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Theroux thick and thin

Kate Hanton explores why television audiences seemingly can't get enough of this Oxford-graduate.

As Louis Theroux releases his newest documentary Life on the Edge, a reflection on his career in television, let’s look back at what has propelled him to become one of the most admired figures in his industry.

Theroux’s career began when he graduated from Oxford University with a first in History and landed a job on Michael Moore’s show TV Nation. From this, he was offered a deal with the BBC to make Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, first airing in 1998. Since then, the work of this gangly figure with oversized glasses has become instantly recognisable.

First focusing on lighter, more humorous topics (including documentaries about UFO-believers and swingers) he later moved on to weightier subject matter, talking to transgender children, mothers with postnatal depression, and recovering alcoholics. However, throughout all of his documentaries, Louis’ warm yet inquisitive persona on screen has been a constant.

Louis has said himself that he prefers to remain “invisible”, which is why he has done most of his work in America. This shows in his presenting style. While he has become a much-loved personality himself — posting his cooking fails regularly on his Instagram — his documentaries are very much focused on those he is interviewing. Louis rarely talks about himself in his documentaries and has an understated, quiet presence in the lives of his documentary subjects. With his stereotypically English manners, he is often heard greeting those he meets with a “how do you do?” His image as an ordinary person, unglamorous and slightly awkward, helps the viewer to feel that, while they are new to the subject’s world, so is he.

While Theroux rarely shows emotion in his documentaries, he seems to make a connection with everyone he interviews. He thoroughly immerses himself in the world of the documentary subjects: whether it’s eating with the prisoners at San Quentin prison, going under the knife himself when filming about plastic surgery, or playing cards with Judith — a patient in a secure psychiatric facility. His documentaries, therefore, feel like a series of genuine conversations rather than an outsider studying those he is meeting. We see this in By Reason of Insanity when Louis talks to Jonathan, who killed his father due to his schizophrenia. It seems that the conversation about whether he loved his father has a real impact on Jonathan. He responds that no one has asked him this before and afterwards he is shown sitting silently, seemingly in deep thought. Theroux doesn’t just question those he is filming but seems to become part of their journey in a small way. In Mothers on Edge, he engages in heartfelt conversations with Katherine, who suffers from post-natal depression, trying to reassure her and help her make sense of what she is feeling.

Louis told The Guardian that “we are all guilty of us and them thinking sometimes.” While some of his recent documentaries focus on those for whom we feel an inherent sense of empathy, others are about people who hold extremely hateful views or have done terrible things. Even in these circumstances, it is clear that he strives to show the human in everyone. Even if the viewer leaves the documentary unchanged in their opinion, Louis gives all his interviewees the opportunity to show compassion. When meeting The Most Hated Family in America on the way to protest a soldier’s funeral, he asks Shirley Phelps-Roper to consider that perhaps the man does not deserve his funeral to be picketed. Although his attempt fails, it shows that Louis is keen to give all those he meets a chance to reflect and to perhaps prove prior judgment wrong.

While he wants the viewer to be empathetic, he always ensures that those he meets are challenged. Louis has said that he would not feel comfortable if he did not do so, as he has given them a platform to express their views. Within the first few minutes of Louis Theroux and the Nazis, he asks a member of the White Aryan Resistance if they care about people’s feelings. From watching even a couple of Louis’ documentaries it becomes clear that he will not back down easily. Those questions that most of us would shy away from, even if it is what we want to know most, Louis is unafraid to ask. He presses everyone he meets, always wanting to know more and never settling for a simplistic answer. This determined approach works well. Louis has said this is a “win-win” situation as the honesty can be “unburdening” for many subjects, whilst also giving the viewer the insights they crave.

It will be interesting to see how Louis himself reflects on his career, but there is no doubt that his documentaries, old and new, will continue to be loved by viewers for years to come.

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