This feature has nothing to do with a blind, xenophobic patriotism. My wish to highlight the best of my country comes not from a posturing of our superiority. Such divisions have no place in an evolving world, despite current world leaders having no grasp of that. Instead, I thought it healthy and helpful to magnify the finest examples of my geographical kin. After all, it’s not my place to discuss cultures of which I have very little knowledge. Every town, city, country and land boasts its own cultural pillars, but Louis Theroux is one of the first that comes to mind when it comes to British exports; at least for me.
To continue that opening point briefly, it’s worth mentioning that Theroux wields dual citizenship with America. To muddy the waters further, he was born in Singapore. This makes my point for me when I say this article has nothing to do with championing English natives as “the best”. Indeed, there’s no such thing as a native Englishman anymore. That said, he’s primarily a British phenomenon and has spent much of his personal life living in various London hot-spots. It doesn’t take much of his slightly awkward and well-mannered demeanour to tell that he’s a quintessential limey.
Over the years, his documentaries have taken a strong arc of growth. His earliest work, for director Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11), would cast him deliberately as the “kooky Brit”. This approach blossomed into his first solo series for the BBC, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. Here he continued his styling as a polite but excitable fish out of water, poking into the more unusual and decadent pockets of American culture. Three series would see him casting light on all sorts of oddities. From the intricacies of the porn industry to the snarls of black nationalism, Theroux would often do a masterful job of getting under a subject’s skin. Ever present throughout, however, is the somewhat animated approach of its host.
In these early shows, Theroux was a much bigger part of things on screen. His almost childlike reactions and interactions were a huge drive in its appeal, as much as the things he investigated. This made Weird Weekends often funnier than it had any right to be. At times its comedic leanings are as strong as its journalistic intent. Unfortunately, for many, this would come to define him. Expecting the exaggerated mannerisms of his first works, Theroux has had to work hard to lose such shackles. Its sometimes silly approach doesn’t make it any less brilliant though. In his own words:
Weird weekends sets out to discover the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting. To me, it’s almost a privilege to be welcomed into these communities and to shine a light on them and, maybe, through my enthusiasm, to get people to reveal more of themselves than they may have intended. The show is laughing at me, adrift in their world, as much as at them. I don’t have to play up that stuff.
From his promising start, it wouldn’t be long before Theroux would settle his personality down. By his next series, When Louis Met…, he showed a greater gravitas towards his subjects. This would become one of his calling cards, but in its first airing he was able to get some staggering material on some of Britain’s most eccentric and impenetrable personalities. It was here he famously got his foot in the door with Jimmy Savile. Now known as a prolific sex offender, Theroux’s documentary skirts uncomfortably on that surface. It seems close to some revelation throughout, without ever truly breaking past Savile’s manipulative half-truths.
Its a credit to Theroux that integration comes so easily to him. A polite and reserved manner became his new style, and it worked feverishly to his benefit. Its this that has allowed him to capture profound and natural material with ease. At this point, he gave up producing strictly structured series, attempting individual feature-lengths for the BBC. They were often much more focused, tackling subjects not well known or considered by the general public. Whether Theroux met white supremacists, paedophiles, gang-leaders or trophy hunters, he was always able to infiltrate things in a way not before seen.
Building a rapport with such people is a key element of these documentaries. Where most would leap in with passionate judgement, Theroux does what he can to be understanding. It’s this that allows him to see beyond the surface. His subjects feel at ease, and it’s not even a conceit. Through this we get a stark portrait of conflicts and ethical grey areas too often hidden from sight. We’re able to see them in a much purer form, and it’s all down to the consummate hand of Theroux. It’s probably partly because he is such a likeable and well-spoken guy too.
These individual studies have become the main thrust of his work, spanning from 2003’s Louis and the Brothel to the release of Savile near the end of 2016. Looking through the list of these documentaries, which I’ve seen multiple times, none jump out as a dud. It’s an utterly remarkable body of work, and I believe it’s this that has made him an undeniable national treasure. Like David Attenborough, the obvious choice who i’m sure to write about soon, his releases are both consistent and essential. Not only that, but they transcend any class barriers. Water coolers aren’t the only forum for conversation when one of his films debuts. Across the land, workplaces of all creeds will buzz with discussion in their wake.
Within my own formative household, it was considered somewhat sacrilegious to skip out on Theroux. We’d all gather round in silent encapsulation, ready for a lengthy debate afterwards. After recently consuming almost his entire oeuvre on Netflix, I can see why he has such an effect all over again. His documentaries are still relevant and shocking. In fact, it’s hard to think of someone else in his ballpark. It’s his singular approach that sticks him out, meekly, from the crowd. He doesn’t rely on spin, he doesn’t sensationalise and he refuses to make a story out of nothing.
Despite the shortcomings of his first theatrical release, My Scientology Movie, in 2016, I believe it’s going to be far from his last stab at such a project. Limited by the enigmatic bubble of Scientology itself, Theroux gave his heart to freshening up an overplayed subject. His craft would make an excellent wide-release film, and he still has a lot of years to carve out an even stronger legend. What we have now is enough to make Louis Theroux an enduring national treasure, so I can’t wait to see how deeply he can cement that legacy.