Marcel Theroux on why Putin’s Russia is a soap opera and what makes his brother Louis’ docs so clever

The novelist and journalist is exploring Putin's family values in his latest C4 Unreported World programme

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“Louis and I are like chalk and cheese,” Marcel Theroux remarks with the identical disarming tone we’re used to hearing from his brother. Marcel doesn’t notice it, joking “we never have any problems telling ourselves apart”. But it’s there again: that soft, considered way of speaking – carefully chosen words that slow towards the close of each sentence – that reveal his family ties.

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However, verbal blueprints and a penchant for filmmaking aside, he’s right: the deux Therouxs are unmistakably different. Although both have been crafting documentaries since the mid-nineties, Marcel’s subject matter and approach are rather different from that of his younger brother by two years.

“I do talk to Louis about how he works and we do compare notes about some things. But our styles are quite different – Louis is very individual,” explains Marcel. “For one, Louis gets to spend more time doing his documentaries and I think they’re more participatory – there’s more of Louis in them. I think mine are more straight-up current affairs films.”

While Louis’ work has gone from the wide-eyed curiosity of Weird Weekends to his characteristically personal investigations into subjects ranging from chronic alcoholism to paedophilia, Marcel’s films, relatively short at 30-minutes, tend to focus on the non-English-speaking world and wider issues around shifting global politics.

His first film for Channel 4’s Unreported World strand in 2000 examined Azerbaijan’s corrupt oil trade. Since then he’s fronted several documentaries for the show, covering topics from Islamic extremism in Uzbekistan to the modern-day slave trade in South Korea.

Nevertheless, Marcel has occasionally drifted away from traditional reporting to voyages into the Louis-style gonzo journalism he refers to as “personal journeys”. These include his documentary for BBC4 exploring the Japanese concept of imperfection, Wabi-sabi, and 2006’s must-watch Death of A Nation, an insight into the dangerously dwindling population levels in Russia. 

Unmistakably, these shows contain many of his brother’s traits: cuts to the presenter’s effortless poker face, along with plenty of raised-eyebrow moments for the yet-to-be-made ‘No context Marcel’ Twitter feed. “Maybe that’s just a family trait, being a nebbish?” Marcel laughs.

So why is it only Louis’ documentaries that have found a meme-level of popularity? It’s because Louis’ made more of them, Marcel states. But then he’s quick to clarify it’s not merely quantity over quality: “Louis was a prodigy when he started. He’s evolved now, but he’s kept to this persona very much like Louis in real life – curious, but also tenacious, with a powerful bullshit detector.” 

“And the thing about Louis that nobody ever remarks on is that he never does pieces to camera. He pulls out all meaning of the interviewee so that you can understand what he’s thinking without actually saying it. That’s an amazing art… I regard him as the talent of the family as far as documentaries are concerned”.

Would he ever consider crafting a collaborative documentary with Louis? Although Marcel admits there’s some competitiveness between the two (he says he’s still determined to beat his brother in every game of Monopoly), yes, he would want to work on a family production in future.

Marcel investigated the Crimea a year after Russia annexed the territory

Yet all this doc measuring between the two is unfair. Although Marcel makes more than the odd current affairs show, he’s far more focused as a novelist, having had five acclaimed books published to date. These include US National Book Award finalist Far North (2009) and The Paperchase (2001), a story in whch the protagonist unearths a manuscript about Mycroft Holmes, the equally-genius older brother of Sherlock.

So there is a reason why the Mycroft of the Theroux household remains relatively obscure. As Marcel explains: “One of Louis’ TV programmes can bring in millions of people. But for a novel, you’ll be very happy to sell 10,000 copies. The order of celebrity is much smaller. I’m quite comfortable with my level of relative anonymity.”

As well as avoiding the limelight, his career as a novelist is the ideal vehicle for his transnational nature. Marcel’s upcoming sixth novel – The Secret Books, a mystery set across 19th century Europe – is an avenue to an unending fascination of his: Russia. He has been visiting the country frequently since 1983 and has been wrestling with the language since school. Not without difficulties – “I’m always horrified when I hear some of the rubbish I’ve said!”. 

However, his Russian was more than enough for his upcoming Unreported World doc, Putin’s Family Values, which investigates the rising prestige of the Orthodox church, alongside the drive to hoist the country’s birth rate and counter its worrying population drop.

Theroux encounters Nadezhda Osyak – a woman who has given birth to 18 children fathered by Ioann, her Orthodox priest husband – and explores their luxurious family house and pool funded by Putin’s fertility drive which has also conferred on them the Order of Parental Glory award, which they’re proud to show off to an understandably astounded Theroux. 

However, Theroux’s clear fascination in Russian culture visibly clashes with his British values of tolerance when behind the set of a Christian TV channel (“a mix between Fox News and a church”). It’s here that he faces grizzly-bearded priests who take to the airwaves to openly condemn “sodomites” and the western media before singing the praises of Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, such subjects make for frustrating interviewees: Theroux jokes that speaking to these conservatives was like “nailing jelly to a wall”.

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The Osyaks

Despite insisting Russia isn’t a scary place per se, Theroux is not blind to the increasingly isolationist country that’s added many of his fellow journalists to its blacklist. “Russians are amazingly friendly and accepting,” he stresses. “But there is another side to Russia: the country is obviously overtly homophobic now. There’s a real dark side, a real nasty form of discrimination is taking place. If I was a gay tourist, I would be very scared.” 

Alongside the country’s 2013 prohibition of homosexual ‘propaganda’, Theroux’s documentary also points to the laws that keep protesters at least 50m apart from one another and the recent legislation that restricts those guilty of domestic violence to a fine rather than a jail sentence.

Yet as much as he’s eager to shine a light on these worrying turns, Theroux can’t resist labelling himself as “a critic who loves Russia”. 

“I don’t understand why anyone isn’t fascinated by Russia,” he reasons. “It’s got such a fascinating history, just in the 20th century alone. It’s like this incredible soap opera that’s riveting and I keep going for another episode. I genuinely can never believe what’s going to happen next – I’ve been on the edge of my seat for 30 years!”

He’s right, Russia makes for an unmissable documentary subject. Especially when it’s explored by Marcel Theroux.

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Unreported World is on Channel 4 at 7:30pm on Friday 24th March