Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Educated at Tower House Prep School, Westminster Public School and Oxford, Louis Theroux emerged as the sad, wistful, quietly daring interviewer whom we know has brought documentaries to television that deal with subjects others in the field would never touch, let alone investigate.
His degree in philosophy and sociology somehow inspired him to explore the lives of people who acted outside the norms of behaviour. Theroux himself is self-described as being bookish, with soft hands and lacking the interests of most interviewers – sports especially.
With his ‘faux naïve’ questioning technique, he elicits his subjects’ rapport and therefore asks questions they are willing to answer.
Interviews are more than an offbeat cultural phenomenon in some cases. There is the Ku Klux Klan leader who rebrands the organisation as a ‘civil rights group for white people’, an Avon lady who works in the jungles of the Amazon, selling cosmetics to the women in villages, or more unusually, the Baltimore company that cleans up scenes from violent crimes.
Sometimes there is a touch of satire like the programme featuring the question: How much democracy can $5000 buy? At times they are purely comical.
When Michael Moore accepted him on his team of documentary makers, he gained more experience. This was followed by a contract with the BBC. Skills learned in this period enabled him to work on developing his own unique style.
There was ‘Weird Weekends’ for the BBC then a stint in Los Angeles where he found an abundance of subject material. While his own life was quietly domesticated with family – wife and sons – he was drawn to the strange and deviant, sometimes the macabre and taboo.
When he dealt with themes such as porn, he was always aiming to challenge prejudices of viewers. He sought not just to entertain but to broaden their outlooks.
One subject he found intriguing was the leader of a patriot covenant community in Idaho. This group believed the entire USA was gripped by fear. Their small section of Idaho was, alone, free from this. They had established this by travelling the country and interviewing people. This leader’s basis for his conclusion was fascinating to Louis.
Louis’s first attempts were incompetent, and it was a struggle to acquire the means to successfully produce the kind of programme that, while dealing with bizarre topics, did not give a denigrating slant to the US culture. It is a fine balance to do this and make it entertainment too.
He attempted to mix comedy, pathos and participation but not abandon moral complexity and gravity. His hard work resulted in his gaining top awards for his work, like the BAFTA.
Perhaps his most successful documentary was “The Most Hated Family in America”. Watched by millions all over the world, it portrayed the outlooks of the Phelp family in Westboro, Kansas. They were infamous for their hatred of difference, especially gays.
In Britain, the pinnacle of his work came with his San Quentin documentary which was viewed by over 6,000,000.
More recently, the subject matter of his work involves elements of jeopardy or menace. He has been in the midst of riots in South Africa, gangstas and hoodlums in Lagos, turmoil in Israel. Hurdles were many in investigating Scientology and his most notorious was ‘Louis Theroux Meets Jimmy Savile’. His non- judgemental technique was sorely tested in these cases.
As a documentary maker, Theroux stands apart. He is always fascinating to watch. His book is an honest, extensive, and an interesting study in the tough demands made on those who work in television. It is, like his programmes, well worth the time spent.
GOTTA GET THEROUX THIS.
My Life and Strange Times in Television
by Louis Theroux
ISBN 9 78 1509 880386