Louis Theroux returns to the Most Hated Family in America

by Diana Wichtel / 13 August, 2011
Where is Zion? In Topeka, Kansas, apparently.
Louis is back and this time it’s personal. In 2006, the winningly beaky and bespectacled Louis Theroux visited the inmates of the Westboro Baptist Church. You remember. Fred Phelps, Shirley Phelps-Roper and the rest of the self-selected elect of God, whose beliefs are based on the little-known biblical fact that Zion is located at their place in Topeka, Kansas.

Why would Louis go back to make Return to the Most Hated Family? There’s only so much one can take of angelic-faced seven-year-olds spouting about how America is a “fag nation” while picketing the funerals of dead soldiers and cancer victims, college campuses … Their essential philosophy is that God hates just about everyone and it’s the church’s job to let them know they are going straight to Hell. Thus the pickets, where small children can be seen brandishing such signs as “Thank God for Breast Cancer” (God’s righteous judgment, apparently) and “Fags Eat Poop”. Just about anything that happens to anyone the Phelpses don’t like is a “Godsmack” and almightily deserved.

Why would the Phelps clan have Louis back? Steve Drain, who himself went to make a documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church and ended up joining, didn’t like Louis any better this time around. “As much of a nice guy as you are,” he informed Louis pleasantly, “you know you are one of the chief workers of iniquity in the whole history of man.”

Louis maintained he was there because many have left the church, including two young Phelps women he’d talked to on his last visit. The church, he observed hopefully, seemed to be unravelling.

This church was always completely unravelled, which is why they make such gobsmacking, if not Godsmacking, television. The sight of Shirley festooned with vile signs, rocking her Lady Gaga impression – “Fat-bottomed whores, by our mighty Lord go down!” – is a compelling sight.

Fred Phelps, the ageing cult leader, lacks his daughter’s deranged charisma and has no obvious redeeming features. Sample sermon: “These modern Jews have the stinking smell of the criminal Barabbas about their person.”

These people have obviously overlooked the scripture that says, “Judge not lest ye be judged by the BBC.” Louis’s point this time is that the Westboro adherents are hurting themselves and their children more than anyone else. His interviews with the women who left were sad. They missed their families. But the interviews with the parents who had banished their daughters were tragic. The camera caught the pain in their eyes even as they were compelled by their beliefs to maintain they rejoiced that their children were gone and headed for Hell. “Do you understand we don’t talk to our own parents because they are rebellious?” said one mother, as if that made rejecting her blameless child more reasonable.

Freak show as usual. Better the devil you know, I’ve always thought. But after the massacre in Norway, the questions of the limits of freedom of speech raised by the Phelpses’ aggressively odious behaviour seem more intractable. Like so many extremists and hate-mongers these days, they know how to get the coverage and the media like the ratings. It could be a symbiosis made in Hell.

Jeremy Wells and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: another pairing not entirely made in heaven. What you got in Prime’s The Grand Tour: Jeremy Wells with the NZSO was, on one level, Eating Media Orchestra.

Wells went in for some exhibition spitting in Shanghai, talked nudity and sex with various startled musicians, was rude to Dame Kiri and generally made a regressive yoof-television-escapee dork of himself.

But then this was not television for Radio New Zealand Concert listeners, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The music and the players shone through regardless. An equal opportunity offender, Wells took the piss out of himself as a serious documentary maker. “Just google it,” he said, as contrived ambient noise destroyed his earnest piece to camera about Lucerne.

The jokes didn’t always work. But if he brought in a few viewers who wouldn’t normally watch a documentary about classical music, it was worth it. The Grand Tour won’t have pleased everyone, but it demonstrated that high-culture television doesn’t have to be reverential and boring. And it certainly raises the question of why it’s left to Prime to give some airtime to a national cultural treasure like this orchestra.

As for Wells, he had his moments, as we watched him get to grips with “this Pakeha kapa haka”. The last shot of him listening, rapt, at the orchestra’s triumphant Vienna concert was really quite lovely. It was like watching your child “get” Seinfeld for the first time or ask to borrow some Virginia Woolf from your bookshelf. “It was hard not to be moved to tears,” said Wells, as the music swelled. I know I was.

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