Douglas Is Cancelled | Review of Steven Moffat's timely comedy-drama with Hugh Bonneville and Karen Gillen © ITV/Hartswood Films
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Douglas Is Cancelled

Review of Steven Moffat's timely comedy-drama with Hugh Bonneville and Karen Gillen

Rows about cancel culture tend to be reductive. A clear binary between those who harrumph ‘you can’t say anything any more’ and the righteously censorious. A nuanced path somewhere between the two is probably society’s best way forward, but as a savvy newspaper editor says in Steven Moffat’s twisty new comedy-drama Douglas Is Cancelled: ‘Outrage is exciting, nuance is work.’

However, the former Doctor Who showrunner – whose characters do tend to talk in pithy aphorisms like that – rightly keeps his script ambiguous, a savvy move both in ensuring this four-part miniseries is not a ranty polemic and in keeping the audience guessing.

Even the very joke that may or may not get Douglas cancelled from his position as the nation’s most beloved news anchor remains elusive, adding to the mystery. We know it’s sexist – but not misogynist, he’s keen to emphasise that difference – but evidence of the exact words is scant.

In the titular role, the ever-charming Hugh Bonneville is initially very much in W1A mode, speaking in the sort of contradictory non-committal half-sentences its creator John Morton is so very good at. When news of the faux pas emerges on - where else? – Twitter, he stutters: ’This is nothing. It’s nothing isn’t it? Of course it’s nothing…’

Reader, it is not nothing.

His co-host Madeline (Karen Gillan) amplifies the outrage with a post that she insists is supportive, but given she is so nakedly manipulative towards Douglas – a trait that’s apparent to everyone but him – her motives are decidedly suspicious. The fake smiles of the TV studio haven’t look this forced since Holly and Phil.

Moffat’s script is propelled by complex, shifting power dynamics. Nods to systemic sexism add to the relevance, though it is stressed that Madelaine has no truck with feminism. But she will weaponise her male colleagues’ dread of being branded sexist, and Gillan’s compelling performance obscures her motives.

The drama that threatens a man’s 30-year career is ramped up skilfully, and tests Douglas’s easygoing bonhomie. Some moments are shot with all the brooding tension of a murder thriller, and there have been bomb disposal scenes that are less tense than Madelaine grilling Douglas – allegedly to prep him for facing the real glare of publicity.

But there’s humour too, some from the bare cynicism of the leading characters, also including Douglas’s wife Sheila (Alex Kingston), the aforementioned tabloid editor,  and roguish producer Toby (Ben Miles), and their sharp tongues.

More obvious comic relief comes from Douglas’s bonkers but ineffectual agent Bently, with Simon Russell Beale palpably enjoying the camp. The younger characters are less complex, however - Claudia (Madeleine Power) is a stupidly tetchy and argumentative teenager representing the morally certain – and puritanical –  Gen Z. Meanwhile. as Sheila’s emotionally fragile PA Helen, Stephanie Hyam is so frit that every conversation is a micro-aggression threatening her delicate wellbeing. It’s a bit of a cliché, but the scene is very funny.

Even less convincing is Mick Mohammed’s character of a useless comedy writer who spends a day working on zingers for Douglas only to come up with ‘Twitter? Twatter I call it!’ No one that terrible would surely get any TV work… would they? Look out too for Joe Wilkinson in small but scene-stealing role. 

While Douglas Is Cancelled starts as a sharp parody of a workplace where everyone is walking on PC eggshells, Moffat realises the limitations of this and takes things in a different direction as the series progresses, widening its window on society and offering compelling reasons of plotting to stay watching. All while injecting a welcome dose of humour into this most toxic of subjects. Like.

• All episodes of Douglas Is Cancelled are now available on ITVX.

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Review date: 27 Jun 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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