‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ Stars and Its Creator on the Cancel Culture Series: “Pick Your Heroes With Care”

Interview by Georg Szalai for The Hollywood Reporter

29th February 2024

Karen Gillan (‘Doctor Who’), Hugh Bonneville (‘Downton Abbey’), ‘Sherlock’ creator Steven Moffat and executive producer Sue Vertue also discuss social media and why “you can’t cancel Donald Trump.”

Screenwriter and executive producer Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Dracula, Sherlock) shared a show idea with Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) a few years ago when the term “cancel culture” wasn’t as widely known as it is now. “When I wrote my very first draft of this story, a different version of it, about five years ago, no one used that word,” Moffat recalls.

Now it is ready for audiences in the U.K., Europe and beyond. Douglas Is Cancelled, an ITV commission with SkyShowtime, produced by Hartswood Films, was launched at the annual BBC Studios Showcase in London this week and promises the sharp wit, dark comedy and satire that Moffat has developed a reputation for – and some other big names.

Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey, Paddington) stars in the series, made up of four 45-minute episodes, as respected news host Douglas, regarded as a national treasure, with Gillan portraying his younger co-anchor Madeline. Co-starring are Ben Miles (Hijack, The Crown), Alex Kingston (A Discovery of Witches, Treason), Nick Mohammed (Ted Lasso, Intelligence), and Simon Russell Beale (Firebrand, Thor: Love and Thunder). Ben Palmer (Breeders) is the director of the series.

Douglas apparently can do no wrong “until he makes an ill-advised joke at his cousin’s wedding, which is overheard by a fellow guest, who threatens to expose his comments on social media,” according to a plot description. “Speculation is rife and during the ongoing hysteria and digital storm, Douglas’s alleged indiscretion is dissected, analyzed and blown out of all proportion. Everyone appears to have an opinion, and Douglas is struggling to escape the controversy. It’s a chaotic and unmanageable situation, but can Douglas count on the support of his agent and colleagues? What will Douglas do next? Is he a casualty of ‘cancel culture’? With 2 million followers, what is Madeline’s motivation to social post on Douglas’s behalf? Friend or foe? That is the question.”

The show will air on ITV1 and streamer ITVX in the U.K., with dates yet to be unveiled. SkyShowtime, the European streaming joint venture of Comcast and Paramount Global, will show the series across its more than 20 European markets, including the Nordics, Spain, Portugal, and The Netherlands. BBC Studios is handling sales.

Bonneville, Gillan, Moffat, and Sue Vertue (Inside Man, The Devil’s Hour, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Sherlock), who executive produced the series alongside her husband Moffat on behalf of Hartswood Films, talked to THR‘s global business editor Georg Szalai at the BBC Studios Showcase about how the show came about, the challenges and fun of making cancel culture a topic of discussion for viewers, social media’s effect on creative work, why Donald Trump can’t be “canceled,” and the importance of tone.

As creatives, why did you feel this was a good time to write and perform a show about cancel culture?

Moffat I know, we’re all obsessed with it. I think the thing that’s changed is that when we had cancellation in ancient Rome, it tended to involve more lions. Now, you could get yourself canceled without leaving that chair. It’s that easy. The [small space] between you and the abyss is really just right there in front of your face all the time.

What’s changed also is that we are the most pathetic generation ever. I mean my generation, not your generation. (he looks at Gillan) We’re terrified of our teenage children. What the hell happened there? Every previous generation just said, “Oh, shut up.” We’re the ones who actually listen.

Vertue I was listening to somebody yesterday talking about having OCD. Everyone gets those intrusive thoughts, such as, “I’ll push that person in front of the tube” or whatever. And then we get rid of those. “What would happen if I tweeted something and got myself canceled?” We mostly get rid of those things. But for people with OCD, it keeps going round and round and round. There are always those intrusive thoughts, “I could get myself canceled tomorrow with just 20 words.”

Gillan The introduction of social media into something that already existed means that now it’s instant. You could get yourself canceled in one sentence, as opposed to word of mouth and all of that. So it’s a completely terrifying age to live in. But also there’s more accountability. So there’s good and bad.

Bonneville I think one element of it is the mob, and the fact that things spread so quickly. And there is the relentless pursuit until someone virtually dies, or in some cases, has died. There is a sense of kicking a corpse when it’s dead and keep stamping on it like tabloids have always done. But in the world of social media, with the screen of anonymity and being able to bully from a distance and bully anonymously, it compounds that evil.

If there was a sin, even if it was a sin of syntax, or a sin of verbal mispronunciation, or misquoting, it’s too late – the tide has already started, and it will not stop until there is blood. That’s usually the pattern. The reason I wanted to engage with this, apart from working with this wonderful team, was that it shines such a clear spotlight on exactly that – this tiny thing that was apparently innocuous becomes the centerpiece for a national debate, certainly an industry-wide debate within our context.

How big a driver of the story is the thing that Douglas actually says?

Moffat We don’t find out what he said until much later, by which time the stakes have changed somewhat. It’s trickier. It moves on from cancellation. It’s not about an old man like me saying, “hey, I’m not allowed to say anything these days.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s actually quite complicated. And you’re going to have to decide whether you approve or not before you find out. We’re making it sound quite grim. But it’s funny, it’s a funny show, and also a show with some dark turns.

Does anyone of you know people who have been canceled or worried about being canceled?

Gillan Surely I know people. I probably worry about that to a normal degree with anyone who has a social media following, because now you just have the ability to completely destroy your own life very quickly, which is a really terrifying thing. But I don’t really live in fear of that necessarily.

I had a friend say to me the other day: “I really worry about your social media following because they’re just following your every move. What if you make a wrong move?” And I hadn’t really thought about it until she said that. You have to tread quite carefully, and that’s a new thing. And, yeah, it’s giving me a little bit of a worry.

Bonneville As characters point out to my character: if you are in the public eye, you just have to be boring and bland, and have zero net cognitive content. So, nowadays I just comment on pictures of golden retrievers. It’s about as edgy as I get.

All of you have worked on big entertainment brands, including Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Paddington and Sherlock. You must be used to hearing quite a bit on social media…

Moffat You’re going to get that anyway, and certainly with the things I did before. People were so rapidly enthusiastic about those shows, they couldn’t wait to tear us all apart. “I love your show. I hope you die.”

I spent years being denounced as a major misogynist and sexist because of her skirts [in Doctor Who]. (he points at Gillan)

Gillan They were my idea. I never spoke to you about the costumes once.

Moffat Does anybody really think Karen Gillan phones me about what she’s going to wear on television? I even said, “we have to have some shots that, when she falls over, we can transmit on television.”

Gillan About one of the costumes, you had to write jokes into the episode saying I dressed for a hot country.

Moffat “I dressed for Rio.”

Gillan I was a 21-year-old. I was like, “I know what to wear, and I don’t need to listen to anyone,” not even the costume department. I had complete ownership over that. So it’s actually quite a shame to see you get put in the firing line for something that you have nothing to do with.

Bonneville I remember going on an interview with Barbara Walters on The View in America. Barbara Walters got genuinely cross that I was wearing jeans. The Earl of Grantham [his Downton Abbey character Robert Crawley] doesn’t wear jeans!

‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ (Photo: ITVX)

When I listen to you all I hear dramatic, serious aspects, but also funny aspects. How did you decide on a tone for this series?

Bonneville Tone is always that elusive thing in any show, and once it’s discovered, it has its own quality. With Ben, our director, and collaborating with you guys, that tone really strikes home. It is belly-laugh funny because it is proper satire. It is satirizing the world in which we live and in which we subscribe to so many unwritten rules that we suddenly find ourselves having to obey without knowing why. So it’s very funny, particularly in my case, with the generation gap with one’s own child, and the fact that you find yourself cornered or endlessly frustrated. It is true of every generation throughout history that every parental generation thinks, “I don’t understand the child, my child is overruling my generation’s place in history.” Steven’s brilliant at skewering that. But once you’ve hooked an audience with the laughter, you can then start to turn the screw and really look at some of the deeper veins of what’s happening in society. And I think that’s where it starts to turn. And hopefully, by the end, everyone will be feeling quite grumpy.

Vertue There were many, many conversations with [director] Ben about the style because your scenes (she turns to Moffat) are very long. So there were decisions about when there’s a lot of movement or when it is still, when it gets close, and it gets more and more intense. It was planned really carefully.

Did you, Karen and Hugh, share any input on dialog?

Gillan Normally, I have something to say but not with his writing. (she points to Moffat) Steven Moffat’s writing doesn’t need to be messed with. One of the biggest things I was so excited about with this project was the dialog and the writing. It’s razor-sharp, so funny. There are all these zinger lines. I want to deliver that. Also, I feel I sort of weirdly was trained up in Moffat writing [thanks to Doctor Who]. As soon as I started reading it again, I was like, “Oh, these are the rhythms that I’m really familiar with. I know how to do this. I can do this.” So yeah, I don’t mess with his writing.

Bonneville I think I spent so much time panicking about learning the fucking thing that there wasn’t time to debate any of it. Karen is absolutely right. When you’ve got really smart writing like this, you definitely don’t need to challenge it. And it is musical. It is about an orchestra coming together and hearing the rhythms, and there are so many zingers, so many amazing one-liners that just whiz by, and you don’t notice them, but you want to stop and press pause and enjoy. But the great skill in terms of the tone is that it’s just conversational and you don’t go “ba dum tish.”

There’s a whole section early on actually, with Ben Miles who plays our editor, talking about the fact that I am a news presenter, and I can’t remember what the phrase is, but it’s something like “shameful as it is or ridiculous as it is, the audience tends to think of you as a human being.” (laughter) It’s full of great wit like that as it drives towards the dark tunnel.

Steven, did you write Douglas with Hugh in mind or how early did you know who you would want for the show?

Moffat I tend not to do that because I sometimes think that means you come from the outside in. You should go from the inside out. But Karen and I have been discussing this particular story for years. Ben Palmer came along and suggested Hugh. And from that moment on, I was trying to work out the scheduling because apparently, he does other work. (laughter)

How did the cast and team prep for the series given its tricky subject matter? Was there any special psychological or other support to ensure a safe and free space for all the creatives?

Bonneville We had a thing called rehearsal. (laughter) I think everyone respects entirely the need for all those boundaries. That’s one of the things that this story actually goes on to address: respecting the workplace. We were also working with a bunch of people who all know each other, and so we could sort of cut to the chase and get on with it. We all have a certain attitude to the work, and we do respect each other and want to get on with it. So while we certainly don’t dismiss the need for boundaries, we didn’t roll around naked on the floor. (laughter)

Vertue It was a very happy shoot.

Gillan Episode 3 is pretty intense. I won’t say any more about it. But I will say that it was really weirdly jovial in between, considering the subject matter. It was fun.

Does the show reference any real-life cancellations of the last couple of years that people may be familiar with? (In terms of U.K. TV personalities, news anchor Huw Edwards, accused of paying a teen for explicit photos, and morning show host Phillip Schofield, accused of having lied about an affair with a younger production assistant, have been in the headlines in recent years.)

Moffat Most of this was written before any of those things happened. And I partly think, “what if the bloke is watching this, and then his name comes up.” That’s his personal tragedy, he’s suffered enough. So we don’t specifically reference anyone. It’s obvious enough that there are parallels in the real world.

Bonneville I think the dynamics involved will be recognized by anyone. It’s also not U.K.-specific. Because we are all now interconnected by Twitter and social media in general, I think any culture will understand it. Even if you’re not on social media, you’ll get the dynamics of what’s going on.

‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ (Photo: ITVX)

Do you promote and sell the show mostly as one about cancel culture or how do you position it beyond that?

Moffat We have been selling it to various buyers. I have the terror of saying to them, because it has happened, Douglas Is Cancelled. [Their response:] “I’m sorry to hear that.” (laughter)

Gillan Especially in America.

Moffat And if we do get canceled, what do we say? Douglas Is Cancelled is canceled is canceled?

I mostly tell people it’s funny. And I would point out that for all the stuff we’re talking about cancellation, all that social media stuff, it is bloody hilarious how we carry on. It’s ludicrous. There is a point I keep making: cancellation only works on good people. That’s the truth. Only people who are capable of shame and want the respect of their peers are capable of being canceled. You can’t cancel Hitler. If you tell Hitler he is “anti-semitic,” he’s going to say “oh, no, I just slaughtered 6 million.” You can’t cancel Donald Trump. Only people who are decent can be canceled. So what is the point of a smart bomb that only affects decent human beings, not people who are evil. The Yorkshire Ripper [who was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others between 1975 and 1980] probably wouldn’t mind the disapproval.

So where does the show come down in terms of its exploration of cancel culture and beyond?

Moffat We are not taking one side. Cancel culture has many, many vital things about it. It’s also true that there are some things that we no longer see where it’s good. There are some things you shouldn’t do and some ways that we used to behave that we no longer behave, and that’s an improvement. Certainly, the show does address that.

We all believe in freedom of our speech and to hell with those people who have the temerity to disagree with us. So part of the dilemma here is you’ve got to side with Douglas as far as you do before you know what he did. People will say you should be allowed to say anything. I always want to say: “Really? Okay, I’m going to write down some lines for you.” It’s not true. We don’t have complete freedom of anything in a civilization. Otherwise, we’d be tearing each other apart. So, we don’t take one side.

Vertue As the show goes on, your view on how you perceive the characters also changes.

What does that mean for your characters, Karen and Hugh?

Gillan My character is interesting because when you first meet her, I think she’s actually quite hard to read. She maybe comes across as a bit manipulative, a bit calculated. So you’re like: what’s going on? What is her motivation? She runs circles around Douglas, it’s really easy for her. But then, as the series goes on, you start to see all of the things that she’s been through and you start to go, “oh, okay, so those are the reasons why she’s had to develop those traits.” It’s sort of a means of survival. I think once you start to empathize with a character, you can see their point of view a little bit more, and then maybe you might like them a little bit more. I don’t know how people are going to feel about her. But I think you’re just going to start to understand why she is the way she is as the series goes on.

Bonneville Conversely, Douglas thinks he’s got it all sorted, that he’s been near the top of the media tree for 20 years and is an old hand and part of the TV or media world establishment furniture. And he has a great rapport with his young protegee. He considers this an avuncular relationship. It’s great how naive he is. He has no way of actually coping with the modern world and the modern sensibilities, he thinks he’s on top of things. He thinks he knows how his relationship with Madeline is sustained and how it’s based on mutual respect. But actually, he’s completely wrong. And he’s got a wife to actually point that out to him. She herself is a tabloid news editor. So you’ve got quite a lot of energy and quite a few observations about that world, which are beautifully made.

His confidence rapidly unravels as the story goes on, and it sort of reveals layers of who the man ultimately is. This is great character writing because you’re discovering new things about both your protagonists all the way through.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Bonneville I’d like to highlight our co-stars and Ben Palmer’s direction, which I think is absolutely razor-sharp. He’s like a terrier. You wouldn’t get any comedic beat or pathos without getting it absolutely right. So he deserves a huge amount of respect. We’ve also got Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale, and Nick Mohammed and Alex Kingston. They are all absolutely pitch-perfect. So it’s a fantastic cast, a fantastic ensemble.

Moffat As you follow the story, be careful who you choose to side with. That’s one thing I’d say. People ask occasionally, whose point of view is it? And I say, it changes radically. Pick your heroes with care because there aren’t any.

Gillan That’s a good piece of advice in general.

Moffat Because someone is, at a moment in their life, a victim, that doesn’t necessarily make them a good person.

Gillan I could talk about the vibe of episode 4. Or maybe not, or I’ll give away too much.

Moffat I think episode 4 is a bit of a battle royale between these two. (he points at Gillan and Bonneville)

Vertue I am so excited about it and people seeing it.

Gillan People are going to debate afterward. It’s going to spark some discussion.

Moffat The moment you have an audience arguing with what the characters are doing, you’ve got them. You might say, “I hated that show because it made me angry.” And I always want to say, “no, you didn’t hate that show. You thought it was real!” The only way to do that is to invite the audience to put themselves in that position. What would you do if that happened to you? So the moment they start saying “well, what I’d have done is go straight to the police,” the moment you get the audience putting themselves in the story, you’ve got them.


This conversation was shortened and edited for length and clarity.

Previous  Next   

You are using a web browser not supported by this website! Close Open

You are using an old, redundant and unsupported version of Internet Explorer. We strongly advise that you install Google Chrome as an alternative web browser to enable you to view this and all other modern websites properly. Please note that if you choose not to various aspects of this website will not work properly. Click here to install Chrome