Five Of The Best Mr Louis Theroux Moments Ever
Photograph courtesy of BBC Films
As the notorious documentary filmmaker comes back on our screens, we look back at some of the highlights of his career.
Mr Louis Theroux had two documentaries out in the last couple of weeks and there’s a neatness to the synchronicity. Savile (shown on 2 October on BBC Two) examines why he couldn’t do more to uncover the secrets of a perversely powerful showbiz untouchable; My Scientology Movie (in cinemas now) is an ingenious, The Act Of Killing-style exposé of Hollywood’s most shrouded holy cow. You wonder how the Mr Theroux of today, a boyish 46, would have tackled the original When Louis Met Jimmy. He’s certainly matured: early funny films about eccentricity – British celebrities, American subculture-vultures – paved the way for more serious subjects like prisons, autism, dementia and addiction. He has tempered the hyper-articulate, non-judgmental curiosity of a lay psychologist with a theatre-of-the-absurd playwright’s instinct for everyday surrealism, a master of “Socratic irony” (feigned ignorance that makes interviewees drop their guard) and, for a certain breed of gauche cerebral Englishman, a prophet. To celebrate the most prominent week of his career so far, here are five moments that capture his mix of tones, strengths and foibles from over the years.
When Ms Christine Hamilton got cosy on her sofa
A staggering stroke of luck from Mr Theroux’s point of view (the Hamiltons were falsely accused of sexual assault halfway through filming), but When Louis Met The Hamiltons beguiles as a study of marriage, life post-fame, coincidence, the frenzy of public scandal and the mutually exploitative art of documentary-making (at one point the Hamiltons suspect Mr Theroux might have invented the sex claim himself). This is a lovely, semi-flirty moment of tenderness between interviewee and the interviewer who’s witnessed their lowest ebb, enhanced by Mr Theroux’s deadpan intro: “Somewhat under the influence, I possibly over-relaxed…”
When a roomful of WWF wrestlers made him throw up
In a documentary about wrestlers (part of his famous Weird Weekends series), Mr Theroux asks “Sarge” (a bull-necked martinet coach) whether wrestling is fake. In response, Sarge invites him to one of his training sessions. The result is glorious TV, the timeless farce of a weedy English fish-out-of-water surrounded by a bellowing gang of sweaty strongmen. Like his endearingly disastrous attempt to conquer the world of off-Broadway, it showcases Mr Theroux’s ego-free instinct for social-physical comedy, so relatable for beta-males, and a rare time he gets comeuppance for being too smart for his own good. “Waldo! Waldo!”
When he caught Mr Max Clifford plotting against him
In retrospect, and as a companion piece to Savile, the episode on Mr Max Clifford, a former publicity agent now in prison for indecent assault, offers his most grimly hypnotic insight into the mind of a black-belt manipulator. Mr Clifford cheerily lies, obfuscates and deflects all the way through (he tells a charity worker that Mr Theroux was “shagging that Christine Hamilton”, then accuses him of lying when he denies it), but during a trip to Sainsbury’s, unaware he’s audible on a radio mic, he is caught telling a Guardian journalist how he’s pulled the wool over the eyes of Mr Theroux… who then calmly confronts him. Mr Clifford loses his temper and the sense of justice is delicious. Intriguing, too, are the furtive appearances of an amiable, pre-The X Factor Mr Simon Cowell, who keeps coming into the office to ask Mr Clifford’s advice.
When he cameoed in a gay porn film
When Mark is roped into a Rainbow Rhythms dance class in Peep Show, he reassures himself: “I’m Louis Theroux. I’m Louis Theroux and his wry smile at the orgy”. With detached grace, Mr Theroux has navigated the choppier waters of the human heart (swingers, chat-up gurus, Thai brides, brothels). Most poignant of all is the Weird Weekends episode on porn stars, where a producer casts him in the film Take A Peak as a jaunty ranger on the hunt for an escaped criminal (a strange harbinger of his real-life, Mr Jimmy Savile-shaded role).
When he helped save an alcoholic
Mr Theroux’s recent work is less quirkily auteured and instead, admirably, it uses his name to draw attention to more serious subjects, especially mental health in the US. Drinking To Oblivion, his only British documentary to date about non-celebrities, is a highpoint of thoughtful gravitas. Mr Theroux becomes almost paternally protective of Mr Joe Walker, a young alcoholic who tries to leave hospital prematurely. Torn over the documentarian’s code not to intervene, Mr Theroux begs him to stay but he escapes. Waiting on the street outside and watching him come back from the off-licence with a drink, the nurses fear Mr Walker has fallen off the wagon again, until he comes close enough to reveal it’s a bottle of sparkling water. A flicker of hope in one of Mr Theroux’s saddest, most sympathetic films.