Louis Theroux: "There's an aspect of weirdness that can't be denied"
Britain’s favourite documentary-maker reflects on happiness, his family and with his complicated connection to Jimmy Saville.
The internet is obsessed with Louis Theroux. Each time I log into Twitter, I’m greeted by a tweet from “@NoContextLouis”, an account solely dedicated to posting screencaps from his documentaries, devoid of any context, which boasts 133,000 followers. Facebook is home to the 312,000-strong “Louis Theroux Reactions” page, which creates Louis-themed-memes.
Homemade e-commerce site Etsy is where the memefication of Louis Theroux reaches its zenith. For less than £20, fans of the boy from the BBC can purchase sequined cushions, phone cases, birthday cards, jewellery, Christmas jumpers (“dashing Theroux the snow”), candles or wrapping paper, all adorned with Louis’ Weird Weekends-era face—complete with round spectacles, floppy hair and bemused expression.
A selection of the unlicensed Louis Theroux merchandise available for purchase on e-commerce site Etsy
“I don’t fully understand it, and I think that’s the point. Maybe if I did it would short circuit itself and no longer exist,” Louis muses, baffled. “I’m sort of interested to see whether you have any theories on it…”
And herein lies the problem. Interviewing Britain’s favourite interviewer comes with a unique set of quandaries. Though kind and generous with his answers, the man who answers the phone with that signature “Hello, it’s Louis”, is far more comfortable asking the questions than he is answering them.
We’re together to discuss his new memoir—aptly named Gotta Get Theroux This in a nod to the prevalence of memes that riff on the French surname he shares with his writer father (Paul) and brother (Marcel), and American acting cousin (Justin)—but it’s clear he’d probably prefer that I just read it, and then spent my time discussing something not quite so intimately related to him. Video games, perhaps, or scary movies—his two self-professed guilty pleasures.
“If I’m honest, I’ve always quite enjoyed hiding,” Louis explains. “When I first started writing the book I did it on a bit of a whim. I thought it might be quite straightforward to dip back into a greatest-hits of my programme making, but then I realised that if I wanted it to hang together as a book, that wasn’t good enough. I needed to give much more of myself than I initially realised. I felt very ambivalent about that, but I was intent on trying to write the best book I could, so I really just had to open up.”
Pictured with wife Nancy Strang. Image via Shutterstock
And open up he does. The memoir is full of anecdotes about his childhood, school days at Westminster with friends comedian Adam Buxton and director Joe Cornish, the confusion of his early twenties and his wife, Nancy Strang, who he fell for when he saw her dancing to “What’s Luv” by Fat Joe and Ashanti on their third or fourth date.
“I hope people connect with it. I found it hard to write about the happiness I’ve found with my family. I was trying to make [the book] funny, and it’s easier to be funny about things going wrong or things being problematic than it is to be funny about happiness.”
"No one [at school] wanted to be looked on as the square, posh kid"
The problematic times begin at school, when he casts himself as a somewhat geeky figure—an intensely hard worker (he later came top of his year at Oxford), who often acted the fool, and expected far less success than his more serious older brother.
A young Louis. Image courtesy of Louis Theroux
Despite attending Westminster School, one of the more elite private schools in the world, “No one wanted to be looked on as the square, posh kid. I think there was quite a healthy culture of almost trying to appear more working-class and down to earth than you really were. People would affect estuary accents and strive to appear sort of scruffy and not privileged. The idea of someone saying, [he switches seamlessly into a plummy, high-pitched schoolboy inflection], ‘Well I’m going to grow up to be a stockbroker and join Coutts Bank’, was the least cool thing you could possibly do.”
Perhaps the most pained section of Theroux’s memoir are the chapters that muse on his connection to Jimmy Saville, the now deceased and disgraced BBC DJ who was exposed as a sexual predator after the testimonies of over 450 victims were investigated by Operation Yewtree in 2012. Louis first met Jimmy in 1999 as part of his When Louis Met… series, a time in his career when he admits that he felt, “a little lost and less interested in TV”.
During a recording with BBC Sounds
“I was aware having made the first programme that there were aspects of his personality that I hadn’t got to. I hadn’t figured out what his sexual interests were. And I was aware that he was a dark and troubling figure in a certain respect, but at the same time, I quite liked him. We were on friendly terms, so when it all came out it was a big shock.”
“It’s hard to talk about this because it feels quite shameful, but there was a part of me that resisted, where I thought, This can’t really be true can it? I think the moment when the scale of his misdeeds hit home was when I read the hospital reports and the descriptions from victims. It would be upsetting in any situation but reading about it knowing that I’d known this man and that I’d kind of liked him… it’s really hard to describe that heavy weight of sadness.”
Grappling with his complex feelings over the side of Jimmy he never uncovered, Louis returned to the subject in 2016, with his self-denigrating, reflective follow-up documentary, Saville. Did revisiting the topic help him?
“Up to a point. I mean it was very painful—OK, I want to rephrase that because when talking about Jimmy Saville you have to recognise the victims’ pain first of all—it was stressful making it but at the same time it helped me to figure out to some degree who Jimmy Saville really was.”
Recording for one of his later documentaries
“An Australian journalist asked me a couple of weeks ago, [he slips into a thick Aussie accent], ‘I godda say in Australia, we look at Jimmy Saville and we just say, how could you not know, it’s so obvious’, but the fact is he was well-liked. People thought he was kind of creepy, but in a way the creepiness was OK because you thought that was part of his schtick. I talk in the book about re-watching rushes from the original programme to see if there are any clues, but he just seems like a slightly boring old DJ, wrapped up in himself and his cigar smoke. I think that’s kind of the point. If you get too fixated on the idea of perfect or obvious evil, then you lose track of how crimes actually take place and how predators really function.”
It’s very apparent as Louis muses these dark topics, that he still doesn’t quite know where he stands with them. He seems ready at once to both condemn and vindicate himself. One moment talking slowly about the shame he feels, the next explaining that When Louis Met Jimmy… still strikes him as a “hard-headed and responsible piece of journalism.”
Image Ben Smith, via Shutterstock
Louis’s latest documentaries show no sign of returning to those lost days of celebrity profiles. Covering open adoption, polygamy, euthanasia, and Scientology in the past year, he’s still very much open to the call of, if not the weird, the decidedly off-beat. And it’s not something he sees as at odds with his other identity as a settled north London family man.
"There’s an aspect of weirdness that can’t be denied"
“I think you owe it to your family to be present and to be supportive and loving, but you want to keep yourself interesting and expose your family to adventures too. A lot of the things I do in my work are about the tension between lifestyles that might be awful or awkward or dangerous or upsetting but there’s also this other value where it’s not a simple case of ‘this is good and that’s bad’. The things that create stress or anxiety can also be tremendously rewarding or fulfilling, so I encourage my kids to embrace a certain level of weirdness. There’s an aspect of weirdness that can’t be denied, that is and should be part of life. I’m not making programmes about canals, or people who collect pieces of string. They all in different ways take you to the heart of the human condition in quite a deep way.”
As our time together comes to a close, we talk about the ways Louis switches off from the darker aspects of his programme making—watching horror movies with his wife, “I love a good scare”—and reflect on how he’ll spend his time when he finally stops answering that call of the weird.
“I used to play a lot of video games—Silent Hill and Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto, GTA3. Now my children monopolise the PlayStation but occasionally they let me jump on and play FIFA 15 or something like that. I can’t even figure out which control does what at this stage, which is pretty pathetic, but I think I’ll save that stuff for when I’m retired. When I’m in an old people’s home I’ll get high and play video games all day—I’ll go back to being 16 years old again.”
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