsing absurdly conservative ones? How do you explore the lighter side of the historical sexual abuse of children while still taking it seriously?

Damned, thanks to the writers and the cast, has the intelligence and the generosity to allow its characters to be more than one thing, acknowledging the human capacity to embody several contradictory traits: overworked and lazy, spiteful and caring, hopeless and quietly heroic. Above all, it celebrates the simple dignity that comes with scraping the shit off your shoes and getting on with things. That is why “black comedy” is not quite right. Underneath it all, it is a little too life-affirming for that.

Bliss (Sky1), on the other hand, is a black comedy with a sunny exterior. Martin (Stephen Mangan) and Kim (Heather Graham) are a middle-class couple from Bristol with a precocious daughter and a kitchen in mid-refit, exchanging chirpy remarks while Martin prepares for a business trip. They are clearly struggling with the day-to-day pressures of family life, despite an overarching contentment that is ultimately pretty irritating.

All this changes when Martin bursts into tears on his way to the airport. He is not, it transpires, jetting to Bilbao to write a travel piece. He is only going as far as the car park, to swap vehicles, luggage and lives: Martin is driving straight back to Bristol, to his other family.

As a comedy about bigamy, Bliss suddenly bristles with possibility – the mechanics of the week-on-week-off schedule are fascinating. Martin – or Andrew, as he is known at house No 2 – has a separate bag of car detritus for each family. His phone says “Boss” whenever the other wife rings it. He manages to maintain a career as a successful travel writer without ever going anywhere (that may seem far-fetched, but it is not unheard of). Above all, he has to live two lives in one small city. As Martin/Andrew says when summing up his predicament: “Bristol – population almost half a million people. God, I wish there were more restaurants.”

The central difficulty of Bliss is the idea that it is possible to be a well-meaning, bumbling bigamist. We don’t yet know how Martin/Andrew got into this predicament, but the series – and the main character – have a lot of explaining to do.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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