Louis Theroux – the documentary maker’s subtly changing face amid TV’s seismic shifting landscape

Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux is a man of many subtle talents, Getintothis’ Luke Chandley delves into the work and world of the documentary maker.

A lot has happened across the last couple of decades. As tends to happen when 20 years passes by – things usually change. The way we take in news has shifted massively. The way we consume and keep music has changed, too. As have our TV habits.

TV is no longer something confined to the box in a room in the home. It’s on a Playstation or a laptop, and accessible by phone. Even what we watch has changed, Glastonbury has recently shown people’s insatiable appetite for choice, no longer happy with channels 1-5 anymore. Mind you, has anyone ever been happy with Channel 5?

The red button has become a channel unto itself. Netflix and Amazon Prime are the red button for the Millennial age. There’s been a lot of change to media. Some things, however, remain the same.

The documentary: A useful tool for education. It always has been and always will be, but rarely before has the role of a genre of TV shifted from its original purpose, to something more. It’s education, it’s entertainment, it’s suspense. It can be funny but as much as any of the above, the role of the documentary needs to be thought provoking and testing. A lot has happened to documentaries across the last two decades. But one constant success has been Louis Theroux.

This year marks the end of Louis Theroux’s second decade solo at the BBC.

The documentary maker who started off on Michael Moore’s TV Nation began at the BBC with his intriguing and somewhat off-the-wall series Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends in 1998. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, we recommend you take the time to become familiar with it. It is a classic.

The general theme of the show sees Louis inject himself into a number of unusual subcultures spanning the USA. Often, these subcultures are confusing or somewhat socially questionable. It was interesting and at times just plain astonishing. To truly understand the attention these situations deserve, we need to know more about Louis.

Louis is a man of some words. Not many, and not necessarily few. But some. This is really important to remember in the context of Therouxism. One of his most fantastic (and often funniest) skills is how to utilise the subject to bring about the content. If you’re interviewing an unusual person from a strange subculture, the interest is coming from them and rarely from the documentarian. Louis doesn’t fill the air with his words, when the subject’s are answering questions we haven’t even asked yet.

Louis is a man of understated and underestimated humour. He’s a man of words and a man of timing but he isn’t a comedian. That’s worth noting because his shows aren’t comedies – but they are funny. Even some of his later, more serious films offer shards of hilarity, but this isn’t scripted or anticipated. It happens because Louis’ shy, ‘nice guy’ persona is juxtaposed by his charming wit. He’s the least threatening person in media with a great ability to turn a phrase. A compelling and addictive combination.

Weird Weekends is an underestimated vehicle. The mix of interest, humour and crazy fly-on-the-wall-style situation gives Theroux the perfect chance to be himself within a curious group of people. He isn’t a bland man. The best way to describe him in Weird Weekends is low-key. He’s a normal man in an abnormal situation. The show is about him, but it’s also about them. And it is lovely.

It wouldn’t be a piece on Louis Theroux without talking about his relationship with Jimmy Savile. It would be wrong to suggest this episode (in TV and in his life) isn’t a major part of Theroux’s career. This relationship started with the documentary programme When Louis Met Jimmy in 2000.

At the time, Savile was still somewhat of a national treasure and the country’s biggest question mark. You would look at him and something wouldn’t sit right, he looked like a weird dude. But reports of his brilliant work for charity covered the fact that he was indeed not a brilliant man. He was a despicable man. This documentary episode began at prodding at the Savile mask. A mask that slipped slightly, even if we didn’t realise at the time. We all know what came after.

Since the original – and highly praised, even today – documentary was released, and the consequential aftermath of Savile’s guilt on sexual abuse charges, Theroux has somewhat disowned the original film, as well as making a further documentary about his part in not doing more to dig deeper into Savile’s life. This show was called Savile and is extremely hard to watch, and remains the only Theroux work that doesn’t offer up a single laugh. For obvious reasons.

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After Weird Weekends, it seemed Theroux had taken part in his documentarian apprenticeship and began covering more serious and more intense topics of work. These have seen him grow and evolve his style. And it’s impossible to have missed his transformation from documentarian and entertainer to cult hero and national treasure himself.

That changed style has lead him to create serious and tough programmes, centered around moral questions and human choice, and the feeling that occurs when these two points cross over. If his Weird Weekends series was easy watching, his films since then have become a tour de force of toughness.

Topics have ranged from the Westborough Baptist Church to Autism and Dementia, and many subjects in between. The episode centred around porn – The Twilight of the Porn Stars – is an emotional romp and rather more hard hitting than you might imagine.

Theroux’s biggest skill, as mentioned before, may actually lie in doing nothing. Caressing the subject into an interesting direction and forcing them to tell tales on their own. As he does in The Twilight of the Porn Stars with the former star of the industry, JJ Michaels.

Moving from the small screen to the large, his latest release was by way of Hollywood documentary film My Scientology Movie, a film that tickles at the subject of Scientology as opposed to tearing a hole in it. It offers little new in the way of content, but still shows you the classic Louis Theroux charm whilst exploring a sometimes sinister and scary subject.

While the information we gain from the film isn’t massively ambitious, the approach is. Using actors and former Scientologists re-enact and dramatise real life scenes for the viewer allows us to become privy to moments that have never been seen before. What this film does with the little information it has shows a new level to Louis’ talent – connect-the-dots storytelling. It’s not a must see, but it is certainly a should see.

The way Theroux has changed direction of his own vehicles is subtle in style. More like upgrading your car in model as opposed to make, Louis has merely become more self-aware of the many skills he has, as opposed to trying to be someone he isn’t by learning new ones. He isn’t Nick Broomfield. He has more charisma, and earns his time on screen.

He’s a funny, sometimes confusing British man who is interested in his topics and we’re interested in him. He’s become a national phenomenon and an icon in an age sometimes obsessed with the empty talent of TOWIE or Love Island. He’s Louis. And In Theroux we trust.

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Here’s our top five Louis Theroux Moments:

1. Lord Commander Robert Shaw

In Louis’ Weird Weekends show on UFO’s, he interviewed a man called Reverend Robert Shaw, who professed to being able to talk to other worlds.

Kindly, Shaw treated us to a brief chat with these other beings. His method of communication? Going into a aggressive meditation-like state where the alien life speaks through him. It gets very weird. It’s probably the most iconic Theroux moment.

2. Louis in porn

For one episode of Weird WeekendsPorn, Louis gets a shot at starring in a porn film of his own.

Unfortunately for viewers, he’s merely a bit-part character; The Park Ranger.

This doesn’t involve any Louis Therouxy sexy time. Alas, we still get to witness some Oscar-worthy acting from the documentarian.

3. Rappin’ with the best of them

Theroux takes to the mean streets of rap in the final Weird Weekends episode Gangster Rap.

In one scene, he performs a rap that he part-wrote on a show hosted by MC Wild Wayne.

And out of this rap comes possibly the greatest rap lyrics – nay, song lyrics – of all time: “My money doesn’t jiggle, jiggle, it folds. I wanna see you wiggle, wiggle, fo’ sho’”.

Lyrical excellence. Classic Louis.

4. Westborough Baptist Church

There were actually two episodes about the troubled world of the Westborough Baptist Church, and both were classic Louis moments.

Seeing the church picket the funerals of dead soldiers and watching them raise their children to obey such hate for liberalism doesn’t make it an easy watch, but it’s arguably Louis’ most interesting pair of shows to date.

5. Arresting the Hamiltons

In his show When Louis Met The Hamiltons, Louis set about following, interviewing (and even flirting with) Neil and Christine Hamilton during a tough period in their life.

Little did he know, he would get a journalistic scoop from inside their camp when they were arrested and accused of sexual assault by a member of the public.

Choosing to continue filming and documenting them during this time was a masterstroke by both parties, and makes for some amazing TV.