Strange Times Indeed

Gotta Get Theroux This

My Life and Strange Times in Television, Louis Theroux (Macmillan 2019)

How obtuse of me not to get that “Theroux” meant “through”; I had imagined some American TV producer with an appetite for the bizarre picking up a strange artefact relating to some obscure mid-west religious sect, and thinking of Louis.  But then the penny dropped, and as I read on, I actually began to say to myself, “Gotta get through this” – because I found it a tough read. 

Not tough like Proust.  Gotta Get Theroux This was readable and interesting.  I think it was just the subject matter that got me down.  Maybe I just didn’t want to be around weird people for that length of time, but there must have been something compelling me to read on, just as something must have nudged me last night to watch Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge (Sunday, 9 pm BBC 2).

I am intrigued by the Theroux brand, and product.  Looking at that wide eyed, dead pan expression of his on the cover of his book, you can see why he is sometimes described as “faux naïve”.  On telly last night he interviewed a man who went into a trance, and was possessed by an extra-terrestrial who proceeded to address us in a voice with a somewhat electronic timbre.  Louis’ expression remained dead pan.  Is that the point?  Is he laughing at the people who invite him, with his film crew, into their homes?  And if we laugh along, is not that a kind of voyeurism?     

Oddly enough, I am reminded of a TV presenter from a previous generation who also had a fascination for the bizarre, particularly among the rich and famous – Alan Whicker.  He had a similar knack of using his charm to gain the confidence of the interviewee.  He could also live life on the edge; didn’t he once interview Papa Doc?  Alan Whicker became something of a cult figure.  Cult figures inevitably begin to parody themselves.  The glitzy lives lived within gorgeous palaces by the eye-wateringly rich were all described in slickly crafted journalese delivered with a characteristic nasal whine.  Monty Python cloned multiple Alan Whickers slouching around with microphones, doing a piece to camera in the same nasal whine. 

But I’m inclined to think there is nothing “faux” about the Theroux persona.  And I don’t think he’s taking the mickey.  Of course he is aware that he is exploring strange worlds, and that many of his interviewees will come across, frankly, as crazy.  He must also be aware that should tensions arise, should the interviewee suspect that he is being observed critically, this can make for compulsive viewing.  Yet Louis is clearly interested in his subjects, insatiably curious about their world view, open-minded, and, initially at least, non-judgmental.  That is why he is able to delve so deeply into other people’s lives.  It can be no surprise that much of his work has been in the United States, not just because the US is home of the weird – “only in America” is the accepted trope – but because there is a tradition of openness and hospitality that would be welcoming and generous to the courteous young man from England.  Of course it could all turn on a dime; if they decide you are not what you appear… well, that’s what introduces a certain tension to these documentaries. 

It is sometimes said that the last thing any reporter should do, is to become part of the story.  That Louis Theroux has ignored that dictum is perhaps the defining element of his originality.  The edges get blurred.  Sometimes he is a mix of a doctor, a pastor, and a social worker.  There is an episode in which he follows the life of an alcoholic who continually seeks detox, defaults, and scarpers.  Louis stuck with him.  Well, he was making a TV programme.  But he was also doing something else.  He steps voluntarily into people’s shoes.  That comes at a cost.  And perhaps that is why Gotta Get Theroux This is such a difficult read.  Surely his most famous – infamous – subject, was Jimmy Savile.

Savile haunts the book.  Louis keeps returning to him, as one might palpate an abscess to see if it remains excruciating.  Was he fooled?  Did he get it all wrong?  Is he consumed with guilt because he rather liked Jimmy? 

Heavy stuff.  I think my copy of Gotta Get Theroux This is heading for the charity shop.  Yet no doubt the next time Louis has a chat with some Nazis armed to the teeth and ready to inaugurate the new world order, I will eavesdrop for a while.  It’s as well somebody’s keeping tabs on what’s going on out there, and that that somebody should remain sane.  I don’t know how he does it.                                 

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