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26 June 2024

Douglas Is Cancelled: finally, a funny cancel culture comedy

Steven Moffat’s delicious satire is unafraid to take aim at youthful snowflakes and puritans.

By Rachel Cooke

Though I don’t yet know where Steven Moffat’s delicious Douglas Is Cancelled might be going (I’ve seen two of four episodes), I like where it begins a lot: not since the BBC satire W1A has Hugh Bonneville been this pitch-perfect, inhabiting the form of the male plonker like a second skin (or, more likely, a bum-clinger suit from Charles Tyrwhitt).

Bonneville has immaculate comic timing, his character’s more shameful feelings fluttering on his face like bunting in a breeze. But this isn’t to suggest that the man he plays, a hapless TV presenter called Douglas Bellowes, deserves what’s coming. No. If he’s an oaf, he’s also an Everyman. O tempora, o mores! My response to poor Douglas is painfully vicarious. All I can think is: thank God this is happening to him, and not to me. 

Douglas hosts Live at 6 – a newsy version of The One Show – with his younger, cleverer, hotter (uh oh, can I say that?) sidekick, Madeline (Karen Gillan), and it’s huge. Everyone loves their double act, and certainly it does strike me as more exciting than Holly and Phil or, er, Eamonn and Ruth (RIP both couples). But trouble is heading towards it like an Exocet missile. At a family wedding, Douglas got tipsy, and made a sexist joke, which a bystander then tweeted about (yes, I know it’s X now, but in the show everyone still calls it Twitter). The guy in question didn’t have many followers: the whole thing might have gone away. But the Machiavellian Madeline decided to retweet it, and she has a ready-made mob of two million.

Thanks to this, things are not looking good for dear Douglas, though so far, no one actually knows what was said (he can’t remember either, thanks to the sauce). His producer, Toby (Ben Miles, excellent), is in a panic – “it’s like being Michael Caine in Zulu,” he announces as the tweets pile up, before acknowledging that, yes, of course he knows that Caine was “basically the aggressor”. And so is Douglas’s ridiculous agent Bently (Simon Russell Beale, fabulous), and his sassy wife Sheila (Alex Kingston, enjoying herself), who edits a tabloid, and therefore knows all about the wrecking ball and how it swings from nowhere to destroy a life.

The only person who’s calm – like water, just before a shark slices through it – is Claudia (Madeleine Power), Douglas and Sheila’s daughter, here standing proxy for all the young puritans. She’s part of a student think tank – “is there an actual tank, or do you just meet in a bar?” asks Douglas – that’s working on the patriarchy, that sort of stuff. She really doesn’t want to have to cancel her father, though she absolutely will if necessary (metaphorical blood is already trickling down her chin). She was, of course, at the wedding herself, watching her Uncle Donald marry his partner of many years. “Uncle Rapey,” she calls him. When Douglas points out that Donald’s gay and has no feelings at all for young women, she accuses him of mansplaining. The heartless illogic is terrifyingly plausible.

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There’s a lot to feast on here: a well-made farce of a script, blunt at times but all the better for it; a slew of slick, genuinely funny performances; convincing sets. None of it is very ITV. The real surprise, though, lies with Moffat’s refusal to tread carefully when it comes to the youth. Television, like many cultural institutions, is in thrall to the young, a rapt fear that induces some good decisions, but also some exceedingly bad ones. But Douglas Is Cancelled has other ideas, and won’t tremble at the possibility of taking the piss out of pronoun users.

Some of the funniest scenes are between Sheila and her hopeless snowflake of a PA, Helen (Stephanie Hyam). Helen tells Sheila she neglected to mention the Douglas crisis at first, having “internalised” it on the advice of “Sonia”. Who the hell’s Sonia? “She used to be called Anita, but she has reimagined herself,” replies Helen. (Sonia/Anita works in HR, in case you hadn’t guessed.) What to do? Desperate for the internal to become external, Sheila can only promise Helen that for the next few moments, she’ll “break eye contact on request, and never maintain it for more than 30 seconds”. Like I said, it’s delicious – and I’m greedy for more.

Douglas Is Cancelled
ITV1, 27 June, 9pm; available on catch-up

[See also: The reality TV rehabilitation machine]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine