TV

Karen Gillan: 'It's better to tell the story of Douglas is Cancelled than not tell the story'

Douglas Is Cancelled is laced with dark humour and shot through with ambiguity. That’s where the tension lies

Karen Gillan in Douglas is Cancelled. Image: ITV

Karen Gillan is on her way to the orthodontist when she calls from Los Angeles. The 36-year-old from Inverness has been on quite the ride since her breakthrough role as Amy Pond in Doctor Who – relocating to the US, starring in six Marvel movies as Nebula, two Jumanji adventures and even voicing Groundskeeper Willie’s romantic interest in The Simpsons.

But, as she inches through the traffic towards her date with dentistry, Gillan is talking about a project that brings her career full circle. On Douglas is Cancelled, she is reunited with former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and co-star Alex Kingston.

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“It feels like I’m coming home,” says Gillan. “This was my favourite job I’ve ever done. I married an American and he’s terrified I’ll want to move back, because I was so happy on this job.”

Douglas is Cancelled is slick, shiny and smart. This new four-part drama would be equally at home on Netflix or a big US network and is the jewel in ITV’s summer crown. There are elements of US hits The Morning Show and The Newsroom – whether in the broadcast news setting or the story of a beloved news anchor facing a reckoning for off-screen and off-script behaviour.

“It reminded me of that Aaron Sorkin style of quickfire, witty back and forth,” says Gillan. “There are long scenes with big chunks of dialogue. A lot of the time is purely filled with humans talking to each other.”

Karen Gillan plays Madeline Crow, a social media savvy news anchor who sits alongside national treasure Douglas Bellowes (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) on Live at Six. They are the duo trusted to share the big news with the nation. And, of the pairing, she is smarter, younger, more plugged in to the modern world. 

“One of us is hot and one of us is clever. And unfortunately for you, both of those are me,” Madeline says to her co-anchor in an early scene. Is she joking? It’s not always easy to tell. 

Douglas is Cancelled is laced with dark humour and shot through with ambiguity. That’s where the tension lies. Is Madeline supporting her co-presenter when she shares a tweet about a sexist joke he allegedly told at a wedding, claiming that is not the Douglas she knows?

Or is she fanning the flames, making sure the whole country sees the accusation, hastening his demise? The full force of Moffat’s script and Gillan’s performance becomes apparent only as we pass the halfway mark of the four-part series. 

“The series touches on a lot of really important themes,” says Gillan. “The female experience in the workplace, power dynamics – the abuse of power, basically. 

“It shows how women have to deal with that while trying to progress in their profession. At first Madeline seems like she could be calculated or manipulative. But then we meet her before and what you find is a really innocent, excitable young woman that’s so enthusiastic about working in this job. 

“And we watch her go through an experience that causes her to put these barriers up. We understand why she ends up the way she does. It’s been necessary for her to survive the workplace. I think it’s true for a lot of workplaces. This happens to be set in the world of television, but it’s relevant to so many professions.”

Hugh Bonneville and Karen Gillan in Douglas is Cancelled. Image: ITV

Karen Gillan remembers how she was entering the acting profession. The sense of excitement. Every day on set a new adventure. And she can see that in the Madeline we meet in flashback – the young reporter on the verge of her big break. 

“You’re completely in awe of everything before you’ve worked in the profession for a while,” says Gillan. “You’re starstruck. And you can’t believe you are here. You have such imposter syndrome. So seeing a person in that state and putting them with someone willing to abuse their powerful position is not a good situation.”

Some might argue that Steven Moffat is not the person we need to be telling this story – his writing on Doctor Who, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Sherlock has been pored over, and he’s used to fielding objections about the way he has written women. Gillan disagrees. And she makes a compelling argument that this story needs telling from multiple perspectives. Otherwise, the onus is always on women when it is also a story of men’s failings. 

“I think it’s an important story to tell,” she says. “It’s better to tell the story than not tell the story. 

“Playing the lead female role, it felt very empowering. And it showed the reality of what it’s like to be a woman in a profession. We need more of these stories told, regardless of who’s telling the story.”

Aside from the depictions of sexism, misogyny and bullying, the show also highlights how silence can be complicity, or, as Madeline puts it, “You don’t get an award for not being shitty.”

Karen Gillan is careful to avoid spoilers about the content of scenes that make episode three so unsettling. 

“When we first did the read through, there was a room filled with people and you could hear a pin drop,” says Gillan. 

“It was so uncomfortable, in a way that was completely intentional. 

“It could have been a really intense experience but I was working with the most incredible actor and the vibe was quite jovial between takes. It was Christmas. And it really lightens the mood when you look past the camera and there are four guys with Christmas jumpers on!”

Douglas is Cancelled is on ITV on Thursdays at 9pm and on ITVX.

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