Louis Theroux: I’m at my best when I’m out of my depth

The king of documentary-makers talks to David Brown about learning curves, mental health and giving up his privacy

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He’s traditionally kept company with people who’ve made extreme life choices, be they UFO hunters, swingers or owners of dangerous pets. But for his most recent outings, Louis Theroux’s focus has switched to individuals who’ve had life-changing situations thrust upon them.

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Tonight’s Extreme Love: Dementia (9pm, BBC2) and last week’s Extreme Love: Autism are compassionate explorations of mental disorder in which Theroux covers topics that seem a world away from the teasing Weird Weekends that made his name.

So, as a result, are we seeing a different, less deceptively laid-back Theroux? 

“I’ve not changed in terms of my personality and nature,” he tells RadioTimes.com. “I think I’ve always been quite empathetic. But I do think there’s always a countervailing impulse to just make a programme work.

“So, in the past, I’d put on a funny UFO helmet or strip off to make a porn film. And it felt right and it probably was right at the time. Now it’s become a more nuanced type of participation where I allow the situations to speak for themselves. I hope this doesn’t sound pompous but you just get more attuned to the subtleties of human relationships.”

So was the Louis Theroux persona of shambling naivety becoming a barrier to what he wanted to achieve? After all, in this two-parter, there’s no agenda to expose questionable practices or question untoward actions.

“I don’t think I ever consciously thought of it as a persona. I characterise it more as a case of having gained confidence about the kinds of stories that I can tell. You know, it’s only recently that I’ve felt confident and been able to trust my instincts without using tricks, arch elements or contrivance. I just figured I could document these people’s lives and get to know them in a straightforward and honest way.”

Learning curve

It’s a tactic that’s paid off, with last Thursday’s documentary the most-watched programme on BBC2 for that night. In highlighting the strains and odd compensations of caring for children who often have profound behavioural issues, Theroux showed a side to autism that had previously been ignored by the media. But was it as tough to make as it was for viewers to sometimes witness?

“To be honest with you, before I made the show, I’d never knowingly spoken to someone who’d been diagnosed with autism. It was a real learning curve because the first couple of kids didn’t observe the social norms of how you engage, even for a kid. Eye contact and things like that weren’t there. 

“But that’s how my stories often work, by throwing me up against something that I’m out of my depth with. And by persevering, you can form rounded, very fulfilling relationships with kids who have even severe autism and you saw that as the programme progressed.”

Throughout the hour, Theroux did remain admirably unflappable. But in this week’s expedition into the world of dementia, there’s a moment where that famous composure momentarily slips. While visiting the home of Selinda, a woman who has developed Alzheimer’s in her 40s, Theroux displays an uncharacteristic abrasiveness when she proves unable to make a call on her mobile phone. What were the reasons for this lack of cool?

“That’s a tricky moment. When I watch that, I cringe a tiny bit,” he admits. “Baldly put, I behave in a slightly insensitive way. But it’s a very honest moment too because I’m talking to someone who, it seems to me, is mentally fit and I can’t get my head around why she can’t dial this number when I’ve just been having a conversation with her.

“So I say, ‘Wait. I don’t understand. Look, here’s the number, here are the buttons, the number two is right here.’ And you could say that I just blunder into exposing her frailties. But at the same time, I think this is a relatable experience of not quite getting how debilitating this condition is in someone so young. There’s this ability to conceal the state of one’s mental health and, on my part, there’s a naivety about what people are capable of.”

What’s also surprising about both shows is the amount of humour to be found in the trials and tribulations of looking after people with serious mental conditions. But was it a gamble showing the autistic Nicky’s pained reaction to the offer of a hug from Theroux, or the flirtations of Alzheimer’s sufferer Nancy? Is it right to depict the subject matter as amusing?

“It sounds taboo to say it, but there are aspects of Alzheimer’s and autism that are quite funny. Nicky’s expression of revulsion and disgust was great because I’m the butt of the joke and he’s expressing how he feels in a very unmediated way. The point is though that these moments are only funny in the context of a warm and empathetic place, which is provided by the sense of permission given by the loved ones.”

Big-screen plans?

Tackling a topic over consecutive weeks has obviously given Theroux a lot more scope to explore shades of grey, so it would seem natural for the next step to be something feature-length. He’s told the BBC that he’d like “a little breather” of six months following transmission of a revisit to the porn industry that’s been pushed back to later this year (“it was felt it couldn’t go out after Springwatch”) – but would he be attracted to the idea of making a movie upon his return?

“Each time I expand the frame a tiny bit, it’s very satisfying. The Miami Mega-Jail show last year was a two-parter and it would be nice to go even further. So, I wouldn’t rule out doing a film. Or at least a feature idea that’s still within the documentary genre. The idea of doing something a little bit longer form, a little bit more creatively ambitious is very appealing.”

A medium he has recently embraced is social networking, a move I tell him I find surprising given that he has a reputation for guarding his privacy. Only two years ago, publicists were warning an interviewer for the Telegraph that questions about Theroux’s private life were off-limits. So I finish by asking: why has he taken to Twitter?

“I started doing it because someone was pretending to be me but I thought, well, I can’t be precious about maintaining my privacy if there’s someone already out there saying things I don’t necessarily believe or think. So I thought I’d better take back my name. And I don’t really know if it’s a good idea or not, actually. I don’t particularly want to be a public person, but in another way it’s a very unpretentious way of meeting your public.”

So, he’s less of an enigma these days?

“Um, I don’t know if I was ever much of an enigma, to be honest with you. I don’t tweet pictures of my kids [Theroux has two sons with his girlfriend Nancy] or pictures of myself on holiday.

“But I’m not in a position to take the audience for granted. And it feels very much that this is where media is going, so why not take advantage of that direct access? Plus you can opt in and opt out – it’s only ever as intrusive as you let it be.”

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