Cancelled Out

Interview by Gabriel Tate for Drama Quarterly

21st June 2024

In a TV studio in west London, DQ meets Douglas is Cancelled stars Hugh Bonneville, Karen Gillan and writer Steven Moffat to hear about the timely themes and issues behind this ITV comedy-drama in which a news presenter falls foul of cancel culture.

Versa Studios in west London is no stranger to stardust and tension, cheesy banter and confessionals: it is, after all, the home of shiny-floor extravaganzas (Walk the Line), quiz leviathans (Pointless, Blankety Blank), variety series (The John Bishop Show) and chatshows (Kate Garraway’s Life Stories).

Just before Christmas 2023, DQ is witnessing a bit of everything during filming for Douglas is Cancelled, as news anchors Douglas (Hugh Bonneville) and Madeline (Karen Gillan) say the sort of goodbye in a hotel corridor where the balance of power seems to shift depending on the intonation of a parting shot.

It’s all a far cry from the cosy on-screen relationship we saw earlier when the pair were hosting Live at 6: he, the steady, stuffy old hand, she the canny, ambitious up-and-comer. After reports of an “extremely sexist” joke at a wedding go viral, Douglas’s career and reputation hang in the balance; Madeline must choose whether to use her sizeable online following to support him or leave him to swing.

“Madeline has an exterior that she’s constructed based on her circumstance,” Gillan explains. “But inside is a very human, vulnerable woman who’s faced some stuff. I totally relate to that.”

Hugh Bonneville and Karen Gillan play a pair of news anchors in Douglas is Cancelled (Photo: ITV)

“Douglas is a well-meaning bloke in his 50s who came through the world of media when it was a man’s world,” adds Bonneville. “Now it’s a world that’s running away from him as a presenter and a journalist and, as both his boss [Ben Miles’s producer Toby] and his wife [Alex Kingston’s Sheila, also a tabloid editor] keep reminding him, the best thing to be is bland – opinions are dangerous. He hasn’t really learned that lesson, and by thinking it’s a storm in a teacup, he underestimates the power of the mob.”

ITV comedy-drama Douglas is Cancelled – directed by Ben Palmer (Breeders, Urban Myths) and also starring Simon Russell Beale as Douglas’s feckless agent and Nick Mohamed as a gag writer – was the first thing written by Steven Moffat since finishing on Sherlock and Doctor Who. Having originally conceived it as a play, Moffat sent it to Gillan, who prompted a rethink.

“She suggested it could be a film, so we explored that idea for a while, but films like that don’t even get released these days,” Moffat acknowledges. “So I started to wonder, would it chop up into six episodes? Then I thought four could work. Could I add some characters? That’d be quite fun. I’m pleased with where it’s got to. It’s an odd, interesting shape because the scenes are quite long. You can see the theatrical origins.”

Among Moffat’s challenges were having to write around ad breaks for the first time since a 1990 episode of Dennis Waterman vehicle Stay Lucky (“the solution: do what you like – it’s fine!”), while the recent scandals involving BBC news anchor Huw Edwards and ITV daytime host Philip Schofield gave an added piquancy to a show hatched before the term “cancel culture” had come close to the mainstream.

Bonneville’s Douglas finds his career under threat following reports he told an ‘extremely sexist’ joke (Photo: ITV)

“The way that they were handled is extraordinary,” Bonneville reflects of Schofield and Edwards. “The media was judge, jury and executioner with no due process and an assumption of guilt. Yet of what crime were they guilty? Of course, if crimes have been committed then they must be prosecuted, but with them there was the sense of, ‘Here’s another person for the tumbril so let’s have a go.’ Our press has always thrived on that, so it’s a stroke of genius that my character is married to a tabloid editor.”

“Social media has changed the rules of debate,” adds Miles. “It allows a degree of anonymity which makes people less accountable, and it’s cleverly designed to stimulate a response of anger, outrage, shock or disgust. People can get quite attached to that feeling, so while it’s good that more people have more of a voice, at times it just turns into a slanging match.”

While Gillan and Moffat’s long history on Doctor Who – Gillan played Amy Pond, the companion to Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor – made her the first and only choice (ditto Miles, whose television breakthrough came in Moffat’s early noughties sitcom Coupling), it was Palmer who suggested Bonneville. “The moment Ben said, it’s got to be Hugh Bonneville, it was absolutely right – of course it is.” nods Moffat. “He’s a great actor and a national treasure, so you don’t have to force yourself into believing that. When you see Hugh and Karen together in their gear, you go, ‘That looks like a show that already exists.’”

Things got especially meta during a day in the studio of ITV’s real breakfast show Good Morning Britain, for a scene where the pair are interviewed by Kate Garraway. “We’re a lot of hardened television professionals, but we were running around that set taking selfies as if we’d never been on television,” Moffat laughs. “We were just like children.”

Ben Miles plays producer Toby, Douglas’s boss (Photo: ITV)

Guardians of the Galaxy star Gillan too has had a lot of fun, enjoying the contrast with her recent Hollywood gigs “being chased by aliens or monsters.” “Those big blockbusters are so fun, but this is verbal sparring,” she continues. “That’s really exciting. Steven’s dialogue has a particular rhythm and it’s effortlessly funny. I don’t stop talking for a really long time, so I looked at it went, ‘How am I going to do this?’ That felt like a road I should go down, and I feel so invigorated by the whole experience.”

“Steven’s writing is airtight,” Miles agrees. “This is a sophisticated, intricate, cleverly constructed study on a topic well worth some television time. I hope it’ll get people thinking about things they may have heard or witnessed that they should have done something about, or should have flagged. If it inspires people to do that, we’ll have done well.”

Bonneville promises things get much darker over the four episodes, which are produced by Hartswood Films. The series debuts on ITV1 and ITVX on June 27. “It’s bloody funny but, by the end, you’re feeling rather grubby. That’s the mark of fine writing. The readthrough had an extraordinary atmosphere about it: it goes like the clappers, like [BBC comedy] W1A on acid, but by the end there was real discomfort. The tone gets much more sinister than you’d anticipate, which is a nice darkening of the piece.”

Only at the end are Douglas’s precise words at the wedding revealed, inviting the audience to prejudge his behaviour just like the characters on screen – a deliberate device from a writer who is no stranger to either hooking huge audiences or flirting with cancellation while at the helm of Doctor Who and Sherlock.

“How do you get an audience involved in something everybody knows is not real?” wonders Moffat aloud. “The only way is to make an audience imagine what they would do in that circumstance. The moment you’ve got them arguing with the show, you’re in.”

And as for cancel culture? “I was continuously [called] a misogynist, a sexist, a homophobe, a racist…” he muses. “Shame is a powerful motivator, but you can’t cancel Hitler. He wouldn’t care. You can’t cancel Putin or Trump. You can’t cancel the Chinese government. If you’re a person of conscience, who wishes to be considered a good and valuable member of society, free of unpleasant prejudice, even if you’re failing always to be as good as you want to be, then you’re still a good person. Cancellation is a weapon that works exclusively on the decent. Why do we need that?”

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