Louis Theroux is the sort of man who makes you feel embarrassed of your own social skills. Not because they’re bad – hey, you have friends – but because his seem so spectacularly good. The presenter manages to look completely at home with everyone from Nazi-sympathisers to transgender children to alcoholics on the verge of death. It often feels to the viewer like he’s known his subjects for a long time and they see him as a sort of kind, eccentric, bespectacled English uncle.
Several weeks after his two new British documentaries – A Different Brain and Drinking to Oblivion – aired on TV, friends, family and colleagues of mine are still talking about them. There’s clearly something about Theroux – but what is it?
I went to get some answers from the people who have worked with him for over a decade and know him very well indeed – Aysha Rafaele, Theroux’s executive producer and head of documentaries at the BBC, and Jamie Pickup, who has produced his films for years.
“The first time I met Louis, ” says Rafaele, “we had a long conversation and I thought ‘he’s not any different from the person you see on telly’. So he has this amazing gift of being able to be himself on TV which I actually think is counter to what most presenting tends to be.
“He’s incredibly non judgmental and that’s really important. Especially because Louis has often been attracted to subjects like people with extreme views, sex offenders, paedophiles and he’s able to let people say what they have to say. What they say is valid too. Often presenters come from a polemic or a perspective – he doesn’t. He’s the ultimate listener.”
But it’s also experience, she says. Yes, Theroux has “the gift” but he’s also had the benefit of practice.
“In TV, we’re always looking for the next Louis Theroux. And the reason you can’t find the next Louis Theroux is that Louis has actually been doing that for 20 years and he’s grown up in front of us on the telly. When he started out he had a certain je ne sais quoi but that was honed and honed and now its effortless when you watch it”.
“Sometimes he dares to go places where you think ‘oh my god what’s he going to do, what’s he going to do?’ but it always falls on the right side, his encounters never feel like they’re taking something away from somebody. It’s been as enriching for people who have shared time with him as it has been for him.
“He’s part priest, part therapist, part best friend, part someone just to offload to.”
When watching Theroux’s films, you do get the sense that people are telling him things they’ve never told anyone before. Rafaele says he’s able to draw people out to make them feel comfortable about saying “unsayable things.”
And it’s when the subjects say those unsayable things that his documentaries are most affecting – and often quite uncomfortable to watch.
In A Different Brain, his most recent BBC film about people who have acquired brain injuries, there’s a memorable scene where he’s cooking a Thai green curry with Rob, whose wife fell off a horse and has only just returned home from rehab. Theroux helps serve up dinner and as they’re tucking in, the relentlessly positive Rob is for the first time honest with his wife about how profoundly her injury has affected their marriage and how alone he feels as a husband.
“Sometimes Louis’ presence makes people open up in a way that if you didn’t have him there they wouldn’t,” says Rafaele. “Rob and Amanda felt they were really willing to let Louis into their lives. For Rob it was an opportunity to be heard and Amanda could express what she wanted to – those quite difficult sentiments.”
However, Theroux doesn’t just turn up and charm the socks off his subjects. There’s lots of prep done first which doesn’t even involve him. In the case of Rob and Amanda, Pickup went down to Cornwall where they live and got to know the family before filming began.
“I, or one of the production teams, goes there first and talks about being involved in the doc,” says Pickup. “They want to be part of it, they want to tell their story. So then when we come and film with Louis things quite quickly evolve, just like if you went to someone’s home and had a cup of tea, you’d get to know them. They get to like us as a team and I don’t think it takes long for people to be open about their situations.”
“With a documentary like Drinking to Oblivion people are having moments of such deep crisis in their lives,” adds Rafaele” so when you’re meeting them in that setting [the liver unit in Kings College hospital] you’re not saying ‘we’re going to turn up and start filming you’ – there is relationship building and trust building. There’d be more time spent chatting than there would filming.”
Theroux’s films have dealt with such a vast variety of unusual topics – but who actually comes up with these ideas in the first place?
“The idea nearly always comes from Louis first,” explains Pickup. “We’re a tiny team of, including Louis, four of us, and then we sort of riff off that. He has a certain theme he’s thought about and then we look into it and come up with other issues around the subject and go from there.”
So how does he come up with his ideas, and why those particular themes? The duo says that moral complexity is Theroux’s catnip. If it’s tricky, he’s interested.
“The driving principle for Louis is anything that isn’t black and white,” says Rafele. “Any conversation we have with him about what he wants to do next will be about something incredibly difficult on both sides.
“He has stuff like Scientology [Theroux’s film about the religion is coming out this year] which burbles away in his mind over years. But Drinking to Oblivion came out of the fact that he’d just come back to Britain after living in America for some time, and was looking at our country and thinking ‘what are the big stories here, what is a state-of-the-nation idea?.’ And drinking stats are incredibly high as is addiction in this country. And then we start approaching various institutions.”