Friday, 9 September 2011

My friend Janet

Last month my beautiful friend Janet Ellis died of cancer, aged 45.

She wasn't just my friend: she was also my sometime writing partner. She was a very experienced child-protection social worker, and she wanted to use her experiences as the basis for a drama series.

We talked about it extensively a few years ago, but then I got sidetracked by my MA. When I graduated in 2008 we got stuck into it properly, and eventually came up with the pilot for a series called Care and Control.

As a characteristically garrulous Yorkshire woman, Janet had a fantastic ear for language and dialogue and a keen observational eye; the raw material she came up with just sang off the page.

Having to see humanity at its absolute worst and pick up the pieces afterwards also gave her a sharp and instant sense of right and wrong, as well as a carapace of black humour that enabled her to deal with what she encountered.

We worked hard on several drafts of the script, which got to the later stages of the Red Planet Prize (second time round). However, while the people we sent it to were generally complementary about it, the social work setting seemed to put them off.

One writing acquaintance who has worked on the various BBC medical series said that the core of those shows is that the staff featured are heroes, and people just don't see social workers as heroes.

At the time I probably just shrugged and nodded, but since then I've become angrier and angrier about that perception.

Janet worked for around 20 years in some of London's most challenging boroughs. She had to walk into situations of almost unimaginable horror and make decisions that saved children's lives.

The notion that what she did wasn't “heroic” seems ridiculous.

After it seemed Care and Control wasn't getting anywhere, we decided to take a different tack and try a single drama to highlight how hostility to social workers is bleeding talent from the profession.

I'd even come up with the working title of The Sweet-Shop Girl: Janet once told someone at a party that she worked in a sweet shop, to prevent all the hassle that came with saying she was a social worker.

Sadly, Janet's condition deteriorated and we never managed to get beyond the vague planning stage. I'd love to be able to continue with the script, as a tribute to her, but without her cutting insight and wonderful powers of observation I could never do it justice.

Janet was a sharp, strong and stylish woman. She could be biting and judgemental occasionally, but she was also generous, loyal, cultured, committed, socially and politically engaged and never less than fascinating company.

She was also fiercely devoted to social work and child welfare, and said many times that if we made any money from Care and Control, she'd want to use it to fund training for those entering the profession.

As a social worker, Janet made hundreds of lives brighter and better. As a friend, she did the same for mine.

(On September 18th a group of us are doing a five-mile Midnight Walk in support of St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham, who looked after Janet and enabled her to spend her last few days at home, in the flat she loved. 

Obviously it's not an astonishing feat of endurance, but if you'd like to support us – and the hospice, which receives no public funding – we'd be enormously grateful. We've got a donation page at

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