It does feel to me that Channel 4 are on the way to having a really strong autumn. With both the powerful National Treasure and the thrilling Hunted debuting last week, tonight we are being treated to what I would consider to be one of the best sitcoms of the year. Written by Jo Brand, alongside Morwenna Banks and The Thick of It's Will Smith, Damned is set in the offices of the underfunded Children's Services department at Elm Heath council.
Brand also stars as Rose Denby, a long-suffering social worker who has problems with both her time-keeping as well as her ex-husband Lee (Nick Hancock). Brand's partner-in-crime is the laid-back Al (Alan Davies) who in the opening episode is effectively stalked by a former client (Aisling Bea) who views him as a father figure to her young son. Watching their every move is Nitin (Himesh Patel), a former police officer who is the most professional member of the office but as a result is despised by his colleagues. Turning up at the opening episode is Nat (Isy Suttie); a temp who doesn't seem to be particularly good at her job especially when trying to operate the phone systems. Meanwhile we're also introduced to Martin (Kevin Eldon), who had been signed off with stress but keeps turning up just to lend a hand. Overseeing their every move, and trying to cut costs where she can, is their boss Denise (Georgie Glen) who rules the office with an iron fist.
At first look you would expect Damned to follow a similar format as Brand's most recent sitcoms Getting On and its follow up Going Forward, both of which focus on the caring industry. Certainly stylistically Damned has a similar look, with the cameras giving a claustrophobic feel to the cramped council offices. The fact that the comedy was filmed in a real life council building gives the six-parter a sense of authenticity as does the fact that the majority of the facilities are out of order. However unlike those BBC Four series, especially Going Forward which was entirely improvised, Damned is densely scripted and littered with gags.
One of the toughest scenes to watch in the first episode was when Rose visited a family that someone had raised concerns about only to learn that her former best friend Rhona (Tilly Vosburgh) was the head of the family. We quickly learn that Rhona ran off with Rose's former boyfriend who she later married and is currently looking after their grandchildren due to the fact their daughter is in and out of rehab. The camera makes sure the audience can see the squalid conditions that the young children are living in and that Rhona can barely find anything in the cupboards to feed them with. Rose does the best she can in the situation, giving Rhona information about several charities which can help out, but you do get the impression that things might not change that much for the Jones family. Meanwhile the second episode has a similarly realistic scene in which Al has a moral dilemma after visiting a couple with learning difficulties who have recently become parents.
The cast share a fantastic chemistry which makes you believe that they have been working together for a while. I learnt at the screening that Jo Brand didn't actually want to appear onscreen but ultimately it pays off as she is able to combine both the sardonic side of the character as well as Rose's more caring aspects. Brand also bounces brilliantly off Alan Davies who is perfect as the hapless Al who really struggles to balance both his personal and professional sides. Similarly, Kevin Eldon is perfectly cast as Martin as his slightly off-kilter performance made you believe that the character had been signed off with stress. Meanwhile Georgie Glen gave a terrifying turn as Denise, the boss who is obsessed with cutting costs and didn't care which member of staff she laid off. However, I was most impressed by Himesh Patel who made me forget that he ever paid Tamwar Masood in Eastenders and I found he dealt with the comic dialogue tremendously. Patel transformed Nitin into the office irritant and I was impressed that he was able to hold his own whilst bantering with comedy heavyweights such as Davies and Brand. In fact the only performance I wasn't that taken by was that of Isy Suttie who I just found was playing a very similar role to that of Dobbie in Peep Show.
By writing Jo Brand helped to portray social workers in a positive light as often the media paints them as the bad guys. I feel that Brand has done that by presenting an office full of employees who try their best to care despite heavy workloads and increased cuts. The social commentary aspect of Damned is done well however it never overshadows the gallows humour of the piece which I found to be consistently brilliant. The fact that Damned can be both funny and at some points poignant is a testament to Brand, Smith and Banks who have crafted a great script with a number of characters who feel utterly believable. Ultimately I feel that Channel 4 have struck gold with Damned and airing it directly after the equally brilliant National Treasure means that I know which channel I'll be tuning into every Tuesday night.