Everything you need to know about Douglas is Cancelled

Everything you need to know about Douglas is Cancelled

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Wednesday, 19th June 2024
The cast of Douglas is Cancelled gather around the office of the fictional news programme Live at Six
Douglas is Cancelled (credit: ITV)

Steven Moffat’s new series about a TV news anchor who’s cancelled for making a sexist joke at a wedding is bound to start some conversations.

Not least because the story bears a striking resemblance to several recent scandals. But also because it so thoroughly, and sensitively, interrogates all sides in the ‘culture wars’.

So who or what exactly did inspire the story? Who’s in it? And what does it have to say about cancel culture? The RTS attended the official ITV press screening to find out.

Who inspired the story?

Although the story resembles some recent high-profile cancellations of media personalities, Steven Moffat said that he originally wrote the series as a play back in 2018. The genesis was a story he heard about a “prominent individual being rehearsed for an interview by a junior colleague.”

He said it got him wondering: “Woah, what goes on in that room? Because any junior colleague wants to get rid of their senior colleague.” Such complex power dynamics would make for “one hell of a confrontation, which is what you get in episode four.”

What’s it about?

Douglas Bellowes is the greying anchor of the fictional news programme Live at Six. He’s built an enviably successful life with his wife and newspaper editor Sheila, but it all comes tumbling down when he allegedly makes a sexist joke at his cousin’s wedding.

When a fellow guest Tweets about it and goes viral, the Bellowes and the Live at Six team must do their utmost to get ahead of the scandal. That includes Douglas’ younger, sharper co-anchor and self-described “best friend” Madeline. Or does it?

Who’s in it?

Hugh Bonneville as Douglas Bellowes

(credit: ITV)

Hugh Bonneville, who’s best known for starring in a couple of British institutions (Downton Abbey and Paddington), is perfectly cast as the titular news anchor and national treasure. Lending Douglas his bumbling charm, he immediately gains your trust and sympathy. But does he really deserve it?

At one point, Douglas’ producer Toby reminds him that, in order to avoid scandal when out in public, he must be “balanced, boring and bland.” “And fortunately, in life,” said Bonneville, “I’ve always been balanced, boring and bland.”

Karen Gillan as Madeline Crow

(credit: ITV)

Madeline has formed a ratings-winning partnership with Douglas, but there are signs the headstrong co-anchor is growing tired of the ‘co’ prefix. She’s charming and seems to bend Douglas to her will, while remaining an enigma to the rest of her colleagues.

Madeline is “my favourite character I’ve ever played,” explained Gillan, but also “the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because she’s quite removed from me as a person so it required a fair amount of acting! I don’t think I could ever wrap someone around my finger like her.”

Alex Kingston as Sheila Bellowes

(credit: ITV)

In a karmic twist of fate, Sheila finds herself having to protect her husband from the kind of scandalous allegations she’d usually be amplifying, as the ruthless editor-in-chief of a tabloid newspaper.

Much to the amusement of the Q&A audience, Alex Kingston said she based the character of Sheila on Sue Vertue, the producer of the series who also happens to be Moffat’s wife. Only because she’s “incredibly loving and protective,” she hastened to clarify.

Ben Miles as Toby Patterson

(credit: ITV)

Douglas’ deeply self-interested producer who’s more interested in burying the scandal ­– and thus protecting his channel’s ratings – than doing what the news should be setting out to do: revealing the truth.

Praising Moffat’s ability to write great “arias” for his characters, Miles expounded on Toby’s in the opening scene. It set the tone for “his cynicism, his desire for self-preservation at any cost, the way he manipulates people, the way he regards the truth, what journalism is to him.”

Nick Mohammed as Morgan

(credit: ITV)

Morgan claims to be a ‘comedy writer’, and he’s the one Toby calls on to write some jokes for the Live At Six team. But his laughably bad material – “Twitter? More like Twatter!” – will neither be splitting sides, nor bringing anyone back on Douglas’.

Nick Mohammed said he wasn’t sure if there were any joke writers in real life newsrooms. But he added that the role did bring to mind a certain Prime Minister: Rishi Sunak, having heard a rumour that he hires someone to write his questionable zingers.

Simon Russell Beale as Bently Cassock

(credit: ITV)

Douglas’ agent, but probably the worst in the world. Bently is hilariously digressive, somehow more selfish than the talent he supposedly works for, and also a bit of a dinosaur. He initially fails to recognise the threat posed by the accusatory Tweet, then attempts to abandon his longtime client at the first opportunity.

Madeleine Power as Claudia Bellowes

(credit: ITV)

Douglas and Sheila’s self-righteous daughter turned student activist.

Moffat and Vertue both dropped hints that they based certain characteristics of Madeleine’s on their own children. One thing in particular: “When you’re that age,” said Moffat, “you think you know everything. And as you get older, the only thing that experience teaches you is that you’re wrong about everything.

“You start with an exhilarating certainty, and decline into a terrified silence. And we should not resent young people for that moment of happiness!”

What does the show have to say about cancel culture?

“Nuance is work, Douglas is cancelled.” So says Sheila to Douglas in a speech that expertly summarises the tabloids’ potential, bolstered by social media and users’ refusal to read beyond the headlines, to spin his scandal into a career-ending event.

It also gets at a virtue of the series: it’s this nuance that Moffat brings to the contentious issue of ‘cancel culture’. “As Sheila would say,” he said, “[cancel culture] is nuanced, it’s complicated. There have been plenty of cancellations that have been entirely justified. But there are people who shouldn’t have been.”

Moffat also pointed out that, although the debate is often framed as a dichotomy between cancel culture and freedom of speech, “to cancel someone is also freedom of speech.”

What interested Moffat was “not that,” but “the spectacle, the hilarity, the tragedy of people navigating [cancellation].” And also “the speed at which it can happen”; these hyperconnected times have “microwaved cancellation.”

What has Steven Moffat written before?

Moffat is best known for formerly lead-writing Doctor Who, including some of the beloved British sci-fi’s best and most nightmarish episodes. These include ‘The Empty Child’, which still terrifies grown adults (read: yours truly) with the WWII era story about a boy stuck in a gas mask, and ‘Blink’, the one with the stalking statues that, again, is much scarier than it sounds.

It was during their journeys from London to Cardiff for Doctor Who that Moffat and his co-writer Mark Gatiss dreamed up a modernised Sherlock Holmes series. Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular sociopathic supersleuth, would go on to sweep the awards.

When and where can you watch it?

Douglas is Cancelled will start on ITV1 on Thursday 27 June at 9.00pm. The next three episodes will air weekly, at the same time, on ITV1. But all four episodes will be available to stream after the premiere broadcast.

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Steven Moffat’s new series about a TV news anchor who’s cancelled for making a sexist joke at a wedding is bound to start some conversations.