How cancel culture came to define 2021 – and the casualties it left behind

Noel Clarke

The actor and director – who starred in and scripted the acclaimed Kidulthood trilogy – was accused in April of abuse of power and “serious sexual misconduct”. Twenty women came forward in a Guardian investigation to allege Clarke committed sexual assault, harassment, bullying and professional misconduct on set. The affair cast Bafta in a baleful light too. Earlier in the month, it had presented him with one of its greatest gongs, the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema trophy. Yet it retracted this award mere minutes after the Guardian’s investigations were published. This suggested, said Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin, “[the allegations] had not come as a bolt from the blue for the charity in the same way as it had for the vast majority of those reading it.” Which poses the question: did Bafta know? Could they have acted sooner?

Since the accusations, Clarke has kept a low profile. His social media posts have dried up – and one of his few public appearances was to meet a “human performance coach” Rayan Wilson in the summer. But he rebranded his TV company to Iconoclast Entertainment Limited, starting rumours that he was poised to make a comeback. And one of the few times he has broken cover on Twitter was to like a post which said: “Most people don’t really want the truth. They just want constant reassurance that what they believe is the truth.”

John Barrowman 

There have been reports of the Doctor Who and Torchwood star exposing himself on set for more than a decade. In 2008, he admitted on Loose Women that he had flashed his penis during a Radio 1 interview with Annie Mac and Nick Grimshaw. Meanwhile, a 2018 Playbill article alleged he had been reprimanded by Andrew Lloyd-Webber for playing the piano with his penis in a production of Sunset Boulevard. 

In November, he claimed on Lorraine that these incidents “absolutely” did not constitute sexual harassment. He continued: “I think that if it was now, it would be crossing the line. I think that something that happened 15 years ago, it was bawdy behaviour, silly behaviour.” Nonetheless, don’t bet on him getting a call from Russell T Davies to reprise his role as Captain Jack Harkness in the new series of Doctor Who. But that won’t stop him taking his I Am What I Am concert on tour next year; dates have been announced for a UK-wide tour, starting in Southend in April.

Dave Chappelle 

The Teflon-coated comedian continued to generate controversy – and rake in millions – during 2021 when he performed eight shows at the Apollo in October. Despite winning the 2019 Mark Twain Prize for American Humour, his two Netflix specials (which have netted him $120m) prompted a backlash for their “transphobic” content. The master provocateur’s relish for a fight was undimmed, though. “You have a responsibility to speak recklessly,” he said. “Otherwise my kids might not know what reckless talk sounds like.” And on the basis of his most recent sets, with gags about visiting a trans party in North Carolina, he remains determined to poke the culture war hornet’s nest. 

Two Netflix trans employees, Terra Field and B Pagels-Minor, who complained about Chappelle’s special The Closer, have left the company. Field took voluntary redundancy after dropping her labour complaint against Netflix; Pagels-Minor, meanwhile, was fired for alleging leaking confidential financial information to Bloomberg reporters. For his part, Chappelle has reportedly been tapped to headline the Netflix Is A Joke festival, which is run by the streamer, and starts next April in LA.

Terry Gilliam 

Chappelle’s influence is so toxic, it seems, that even showing appreciation for his shows can get you cancelled. That, at least, is what the Brazil director and ex-Python, Gilliam found when his Old Vic production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods was nixed after Gilliam recommended his Facebook followers watch Chappelle show The Closer, which he described as “brilliant and provocative”. 

Following pressure for a group called the Old Vic 12, which was set up in response to sexual assault allegations against the Old Vic’s previous artistic director, Kevin Spacey, the incumbent Kate Varah decided to drop Gilliam’s production. Gilliam blasted the Old Vic 12 as “a small group of closed-minded, humour-averse ideologues”. One of Sondheim’s final communiques was to express support for Gilliam following the Old Vic’s decision. The Theatre Royal Bath has now expressed an interest in staging Gilliam’s Into the Woods. 

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