You went over with your family to live in Los Angeles – how do you feel about the city?
It’s an easy place to love: the climate is beautiful and it’s lovely to be so close to the beach and the mountains. All of that feels blissful. But, in a lot of ways, LA doesn’t work. As someone who worries about the environment, it feels like a terribly wasteful, ill-thought-out city. And you feel the low throb of catastrophe lurking in the background thanks to the threat of drought, torrential rain, earthquakes and fires.
So why do you choose to make your documentaries in America?
The main reason is the stories are bigger. Take the first documentary, about dogs: my house in Harlesden is in a low-income part of London and one that’s perceived as being a high-crime area. But you don’t see stray pit bulls roaming around in gangs in Harlesden. In LA’s answer to Harlesden, there are dogs running amok in the streets and thousands getting put down in the city’s shelters.
Then, in the documentary about end-of-life care, you see experimental and expensive treatment being tried on people who probably have a matter of weeks left to live. In some cases, it’s almost over the top.
And in the final episode, there are sex offenders released from prison, who are monitored in ways they wouldn’t be in Britain. They’re put on public databases and so forth. So you do get to see a more extreme slice of life.
When you were filming dangerous dogs in south LA, how did it feel when you were padded up and Prowler, the attack-trained Dutch shepherd dog, went for you?
Total fear. These dogs are trained to maim anyone that wishes to do their owner harm – my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst out of my chest. I’d like to think I was quite brave to do it. Usually, we’d have a recce beforehand, but this was a spur of the moment decision. I just thought, “Well, this is the moment I have to experience the terror of being mauled by a dog that’s been trained to be weaponised.”
My other concern was that my trousers were going to fall down. I was wearing these fashionable jeans that are tight around the leg but baggy at the top, so I have one padded arm being bitten by Prowler and the other trying to keep my trousers up. I was panicking that BBC2 viewers were going to end up seeing my underwear.
Do you think it would have made great TV if you’d actually been injured?
It would have made amazing TV. If the dog had gone for the wrong arm, I would have been hospitalised. You’d fade to black, have a caption saying “Two weeks later” then a shot of me driving, but with my arm in a cast. It would have been funny.
Are you usually comfortable around dogs?
I have a nervousness around dogs, which I partly blame on my dad [travel writer Paul Theroux] because he’s nervous, too. So we never had dogs, growing up. Prowler’s trainer, a man called Malcolm, said there was no margin for error. For him, his dog is a bio-weapon. A gun in dog form. But when you witness me saying I’ve had enough and Malcolm’s telling his dog to “let loose”, you see that Prowler doesn’t let go. But apparently that was my fault because he could smell my fear!
Did your experiences at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood for episode two make you value our NHS more?
Very much so, yes. It’s a wonderful thing to have the NHS and it does make you appreciate the sanity of having a provision for everyone. In America, those who have money will get healthcare that’s astronomically ambitious, but you have to be insured to get it. And if you’re poor enough, you’ll qualify for state aid. But what I found is that there’s a middle tranche that gets left out.
Los Angeles is known as the showbusiness capital of the world – what has been your experience of that side of the city?
A lot of the time, you feel that if someone has showbusiness currency, then they’re made to feel valued and important. But if you don’t have this showbusiness currency, you feel a bit ignored and second-class. And having a BBC documentary series turns out to be of limited interest! Which, I guess, I can understand. But it’s quite funny to go from thinking – in a slightly conceited way – that people might know who I am in Britain to a life in LA where I am a normal person.
But you do go a bit Hollywood in this new series – you say “for real?” at one point, a term I’ve never heard you use before.
Ha, yes! I am guilty of occasionally going mid-Atlantic. I try not to but it does happen. My children are doing it, too: they’ve started speaking American with their American friends, but they use an English accent with my wife and me. But the idea of coming here was to embrace the California lifestyle for a year or two and have an adventure. And it has been nice to escape those English winters!
What do you miss about London?
London does feel like a “proper” city, in the sense that there is civic intercourse and people do actually have to rub shoulders. Maybe it’s because I was raised there, but that’s the template for city life that I have in my head. I like going on the Tube and cycling around because you get to bump into people. The cliché about LA is that you have to go out in your car to buy a pint of milk – but that’s basically accurate.
Is it your intention to move back to the UK?
Yes, we’ll probably move back later this year. I don’t want to sound too negative about LA because there’s a lot to like, but it is odd in a lot of ways.