X Close

Douglas is Cancelled takes on the mob — and wins

Hugh Bonneville and Karen Gillan star in 'Douglas is Cancelled'. Credit: ITV

June 21, 2024 - 1:00pm

In 2017, I co-wrote a stage show about cancel culture called Jonathan Pie: Back to the Studio. The main problem we faced then was that, at the time, cancel culture was widely considered a “Right-wing myth”, and so we had to find a way to dramatise its effects to an audience of Leftist sceptics. Our approach was to have Pie make an offensive joke early in the show, and end with the revelation that it had been secretly filmed and posted online by an audience member. The climax saw him scrolling through the endless abuse and righteous anger on Twitter, his career as a news reporter in tatters.

Fast-forward seven years, and cancel culture is now an acceptable topic for prime-time television drama. ITV’s new series Douglas is Cancelled, written by Steven Moffat, tells the story of news anchor Douglas Bellowes (played by Hugh Bonneville) who finds himself the subject of a social media storm due to an overheard joke he makes at a wedding. It is clear that writers no longer have to worry about debating the existence of cancel culture, or explaining it as they go along. Virtually everyone now recognises the power of the online mob.

So the fact that a series like Douglas is Cancelled has been commissioned at all is reassuring. It suggests that our society is waking up to the problem. Helen Pluckrose, one of the most effective critics of this new authoritarianism, puts it thus: “At this point, anybody claiming that people have not been getting fired and cancelled are conspiracy theorists beyond even those who claim the moon landing or Sandy Hook was fake.” One wonders what the chief practitioners of cancel culture will make of Douglas is Cancelled, and whether they will dismiss it as another symptom of what former Tory MP Dehenna Davison recently described as a “mythical culture war”.

Cancel culture has all the ingredients for a superb farce: misunderstandings and mayhem, high-status characters in humiliating situations, events that escalate so rapidly that those involved are left in a state of total confusion. The subject is therefore perfect for Moffat, whose Nineties sitcom Joking Apart brought the art of farce back to the BBC. He also wrote the funniest and most farcical episode of the Dawn French series Murder Most Horrid, which concerned a suicidal social worker who inadvertently becomes an assassin. His riotous 2022 stage play The Unfriend told the unlikely story of a suburban couple who, out of politeness, end up inviting a psychopath into their home.

Douglas is Cancelled sees Moffat apply these skills where they are most needed. If ever a subject required satirical attention, it’s the cruelty of the various judges, juries and executioners of the online realm — and Moffat has pitched the tone just right.  The dialogue has that slightly heightened quality of stage writing, which means that his characters are able to indulge in improbably smart witticisms and barbs that would detract from a more realistic drama. It could have worked as a sitcom, but the series format is an effective way to revel in the farcical acceleration of incidents while simultaneously building a sense of gradual menace.

This is achieved most notably through the character of Douglas’s daughter Claudia (Madeleine Power), the sort of entitled, privileged young “cry-bully” with pretensions to activism who has become so commonplace in the culture wars. Elsewhere, we see Douglas’s wife Sheila (Alex Kingston), an editor at the kind of tabloid newspaper that would normally make mincemeat of cancelled celebrities, facing off against an assistant who weaponises her mental health problems to wield power over her boss.

Naturally, there are echoes of real-life controversies in Douglas is Cancelled. One joke makes a subtle reference to the accusations levelled last year against Huw Edwards, and the tensions between Douglas and his on-the-sofa partner Madeline (Karen Gillan) are reminiscent of the gossip about Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield.

But the significance of the show is far broader than these topical matters. We have reached a tipping point where writers and comedians are finally exploring the prevailing orthodoxies of our time without fear of repercussions. It is good to see Moffat, one of the key writers involved in the rebooting of Doctor Who in 2005, turn his attention to the very culture that has made that once beloved sci-fi franchise so unwatchable. That the creative team behind Douglas Is Cancelled will not themselves be cancelled is surely a sign that we are moving in the right direction.


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

42 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago

Thank God! Throwing open some windows on cancel culture comes just as I was about to suffocate from its flatulence. Now, if only the bloated balloon of absurd books, films, and theatre that falsely recreate history to suit the narcissistic cravings of neurotic “victim” groups could be similarly ventilated. Movies like The Queen’s Gambit, which deceitfully presents a woman defeating a male chess grandmaster, or Hidden Figures, which purports that, absent the contribution of a handful of minority female mathematicians working at NASA, the entire U.S. space program would not have succeeded.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

It’s very much a case of the emperor having no clothes. I recently saw an advertisement for an exhibition at the British Library called ‘500 years of Black British Music’, apparently predicated on the fact that Ignatius Sancho did a bit of composing and there was a black musician within Elizabeth 1’s entourage.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Oh no – they missed that bit of ‘Black History’ out of “Brilliant Black British History” aka the Big Black Book of Lies; David Lammy will be beside himself.

Sylvia Volk
Sylvia Volk
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

EH, hello. The Queen’s Gambit should not be your example. That movie isn’t fake history; it’s the adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, and a faithful adaptation right to the point of importing whole blocks of the novel’s dialogue. The book itself deserved to be adapted, well, because it is just a really good book. But it doesn’t pretend to be about real history. It’s just fiction.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago
Reply to  Sylvia Volk

So the novel is the original deception. Not much of a distinction and certainly does not mitigate the falseness of pretending history to be different than it is.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Historical novels have been a standard genre for generations. Very few of them aren’t at least a bit imaginative. Movies are guilty of the same creative mangling.
Thank goodness. It would be a sad world if we could only enjoy stories that cleaved to some consensus idea of history.
So, why should modern fiction be any different?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

Yes. Did it purport to be factual? I didn’t read the book but found the series to be quite well written and acted.
The outrage expressed in Out of Nothing’s “highest scoring” comment above flirts with a kind of reactionary censoriousness of its own.
Movies like “Chevalier” or “Hidden Figures” present modish revisions of the historical record. They could also be called over-corrections of misrepresentations in the good-old-pre-woke days (especially pre-1965-70 but also more recently) where the prevailing bias was decidedly to the benefit of “paleface” historical figures.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
1 month ago
Reply to  Sylvia Volk

I doubt if any chessplayer could sit through The Queen’s Gambit to the end. An irritating and farcical film (and presumably the book too).

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

It was a huge hit so I doubt you’re correct. More believably so when it comes to grandmasters, of whom there are around 1750 (in cursory, first page “research”), a few dozen of them women.
Then again, virtuoso musicians or accomplished painters, etc., will also be less able to tolerate a movie that dramatizes their given area of mastery or expertise.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

‘ Movies like The Queen’s Gambit, which deceitfully presents a woman defeating a male chess grandmaster,….’
What is deceitful about presenting a woman defeating a male chess grandmaster?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Nothing, I suppose, if it is based on a fiction book and not on made-up history. Of course, people can sometimes become confused…

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Because it has never happened. No woman has ever been a grand master, faced a grand master, nor defeated a chess grand master. No woman went to the Soviet Union for any such contest depicted in the movie. It is beyond fiction because it is based on a lie. If that is not deceit, what is? Why not a book or movie about a female soccer star who faces off against Messi in the World Cup and outscores him by six goals? Would that be truthful?

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

You are confusing the issues of women being excluded by prejudice as in chess (no sex difference in mental power) and women being excluded because of biological physical difference eg men’s football where there is a difference in physical power. The first is mIsogynistic, the latter common sense.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago

I am confusing nothing. We are far, far too deep in experience of a liberated womanhood to claim that gender discrepancies explain why women are underrepresented in chess. Chess boards are easily obtained and instruction in technique ubiquitous online along with access online to opponents at every level. Women don’t play as much as men, not because they lack intellect but because they have less interest. How many generations of liberated women must come and go with still no woman in the top ten all time rankings of chess before man haters can recognize that, for whatever reason, women have yet to perform at chess consistently at the same level as men? That makes it highly disingenuous to create fictions portraying that the exact opposite was the case decades ago.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
1 month ago

You clearly know nothing about the chess world.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 month ago

Utter nonsense.
No one stops women from playing chess.
It is just they are not as good as men.
The same goes for Nobel level science.
Very few women reach that level.
There is sex difference in mental power at highest level of achievement (obout 8 points).
Not relevant for professions like law and medicine but relevant if you want to move boundaries of science.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Baffled by this line of reasoning. ‘It is beyond fiction because it is based on a lie.’ See also Harry Potter, The Mill in the Floss, Sense & Sensibility, The Hound if the Baskervilles, Postman Pat…. There is a longstanding agreement among humans that the category ‘fiction’ is distinct from the categories ’lie’ and ‘deception’ – and you you don’t get your money back when you realise that Tolkien made up all those elves.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago

Don’t be a twit. Any idiot is aware of the definition of fiction. However, a fiction created for political purposes is called propaganda. Imagination used to convey truths about human experience is not a lie but is very different from deliberately conveying falsehoods to advance a political agenda.

Jeremy Larner
Jeremy Larner
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

This is simply false. Judit Polgar was granted the title of Grandmaster when she was 15. She was ranked among the top 10 chess players in the world, and she has defeated 11 current or former world champions. She won several chess tournaments in the US and Europe (including the US Open in 98), and defeated the best Soviet grandmasters of her time (including Karpov and Kasparov). Admittedly this was not in the 1960s, but it clearly demonstrates that the story is a perfectly reasonable one to invent, and should certainly not be seen as completely unbelievable…

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

“No woman has ever been a grand master”
There are loads of female GM’s. The most famous example is Judit Polgar.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

I agree the story line is stupid, and just another woke attempt to deny reality. However, a woman grandmaster (not mistress!) has beaten her male counterparts. Think Judith Polgar who at one time reached (I think) the top ten in the world. However, players like her are rare. The top tournaments are dominated by men, to such an extent that women have their own tournaments which allow them to win something. Their own titles (Woman International Master, Woman Grand Master etc) are awarded with much lower requirements than the male equivalent.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

It is deceitful because it is untrue and intended to influence viewers to a specific political end. It is deceitful because the female chess player is portrayed as an apex chess champion who defeats the reigning world chess champion in a tournament in Moscow during the Soviet era having consistently plowed through all other contenders undefeated. Nothing even close to that ever occurred then or since then. The character and story are not about a really, really good woman chess player that managed to one-off a victory or two against higher-ranked males. Instead, it portrays her as the Michael Jordan of chess mowing down all the men players and rising to the absolute pinnacle of the chess world of her time. Didn’t happen. Pretending it did is disingenuous and conforms to the current imperative in media to recreate history to serve a political agenda. Such fictions in other times and places have been called propaganda.

Look up any list of the all-time greatest chess players by any rating system and no woman is listed. I leave it to others to speculate on why that is true; especially since for many decades now the chess world has been leveled by ubiquitous access via gender-neutral Internet-based instruction and gender-blind Internet-based competition at all levels. Anyone who is troubled by the lack of women in chess might consider constructive ways to mitigate the discrepancy. Personally, I believe that lying to people about the history of competitive chess amounts to putting a thumb on the scale instead of honestly balancing it.

To those for whom movies such as The Queen’s Gambit satisfies their need for the schadenfreude of history’s white men brought down: congratulations, you live in the Golden Age of Entertainment.

Chipoko
Chipoko
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

It is deceitful because it is untrue and intended to influence viewers to a specific political end.

I agree with you. So many movies in the woke era constructed on falsehoods or distortions that are designed to brainwash populations into believing a new ‘reality’. The frightening thing is that these productions are often very clever in how they present such scenarios, hiding falsehoods and distortions (as in The Queen’s Gambit) within well-crafted plots and good (sometimes) acting which obscure the baseline agenda from all but the most sceptical and discerning of viewers. The same may be concluded about podcasts; and mainstream media (the BBC being the prime example) are now predicated on presenting distorted visions of contemporary life and history on an hourly basis.
It is people like you who have the courage to call out these subtle propaganda constructions. I hope you continue to do so and ignore the negative reactions from some of the Unherd readers. Thank you!

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Thank you for acknowledging the central point I was trying to make and stating it so clearly. You perceptively recognize the subtle production quality of these presentations and their pervasiveness throughout media. Millions happily graze on this stuff like sheep, oblivious to its intent and consequence.

If you will permit an additional coda: in my library is a shelf full of biographies of quite remarkable women including Grace Hopper, QE I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Lucie de la Tour Du Pin to name a few. I have always been thrilled and inspired by their stories and joyfully loan them to the women in my life in the hopes they will also find them so. I am no hoary old misogynist wishing to see women put in their place. Human accomplishment thrills me in every form it takes.

But looking at our new world I notice how record numbers of young women, raised on an exclusive diet of revised reality are depressed, suicidal, eager to pierce, tattoo, dye, and surgically alter their way into some elusive self-affirmation or follow the dead end path of artificially-generated self-esteem characterized by The Queen’s Gambit styled confections. I cannot help but contrast them with my mother’s generation of steely-eyed realists who, no matter how raw a deal life handed them, managed to know who and what they were and find magnificent happiness, sometimes amidst the most miserable circumstances. A big difference between those generations resides in how comfortable the former were with truth and reality and how too many today have been conditioned to live in fairy tales.

Chipoko
Chipoko
28 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Excellent observations and insights. Thank you!

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
1 month ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Glad to see you thought The Queen’s Gambit was bad. I didn’t see it but I read the about. Absolute rubbish.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Personally, I couldn’t get through the first 30 minutes … cliché-a-thon

Agnes Aurelius
Agnes Aurelius
1 month ago

Ex Nilho, Movies like The Queen’s Gambit, which deceitfully presents a woman defeating a male chess grandmaster
Have you never heard of Sofia Polgar?
Birthday: November 2, 1974
Birth Place: Budapest
Title: International Master and Woman Grandmaster
Accomplishments:
At the age of 14, she made headlines for her performance at a tournament in Rome, where she won by beating several Grandmasters, with a score of 8.5 out of 9. Her performance rating for the tournament was 2879 – one of the strongest performance ratings in chess history.She beat Viktor Korchnoi (who was a 10-time Candidate for the World Championship). Viktor was upset about the loss and said that this was “…the very first and the very last…” game she would win against him. As far as we know, they never played against each other again.Sofia lives in Israel, and played in the Chess Olympics three times. She and her team won a gold medal in 1998 and 1990, and a silver medal in 1994. She individually won an Olympic gold medal in 1990, and two gold medals in 1994.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
1 month ago
Reply to  Agnes Aurelius

Sofia Polgar beat me in a blitz game.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Agnes Aurelius

I suppose she is Jewish. That explains the anomaly.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago
Reply to  Agnes Aurelius

Thank you for proving my point. No, never heard of Sofia and neither have most people who are, however, quite familiar with Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, or Magnus Carlson. Sofia’s name does not appear on any of the lists of the world’s greatest chess champions. I presume you choose her because she represents the apex of womens’ chess. If so, she still does not rise to the level of the highest echelon of mens chess.

I am not dissuaded from my assertion that any book or movie that presents a female chess player defeating the male world champion six decades ago in Moscow is a deceit manufactured to conform to the politically-correct expediences of feminism and satisfy a perverse appetite among some to see all extraordinary accomplishments of white males devalued.

Chipoko
Chipoko
28 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Well said!

Agnes Aurelius
Agnes Aurelius
1 month ago

4.

william langdale
william langdale
1 month ago

Left wing authoritarians have always used cancel culture,it’s nothing new.If you were unlucky enough to have been in the Stalinist Soviet union it meant at best a trip to the Gulag and at worst a bullet in the back of the head.Everybody who stood up to it was “cancelled”.Imre Nagy was murdered and any Czech even a bit brave in 1968 spent the next few decades sweeping the streets or cleaning toilets.Nothing ever changes in the mindset of these nasty little morons and everyone who silently goes along with them is either a coward or a useful idiot.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 month ago

This is really good news.
Who was who said that the existence of satire is a proof of God’s existence?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago

I am in the U.S. Where can I watch this?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

I have the same question. Nowhere yet, I don’t think.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 month ago

Tv channels and film makers are so terrified of the mob that I doubt they’d take on anything that is remotely risky.
I recommend Korean drama of which there is plenty on Netflix – and it is not all violent and disturbing like Parasite and Squid Game. It is brilliantly written, directed, acted and generally superior in every way to western television.

E H
E H
1 month ago
Reply to  Sophy T

Any specific recommendations?

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
1 month ago

Maybe a bit too soon to tell. Still, I hope that coward Jimmy Mulville at Hat Trick is taking note.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
1 month ago
Steve Hay
Steve Hay
29 days ago

The best defence against these turds is to be better armed when you respond, and see how brave they are then.