Over the past two decades Louis Theroux has established himself as one of the most recognisable faces, and voices, on British television. From Weird Weekends to Altered States, Theroux’s remarkable documentaries have shed light on some of the darkest and least visited corners of modern society.
With his distinctive inquisitive, laconic, charmingly human approach, Theroux has been able to get closer than anyone else to some of society’s most controversial figures. And his strength in gaining enough trust from his subjects to subtly nudge them into exposing their own hypocrisy is perhaps best witnessed in his much-acclaimed documentaries on Westboro Baptist Church, American Neo-Nazis, and Jimmy Saville.
But crucial to Theroux’s success, is the fact that the dark is often juxtaposed with welcome light. Theroux’s commitment to throwing himself into his work has delivered great moments of humour and warmth, some intentional, some unintentional, and here are some of our favourites.
Theroux first made his mark on our screens in 1998 with Weird Weekends; a series of documentaries which explored marginal American subcultures. In the final episode of the series, Weird Christmas, Theroux invited someone from each of the previous episodes to his home for Christmas. Among his house guests was Reverend Short, an alien contactee, who wanted to help channel a special message from his friend Korton, of the planet Koldas.
As you might expect there’s a lot to take in, but beyond the failure of Theroux’s guests to keep a straight face, Mrs Short looking to her watch, wondering if her husband is nearly done is a personal highlight.
In 2007, Theroux went Gambling in Las Vegas for a special BBC Two documentary, as he tried to uncover the real world of the Las Vegas Hilton’s casino. The documentary saw Theroux join gamblers out on the floor, where his reasoning and apparent naivety was welcomed by those he met…well, until he started winning more than they were. The final cutaway in this clip is a sumptuous bit of editing.
Back to Theroux’s Weird Weekends and the final episode of series three in which our hero travelled to explore the gangsta rap scene of America’s ‘Dirty South’. Whilst there he teamed up with rappers Reece and Bigelow to pen his own rap, which he could perform in a live radio rap battle. His may not be the most emphatic of rap delivery, but “ridin’ in my Fiat, you really gotta see it” – you can’t argue with those bars.
In 2014, Theroux produces a trilogy of documentaries titled LA Stories, which looked at aspects of life in Los Angeles. The first of these, City of Dogs, explored the world that revolved around LA’s large canine population, from attack dogs to city strays. Perhaps the most remarkable of his interactions is with self-styled dog aggression expert, Brandon Fouche, who somehow turns an aggressive, muzzled German Shepherd into a domicile house pet in a matter of minutes.
Theroux’s documentaries have been a huge hit with audiences and critics, earning him something of a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2015 the BBC took the opportunity to sit him in front of a camera in a darkened room, and quiz him on the thoughts of his eclectic fanbase, by guessing the missing word from YouTube comments left beneath his documentaries. The result is as typically charming, self-deprecating and awkward as you might imagine.
Back to the second series of Weird Weekends, and the episode Off-Off Broadway in which Theroux travelled to New York to meet the many out of work actors and performers trying to establish a career on the stage. Wanting to understand the challenges facing the performers Theroux auditions for a job on a cruise ship, and so seeks some last minute singing coaching from a professional Musical Director. But it’s ok, he’s brought the Grease vocal score with him, if that’s any help at all.
That short singing lesson may not have secured a career on the ocean, but it wasn’t wasted, as we would discover some 17 years later. In 2016 Theroux appeared on episode 29 of The Adam Buxton Podcast where the pair, friends from school, ended an entertaining, meandering chat with a particularly unforgettable sing-song.
Of course, we can’t talk about Theroux, Adam Buxton and boogieing, without that clip. You know that clip right? As alluded to in the previous paragraph, the Buxton and Theroux were at school together at Westminster, along with the former's long-term comedy partner Joe Cornish. And it's clear that even back then the three future television stars were not averse to testing the boundaries of what was expected on screen.
Louis Theroux appeared at Southbank Centre on 25 September 2019, joining Adam Buxton in conversation to look back at two decades of groundbreaking television.
The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.