How Louis Theroux moved from the stranger fringes of US society to subjects closer to home
The filmmaker's latest BBC documentary Mothers on the Edge follows mums with postpartum mental illness in London and Hampshire clinics
During his 25-year career as a journalist, Louis Theroux has made documentaries about porn stars, neo-Nazis and UFO believers. There have also been swingers, body builders, Las Vegas gambling addicts and big-game hunters.
However, now the 48-year-old father of three has started to turn his attention away from the stranger fringes of American society to subjects closer to our ordinary lives, such as alcoholism, dementia and mental health. You probably don’t know someone who fervently believes in UFOs but you’ll know someone – or be someone – who has experienced depression.
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In his latest film, Mothers on the Edge, he spends time at two specialist psychiatric units in London and Hampshire that treat mothers experiencing postpartum mental illness, which ranges from severe postnatal depression to psychosis, often triggered by birth or the strains of motherhood.
The mothers live in the units alongside their babies as they struggle with a range of serious issues. It’s a powerful, moving but hopeful film on a topic that most of us know little about, even though it is estimated that one in ten new mothers in the UK will suffer a mental health issue before their child’s first birthday.
What’s behind the film-maker’s increased focus on mental health? “Since I was quite small I’ve been fascinated by people whose brains work differently. I’ve visited friends in psychiatric hospitals and it always struck me that they were fascinating places, where you see life in a very raw and unvarnished way. I wouldn’t have had the maturity or journalistic skills to do justice to those stories then, but it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in them.”
He also says that at the age of 23, when he first stated working on TV Nation with filmmaker Michael Moore, he fell into a mode of being “tongue-in-cheek” and “faux naive”, an exaggerated version of his real self. Over time he became “more sincere” on screen, and felt more drawn to topics that required seriousness. “It’s not as though there was a single road-to-Damascus moment where I thought, ‘I need to grow up’, but it was that over the years the production [team] and I took an approach that was a little more mature.”
Theroux cites his 2012 film Extreme Love: Dementia, in which he spent time with those living with dementia and those who help care for them, as the “first time I ever did a story where no one was doing anything the least bit questionable or wrong, they were just people affected by a condition, trying to make the right choices”.
It wasn’t Theroux’s idea to make a film about postpartum mental illness – it was suggested by a pregnant member of his team – but as a father of three he felt equipped to talk to the mums and their partners dealing with such tough situations. “Parenthood is this extraordinary experience full of highs and lows and moments of profound desperation and feelings of failure. I am not comparing my wife’s and my experience to profound psychiatric emergency, but I am also aware that a new baby is viewed as a cause for unalloyed celebration and happiness, but it can be much more complicated than that.”
There’s a scene in the film in which Katherine, a mother staying in one unit, scrolls through her Instagram feed showing Theroux lovely pictures of domestic bliss with her baby and partner, as she explains that this couldn’t be further from the daily reality. In fact, she had recently tried to take her own life.
In the film, whenever he gets the chance, Theroux picks up a baby or changes a nappy. “I have a tendency to be quite passive in life and these films make me get involved. If there’s a baby in the scene, pick it up, if there’s a dog, kneel down and pet it, if there’s a nudist event, take your clothes off. I have three boys between the ages of four and 14 [Walter, Frederick and Albert] and I enjoy any opportunity to show off that I have been an active parent. I used to find babies quite frightening but now I get a lot of pleasure out of amusing a baby.”
There are moments of light relief in seeing a baby gurgle at Theroux, but for most of the film he is privy to the darkest, most vulnerable moments in these mothers’ lives. Does he find it hard to leave the subjects behind when he goes home to his family? “I find I’m able to go home and live my life without feeling upset. When I get home I know those mums and babies are being well cared for in the units, but if I was making a programme about homeless new mums wandering the streets I’d feel much more burdened. I wonder about people who make long-form docs about kids on the streets – I think that would be difficult.”
Theroux doesn’t talk about his subjects at the dinner table at home in north-west London, where he lives with his TV director wife Nancy Strang and their children. “There’s so much going on on the home front. The conversations at home are, ‘Who’s done their homework? Where are your shoes? Why does your room look like a tip? Are we watching Strictly tonight? Right, time for bed, guys.’ And then one of the things my wife has to deal with is that when we’re in company, the conversation revolves around my work almost to a disproportionate extent, so when I get home she’s not, like, ‘Well, what happened today on the mother and baby unit, darling?’ I don’t always trouble her with the details.”
One of the ways he unwinds after a heavy day is by watching, well, intense crime documentaries. Anything more lighthearted? “Oh, yes. Strictly, MasterChef, Bake Off – I love a classic format show I can watch with the family.”
Not only has Theroux’s focus shifted to more serious topics, he’s also become comfortable with the awkward reality of documentary filmmaking. “When I first got into TV I used to find it quite embarrassing, the idea of disrupting anyone, or arriving late, or unplugging their fridge because it was making a noise. I’d think, ‘Not only are we attempting to divest you of your intimate side of life but we’re also going to inconvenience you.’ That’s the trivial end of it, and then the profound end is, ‘We might put you at risk emotionally.’ And of course it is a risk for these mums to go on camera and talk. At the same time there’s such value in us opening up about things to which there should be no shame attached, like mental illness. We shouldn’t judge, because this is part of who we are.”
With all the pain and suffering Theroux witnesses while making his films, does he have time for the sillier side of life? “As awful as things get, don’t let it blind you to how much is happening that’s positive. Do what you can to love your families, enjoy your friends, and enjoy life. That’s how I approach my time on the planet.”
Louis Theroux: Mothers on the Edge airs Sunday 11th May at 9.00pm on BBC2