Interview: We Spoke To Louis Theroux About His 25-Year Career, New Show And WTF Moments
Throughout lockdown, legendary filmmaker Louis Theroux has been delving through the archives of his impressive 25-year career, from spending time with the ‘most hated family in the world’, to stripping off at sensual food parties.
The journalist is famed for wholeheartedly (if a little awkwardly) throwing himself into whatever weird and wonderful situations he finds himself in; something that has kept fans wanting more for many years.
Over the past few months, Louis has revisited some of his most iconic television moments and caught up with some of the characters he met along the way for his new show Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge, so we spoke to him to find out what we can expect…
UNILAD: I watched the first episode of your new show this morning – it’s really good. I imagine it must have been quite nostalgic for you, looking back through all your old work.
Louis: It was nostalgic and enjoyable, and in some ways kind of strange to look back at how much water has been under the bridge and how many films, how many programmes have made over the years – and how different I look. You know, I turned 50 earlier this year, so it’s been more than 25 years. I’ve worked in television and it is quite strange to think about how much time has gone by.
UNILAD: Were there any particular moments that evoked a particular emotion in you? Were there any kinds of things that you looked back and felt perhaps a bit uncomfortable watching? I don’t know if you if you regularly watch your programmes back.
Louis: No, I don’t. I’m maybe narcissist, but I’m not quite that. I think that I would say watching the porn episode and me getting naked and getting my Polaroid taken.
It’s not too uncomfortable, but I’m very conscious of the fact that I now have three children and they’re age 14, 12 and five. And they will, if and when they see it, probably think that’s a little odd. I mean, I’m used to being somewhat odd, you know, and being silly and maybe pushing jokes too far and being occasionally borderline inappropriate. So, I don’t think it’ll be a massive shock. But as a kind of ageing family man, it is odd to be confronted with that former self. You know, who did things like stripping off for getting his photo taken.
And then as far as other moments with it, I suppose it gives you a sense of perspective when you realise how many of the people I’ve been in touch with, or made stories on, have died. Some of them were fairly old at the time. So it’s not surprising, but it creates a sort of sense of bittersweet kind of nostalgia or feeling of the nature of life. It’s a strange condition of mortality that we are all burdened with.
And so, you know, I did a story in the first episode where I got in touch with a UFO believer who was able to channel a space alien, that was his claim, and he would speak in a booming voice. And the alien was called Korton from the planet Koldas.
Anyway, we’ve found some footage on the internet of Reverend Shaw channelling Korton just from a year or two ago. And in fact, I learned that he died shortly afterwards. I think he might even have died just a few months ago.
It was really odd knowing that he’s dead at that point in this footage of him with his eyes closed. Speaking from another planet. It was almost like hearing him speak from beyond the grave. It’s a very interesting, odd, and sort of almost quite elegiac mood, sort of like, oh, there’s lots of good things in these shows.
But that was one moment that really resonated with me.
UNILAD: I wondered because obviously with the current climate, with everything like the Black Lives Matter movement has kind of made everyone look back on old programmes and old films and kind of reassess them by today’s standards.
But one thing I was thinking when I watched the family episode where you went back to the The Trans Children episode, I think that is kind of an example of an episode that is aged very well. You know, obviously, we know a lot more about trans people’s lives now than we did back then.
But I wondered, is that kind of is there any kind of work that that has been a concern for you or is that something that you are kind of very conscious of in taking new work on?
Louis: It feels like the world’s moved on and all cultural norms have changed, and it feels like maybe there’s moments that don’t feel quite right or feel like they would be phrased differently now. Yeah, I think there are. I think we’ve been quite careful to address those.
You know, there’s moments where because of the nature of sensitivities now, and how much more educated we are, the conversation would take place in a different way. So, in episode three I think it is, there’s a moment where I meet a trans woman in prison called Deborah. And now this is in the programme, the encounter, but there was a little bit that we kind of well, they all the conversations always have to be cut down.
And that was one of the moments was I say to her when I meet in the original programme. So you could see I mean, I was just told I was meeting someone who I think was called Bradley Worledge, and then I arrive at the cell and I’m told that this person is called Deborah.
And Deborah comes out with long hair and with a kind of traditional feminine affect. And I say, ‘do you consider yourself a woman?’ And she says, ‘yes, I’m a trans woman now.’ It is completely in the context of the time, kind of unexceptionable exchange, but now I would have phrased it properly, like, ‘do you identify as a woman?’ Oh, you use a different language. Yeah, it’s a trivial example.
And if you’re just small things like that, I think usage of the N-word is is kind of interrogated, much more like I’ve done stories in about neo-Nazis, but also in prisons and jails where the N-word has been bandied around.
And each time that’s used, clearly there’s a huge responsibility to figure out whether it’s really justified.
UNILAD: Absolutely. And that’s obviously a situation that’s actually ongoing with the BBC at the moment as well. Obviously, you have met an upset array of weird and wonderful characters throughout your career. What would you say was your biggest ‘What the f*ck’ moment?
Louis: Well, this is kind of a happy answer, and then there’s a kind of slightly darker answer, like the biggest ‘What the f*ck’ moment?
But you know, in a way that you hope for that on almost every time, every adventure you go on, every time you go out to tell a story; you sort of hope or imagine that you’ll find something extraordinary. I mean, I did a story about it – in San Quentin I met a neo-Nazi skinhead gang dropout who is in a relationship with a male Jewish inmate.
They just struck up a romance together, and the juxtaposition of the two of them side by side kind of canoodling was totally unexpected. It was also kind of amazing, and massively encouraging in terms of what it says about kind of personal change.
I did a story in a forensic mental hospital in which I met a guy who’d sexually assaulted his mother. I interviewed him, and then I interviewed his mother, and it was one of those things where at the end of the day, you’re thinking, wow, as strange as you think life can be, it’s still extraordinary.
I think the biggest in my life clearly would be the revelation about Jimmy Savile, and the fact of him having been at the centre of British public life for so many years, and it turned out that he was a serial sex offender with the vast number of victims – very little can compare with that.
UNILAD: Absolutely, yeah. Now, you’ve covered so many different subjects, and so a lot of them have been quite controversial. But has there ever been a point, or do you think there ever could be a situation, where someone could broach a subject that would just make you think that’s too far?
Louis: Yeah, I think I would characterise it as being more the case that you have to look into a subject before you embark on it, to figure out if you are capable of telling it in the right way. That can mean an extraordinary phenomenon can exist, but are you able to tell it in a way that feels responsible and not tawdry, and not opportunistic or exploitative.
For example, over the years we’ve considered whether there’s a way in which you could tell a story about zoophillia.
I mean, there’s been one or two documentaries made on this subject. There’s a part of me that won’t pretend I’m not intrigued by how people get involved in that, how they explain it to themselves and to what extent.
It’s such an odd subject, it would be extremely hard; it would be hard to get contributors, hard to get to figure out and hard to tell it in a way that wouldn’t feel voyeuristic. I don’t say it’s impossible, but I’ve never quite figured it out. Maybe if there was a clinic that dealt exclusively with what they call paraphilias, or extraordinary sexual behaviour, and among them was someone caught up in a relationship – I say caught up, that’s a bit of a weird way of putting it, someone suffering with an unhealthy sexual attraction towards animals – then I guess that could fit into that story.
But I think the idea of, ‘We’re going to make a story about people in sexual relations with animals’, you’ll be like, I don’t think that’s the right way of approaching that subject.
UNILAD: You mentioned in the programme I saw this morning about how it was the dementia programme that kind of gave you the confidence to tell a certain type of story. Are there any particular pieces of work that you watched back that you were particularly proud of?
Louis: There’s programmes that obviously have resonated with people. And I felt like there are really strong programmes, and I can understand why that San Quentin was one. And then another was the Westboro Baptist Church and trans kids episode.
But there’s also programmes that are maybe less well known and the material is less obviously out there, and they treat people who were caught up in situations that are sort of more relatable. They’re also less broadly extreme – less kind of less brightly drawn, if you like – and I feel a fondness towards them.
As I see them as being maybe slightly underappreciated, specifically, I would say there was one that was repeated on BBC2 a few weeks ago called Louis Theroux: Edge of Life.
It’s cool. It was about people in a hospital in Cedar Sinai Medical Center in LA who are embracing last-chance medical interventions in order to try and live, even though it’s extremely unlikely that they will work.
There’s a couple of extraordinary sequences that are very dramatic and heroic, including being with people as doctors have informed them that they are no longer able to… Well, basically that they’re going to die. It’s such an extraordinary and powerful thing to be part of. And then in the same programme, you see one of the contributors coming out of a seemingly hopeless, unresponsive state and more or less wake up, revive and get his old life back – it’s almost the closest thing to a miracle that I’ve ever documented. I think that one I’m fond of, that’s a special one.
Of the ones that are in the programmes we’ve just revisited, Louis Theroux: A Different Brain sort of represents the climax of the family episode.
Again, it’s a difficult subject, quite dark, quite difficult, but also a really powerful human story that connects with people. I would say those are just two.
The first episode of Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday, September 6.
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