TV Preview, Damned (Channel 4, Wednesday 10pm): Human degradation was never so funny

Jo Brand, Isy Suttie and Himesh Patel in the show’s new series: Channel 4
Jo Brand, Isy Suttie and Himesh Patel in the show’s new series: Channel 4

They say you can create comedy out of anything and that nothing is sacred, but I’ll concede immediately that historic abuse and sex work don’t present as ideal raw material. So I think we need to approach the new series of Channel 4’s Damned with the sort of caution a social worker might exercise when approaching an alcoholic client armed with a machete.

Still, if anyone is going to make us laugh at human degradation, then it will be cast of this usually brilliant show – Jo Brand, Morwenna Banks, Kevin Eldon, Isy Suttie and Himesh Patel among others – who play the hard-pressed members of the Elm Heath social services department (Brand and Banks, with Will Smith, wrote the scripts).

The first episode is straight in there with an assault on your sensibilities, and invites you to discover why social workers need to make sure their relationships with single-mother sex workers are strictly professional, and seen to be so.

As if all that wasn’t enough for Channel 4 to outrage some of the self-appointed moral media guardians of Middle England (those guilty men thus alliterated know who they are), the team also subject the over-ripe topic of gender politics to their savage satirical treatment, with a little bit of race thrown in. We’ve come a long way since Terry and June.

The Ellis family takes us back to 1945 in the time-travel experiment ‘Back in Time for Tea’ (BBC)
The Ellis family takes us back to 1945 in the time-travel experiment ‘Back in Time for Tea’ (BBC)

Channel 4’s on a bit of a roll on Wednesday night, in fact, because they also bring us a fascinating documentary about the derelict houses Liverpool City Council offered for sale for £1. The only condition for the purchaser was that legal possession became valid only when the refurbishment of these homes was completed. These rather sweet Edwardian terraces, by the way, would fetch the best part of a million quid – even in their present dilapidated state – if they were in the posher districts of the capital.

The fate of the 115 houses left empty is in fact a story of gross official incompetence. A 2003 scheme to empty and then demolish these serviceable homes in Wavertree, in the “Webster Triangle” of streets, and build new properties foundered in 2010, when the funding was cut off, and they’ve been boarded up ever since.

It is remarkable to see how a recently thriving community and its fabric could die so rapidly, and how difficult (almost impossible) it has proved to revive the area. The biggest obstacles to restoration aren’t about timber and brickwork but people and crime.

It’s true that large swathes of London have been transformed – gentrified, in fact - from no-go areas to can’t-afford postcodes, but it has taken decades, a couple of booms in the financial sector and an influx of plutocratic money from places such as Russia and China. All the £1 Liverpudlians have got is hope and a slight edge of desperation. The £1 Houses: Britain’s Cheapest Street chronicles their struggles.

Back in Time for Tea moves on to 1945, with the engaging Ellis family of Bradford gamely joining in their time-travel experiment of living their lives as if it was the first days of the post-war era, Winston Churchill having lost the election, the British empire ripe for dismantling and dried egg still a staple of the diet.

The producers were probably wise to skip the war years – it is not as if we lack Second World War nostalgia in this country – and concentrate instead on the revolution of the welfare state and the NHS. A timely reminder, perhaps, that Britain has seen through some lean times before.

I’d also take the opportunity to point you towards First Date’s Valentine’s Special (which isn’t on Valentine’s night); The Job Interview, in which, inexplicably, applicants agree to have their ritual humiliations filmed; and the David Hare thriller Collateral, which boasts Carey Mulligan in the title role.

The Winter Olympics take over the twilight hours of the schedules, occupying BBC1 from about midnight to 6am most days and skiing into other channels and slots wherever they can sense an opportunity – and if ice hockey and bobsleighs are your thing, then of course that’s just fine. For me, things just aren’t the same since Eddie the Eagle retired. The snowfest ends on Sunday 25 February with the closing ceremony. Can’t wait.

Finally, I have a pay a tribute to Freddie Jones, who, I realise is 90 and has decided to end his time with Emmerdale and the character Sandy Jones with Friday night’s episode. Not that he’s giving up acting, of course, which would be really bad news. Someone with everything from The Elephant Man to Pennies from Heaven, and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) to The League of Gentlemen on his CV, and generally uplifted everything he’s been involved in during a TV career that began in 1960, surely deserves official recognition. He is also partly responsible for the magnificent Toby Jones. So where’s Freddie’s knighthood, then?

Damned (Channel 4, Wednesday 10pm); The £1 Houses: Britain’s Cheapest Street (Channel 4, Wednesday 9pm); Back in Time for Tea (BBC2, Tuesday 8pm); First Dates: Valentine’s Special (Channel 4, Friday 9pm); The Job Interview (Channel 4, Thursday 10pm); Collateral (BBC2, Monday 9pm); Winter Olympics (BBC1, BBC2, Eurosport, BBC Red Button); Emmerdale (ITV, Friday 7pm)

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