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Louis Theroux. Illustration/Weef

Doco-maker Louis Theroux on anxiety and what still haunts him

Ahead of his Auckland stage show and the release of his autobiography, Louis Theroux tells Diana Wichtel that we can all learn from the often weird and shocking people who live on the margins of society.

It was 2009 when I last spoke to Louis Theroux. “Oh, wo-ow,” he says politely.

He wouldn’t remember. He’s been busy building an enduring television career out of winning over neo-Nazis, religious fanatics, prison gangs and, to his lasting discomfort, Jimmy Savile, by subjecting them to the surprisingly seductive force of his benign, baffled interest.

He’s not about to miss a chance to be charming. “Time flies, doesn’t it? Ten years since we last spoke, we’re still both doing what we do to earn a crust, and so congratulations on making it to 2019!”

No wonder he can inveigle his way in anywhere. He can make the fact that you’re still breathing seem like a triumph. But we’re here to celebrate his. Theroux’s new book, a sort of memoir called Gotta Get Theroux This, because that’s the sort of walking dad joke he likes to pre-emptively present himself as, is subtitled My Life and Strange Times in Television. As well as over assorted cranks and fanatics, he casts a pitiless eye on his own idiosyncrasies.

He’s particularly hard on his geeky, hairless boarding school self, “piccolo-voiced androgyne that I was”. There’s no insult he’s copped that’s too bad – “the thinking person’s David Hasselhoff” – to include. “I seem to be,” he observes at one point, “an emotional cretin.”

Despite, or possibly because of, these idiosyncrasies, his career has flourished. There were low points, such as the time he pitched an immersive documentary series about strange subcultures he called Ready, Steady, Kooks. Fortunately, reason prevailed and the classic television series Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends was born. There was the time he quizzed politician Ann Widdecombe about her virginity. Driven beyond even his freakish patience with human awfulness, he once told a member of the preposterously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church, “Newsflash, brainiac, Christ was Jewish.”

His father, writer Paul Theroux, made his name writing about his journeys through Asia, Africa, along the back roads of America’s Deep South … His son has made his by taking viewers along on similarly immersive expeditions to the wilder archipelagos and more distant subcontinents of the human soul.

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The book is a great read, if he says so himself. When it came out, he gave it a glowing review on Amazon: “It took a long time to write and I’ve read it several times. I think it’s pretty good.” He awarded himself a modest five stars. “Yes, I did,” he says unrepentantly. “I saw that David Cameron, whose book came out the same day, had six reviews.” All he had was that mortal enemy of the broadcaster, dead air. “I thought, what’s to stop me reviewing it?” Amazon, that’s what. The review was taken down. But Theroux is considerably wilier than he looks. “It created a sort of small ripple in the Twitterverse,” he muses innocently. Followers rallied to post reviews. A win, then. Sort of. “They all said, ‘I haven’t read the book but I like Louis,’ which didn’t quite scratch the itch in some ways. There you go.”

This is a man who has been prepared to audition as a porn performer and appear blindfolded, half naked and being fed cheese – “possibly a little too much cheese”, he writes – at a “sensual eating” party. He has stories. And it seems even as a toddler he had an interrogative eye for oddness. “But why,” he would embarrass his family on outings by demanding, “does that man have his mouth open?” His father is American. Theroux recalls visiting cousins in Cape Cod. He and his brother played up their Britishness, “speaking with exaggerated courtesy, like royals visiting a savage colony”. Already, he was honing his peculiar skill set.

Even his anxiety has been both a curse and a blessing. “It’s driven me to succeed, the sense of not being good enough.” Cue a ridiculously endearing anecdote about an early panic attack over, of all things, the history of the British monarchy. “I had to do a project on the Tudor kings and queens of England and it just loomed in my mind.” He couldn’t sleep. “I came down to my mum. She gave me an aspirin and let me watch Dallas with her for 20 minutes or so and then I went back up. I only make the point because that’s continuous. I still get anxious.” The upside: “People respond to you if they can see that you have vulnerabilities and almost that you need them a little bit, if that makes sense.” In return, their weirdness soothes his sense of his own. “It’s a bit like tinnitus,” he writes. “Presumably the symptoms are relieved when there is actual ringing going on.”

He’s happily married to his second wife, with three sons. His book explores earlier struggles with off-screen relationships. After his separation from his first wife, he was lonely. Not so much for conversation. “That might lead to intimacy and negotiation, but just to have a friendly looking body in the house. A bit like Jeffrey Dahmer keeping the corpses of his victims propped up on chairs around the flat,” he writes. What? Only he would compare his intimacy issues to those of a cannibalistic necrophiliac serial murderer. “Well, I know. I suppose there’s many a true word spoken in jest,” he says brightly. “I was aware that it sounded ridiculous, but at the same time there was more than a grain of truth. Not in the idea of murdering people,” he says reassuringly. “I’ve always liked the idea of having lodgers in the house, which my wife has never gone for. But I like people around with whom there’s a healthy sense of distance. I just know I like seeing bodies around the house,” he concludes. He’s not really helping himself here.

Still, an ability to find even a subatomic particle of commonality with someone like Dahmer is what makes him so good at his job. “I do enjoy that feeling of immersion in other people’s lives, in some ways slightly like a friendship and then in other ways a completely professional setting. It’s a little like being a therapist, although I wouldn’t want to stretch the analogy because I’m not there to improve people’s lives.”

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Personal and professional relationships: things can get messy when boundaries blur. He agrees. “Much as I might want to keep it a one-way street, the intimacy and the confessions flowing from them to me and not the other way around, inevitably there’s a little bit of a two-way street.”

He’s thinking here of his professional and personal relationship with Savile. In 2016, after the dreadful revelations of Savile’s predatory behaviour and sexual abuse, Theroux made a mea culpa documentary about the story that he missed in his Savile documentary of 2000. Questions raised by that first programme haunt him still. “I imagined I was using my usual techniques of coaxing information,” he says. “I was aware there was a secret or something at the heart of his story that I hadn’t quite got to. What I didn’t realise was that he would prove, in a sense, wilier than I was. I don’t want to overstate it but the consequence for me was a sense of professional failure of a sort.”

As he writes, “What if … all my clever notions of showing empathy for people who least seemed deserving of it was dangerous sophistry – ‘clever twat shit’, to use a phrase of Jimmy’s. In my darkest moments of self-doubt I imagined myself as one of those ageing Nazis in Germany who spent decades quacking on about ‘the real Führer’ and how much he did about crime and the economy.” Ouch. To be fair, in that original 2000 documentary, Theroux had raised the paedophile rumours. “How do they know if I am?” burbles Savile, hiding in plain sight. “Nobody knows if I am or not … I know I’m not …”

It seems as if Savile liked Theroux, almost wanting him to see who he really was and to like him back anyway. He was seeking a sort of absolution from his interrogator. “I think it’s true up to a point, that he liked me. I had the sense towards the end, mainly based on a phone call but also one or two conversations with people who knew him, that he felt a little abandoned towards the end by me and others.”

He was a monster. For Theroux that’s never the end of the story. “One of my impulses for writing the book was to be completely open and upfront about the fact that I regarded him in a friendly way at the time. I tend to think that this new view of him, which is totally understandable on one level, is mistaken. This view of him that he was a figure of almost supernatural evil, incapable of any good, actually fails to account for why he was able to get away with his crimes.” Theroux offers his worst subjects the chance to be better people. With Savile, it’s the interrogator who wishes he’d done better.

Theroux is forever grappling with how to find the humanity in the darkest corner. Excellent example: Westboro Baptist Church matriarch Shirley Phelps-Roper, as seen in Theroux documentaries picketing soldiers’ funerals with “God Hates Fags” signs and cheerfully consigning her inquisitive visitor to hell. In new documentary Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, he visits for a third time. We find more of Phelps-Ropers’ children have left the church, including Megan Phelps-Roper, who will be on stage with Theroux when he is in Auckland in January for his stage show Louis Theroux Without Limits. A reliable sign of a toxic cult is that anyone who leaves is shunned. There’s a scene where Theroux asks Shirley about her lost, damned children. Her carapace of terrible righteousness cracks. She weeps. It’s a compelling portrait of a woman cornered by her own rigidity. “To me, that was a very profound and strange moment to be part of,” Theroux says. “This resolute stalwart of the Westboro doctrine who’d been pitiless in her invective on the picket lines suddenly reduced to a pitiful figure, really. Her inability to back away from any part of her doctrine while being crushed under the weight of it was very strange.”

It validates his modus operandi of working for some sort of understanding. “In the end, she’s a grown woman who’s responsible for her behaviour while also being a prisoner of her upbringing and her beliefs.”

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Paradoxically, Theroux has acquired a bit of a cult-like following himself. Many fans, considerably younger than his almost 50 years, can recite by heart such vintage Louis-isms as, “I wasn’t quite sure what I’d just seen, but I knew it was time for me to leave.” My daughter, a fan since she was exposed at a tender age to that maniacal masterpiece Louis and the Nazis, has two Louis Theroux T-shirts. “Oh, my goodness. Please pass on my thanks for her interest in my work.” His image adorns Christmas sweaters and cushions. One photo in the book is of a mug sporting a portrait of him with the eye-wateringly accurate caption, “Louis Theroux with Tits”. Of that he writes magnanimously, “Sure. Why not?”

He’s okay with being taken ironically. A Louis Theroux Twitter bot randomly generates Theroux documentaries. Sample: “I’m in Zagreb to meet Carter, a former tollbooth operator turned nevernude who believes Brexit will actually happen.” There’s a video of Theroux, a good sport, reading one aloud in his most Eeyore-ish tones. If he had to generate a documentary about himself, what would it be? “Hmm. That’s a very creative question,” he stalls. “I think I would say, ‘I’m in West London to meet Louis Theroux, a documentary-maker who believes …’ Oh Christ,” he wails. “I was doing so well.”

Having watched the stick he took trying to make his film, My Scientology Movie, we know he doesn’t give up. “… who believes,” he continues valiantly, “that people on the extremist margins of society and engaged in the most deviant or questionable or angst-filled pastimes and pursuits have something that we can all learn from and connect with.”

He’s been demonstrating that since he started out in the 1990s, a geeky University of Oxford graduate working on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, producing such deathless investigations as Avon Ladies of the Amazon. Still, the job must be getting harder. How do you define what’s deviant and questionable when public life is so … deviant and questionable? “We’re definitely living in strange times, but we shouldn’t overstate the degree to which what people are calling populism or nativism has changed our lives. The degree to which we go down this rabbit hole is, to some extent, still unknown,” he says. “There is always a story out there. There’s no shortage.”

For all his extravagant self-deprecation, and with the proviso that they are collaborations, he’s proud of his programmes. “I feel as though they add up to something, which is a portrait of the human condition.” Catching himself sounding highfalutin, he adds, “That’s just me making a party-political broadcast on behalf of myself.” Well, we’re not Amazon. If he wants to give himself a five-star review, he’s entitled to.

In the book, he quotes philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” He’s made a career out of venturing around that bend and returning with tales of outlandish adventures in other worlds. Someone’s got to do it. “At a certain point I’ll just, I suppose, get too old to do it,” he says. “But for now, I’m enjoying it while I can still get away with it.”

In the end, despite everything, he believes in redemption and change – that we’re all “just struggling forward, doing the best we can, with no grand answers, making tiny decisions to try to be slightly better”.

GOTTA GET THEROUX THIS: My Life and Strange Times in Television, by Louis Theroux (Macmillan, $34.99).

Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Prime TV, November 21, 9.45 pm.

Louis Theroux Without Limits, The Civic, Auckland, January 10.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.