Now it's Louis Theroux's turn to open up on his marriage and failings

Let’s go Theroux the looking glass! For 25 years he’s nosed into the private lives of everyone from Jimmy Savile to neo-Nazis. Now for the first time Louis Theroux turns the cameras on himself

  • For years Louis Theroux has thrown the spotlight on others by interviewing them
  • Now, along with wife Nancy, he has created a four-part retrospective with a twist
  • His inner life will be aired in Louis Theroux: Life On The Edge, coming soon, BBC2

Louis Theroux is the master of bringing the camera into other people’s lives, and homes, shining a light on all manner of dottiness and dysfunction.

He has been doing it for 25 years now – half his life – and he’s clearly well versed in what will appeal to viewers.

So during his most recent filming stint, with director Tom Barrow – a long-term colleague and friend – Louis was pressing for the more intrusive shots: the ones of the subject standing in his boxer shorts, putting on his trousers, for instance.

He suggested a shower scene. ‘Well not coming out of the shower; maybe in the shower, filming through the glass,’ he clarifies. And Tom thought this was a good idea? Louis laughs. ‘He put the brakes on there. I think the shower was his limit.’

Louis Theroux, 50, will turn the cameras on himself for the first time in his new show Louis Theroux: Life On The Edge, coming soon to BBC2

Little wonder. Because the subject this time was Louis himself. The cameras were filming in his own home, for the first time, really.

Today he explains why, after more than two decades of being private about his own life, he’s changed tack and put it all out there. Well, almost all. ‘You’ve got to remember that when I was starting out, my contemporaries were people like Chris Morris, who did Brass Eye and, a little later, Sacha Baron Cohen.

‘It was deeply naff to embrace the notion of celebrity. That would make you Keith Chegwin. So I decided I wasn’t going to go to movie openings, red carpet events. I’d draw a veil over my personal life too.

‘Then, 25 years go by and that doesn’t seem so important. Also, I realised I don’t have much to hide. And there’s an argument that if I’m going to dig into other people’s lives, then I should be up for a little self-excavation as well.’

The show will feature his home life with wife Nancy, a producer at the BBC when they met, with whom he set up a production company last year (pictured, together)

Then there is lockdown, of course, which has turned all the old certainties on their head. And economic reality, one presumes.

He and his wife Nancy, a producer at the BBC when they met, set up a production company last year, and had grand plans for projects, but Covid-19 stopped play. The combination of events had him looking inwards – he turned 50 during lockdown – and also backwards.

Jimmy Savile and Louis Theroux in When Louis Met Jimmy

‘We were looking about for things we could do, and because it was the 25th anniversary of me starting out in the business, we hit on the idea of drawing a lot of the films I’d done into one package, and combining it with some footage of me at home.’

The result is Life On The Edge, a retrospective with a twist. In the four-part BBC2 series Louis pootles about at home while revisiting some of his most iconic films, catching up via Zoom with some of those who took part.

We Zoom today. He has a lockdown beard and lived-in look – a far cry from the clean-cut rather geeky figure who became famous with his Weird Weekends series in which he hung out with hardcore evangelists, porn stars and UFO believers.

He was fascinated revisiting his early films because they were funny in all senses. The subjects were often comedic, ‘then you have my weird haircuts, my funny glasses and me as a sort of slightly naive, unworldly, gangly character’.

He spent weeks agonising about how to work all the films together into some order, finally deciding on grouping them by themes – Family, Belief, Crime and Pleasure. Now he frets (he is a champion fretter, it turns out) that the early films were too funny, that he was inviting viewers to simply laugh at these oddball Americans (most of the extreme subjects were American, in the beginning).

The new series shows Louis at home where he revisits certain characters he has met over the years via Zoom

Louis seen here in his documentary, Louis Theroux Surviving America’s Most Hated Family

REMEMBER THE ONE WHEN… 

  • Christine Hamilton flirted with Louis when he met her and her husband Neil, a disgraced ex-MP, in 2001. Filming took a bizarre turn when police questioned the couple over a rape accusation, which proved to be false. 
  • Living for six weeks at a brothel or ‘legal sex retreat’ in Nevada in 2003, Louis often found himself blushing…
  • Meeting neo-Nazis in the US in 2003, Louis was introduced to ten-year-old twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede, who sang songs praising Adolf Hitler. 
  •  Louis was told that he faced eternal damnation when he met the evangelicals of Westboro Baptist Church.
  • After making a film about white supremacists in South Africa, he found himself on a hit list posted by the neo-Nazi Combat 18 terrorist group. Cilla Black and Lenny Henry were also on it. ‘I wasn’t worried,’ says Louis. ‘They had a lot of names to get through before they got to me.’
  • He followed BBC presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile around for a 2000 film that proved to be his most notorious yet. Louis struggles with the fact he failed to pin down Savile about rumours of sexual deviance.

Some of the films were full of ‘silliness’. In a way, going back to them was a chance to maybe redress this. ‘To peel the layers off,’ he says. ‘I was certainly a different person when I made them. Quite insecure about what I was doing. They were quite tongue-in-cheek.’

His later work was darker, exploring mental illness and addiction. These are tougher watches and, being Louis Theroux, he frets some of these films were too dark. His wife reminded him recently that it’s OK to be silly too. In fact, it’s one of the things he does best. ‘In lockdown I’ve been doing a podcast which can be quite silly, and that’s good.’

What’s interesting about the retrospective is what it leaves out. None of his celebrity subjects are included. Was this because his programme on Jimmy Savile is a particularly difficult watch, given what emerged about the DJ’s sex offending? He says not. ‘We decided not to include any of the celebrity ones, which isn’t to say that we won’t, in the future.’

We shall return to the subject of Savile, but first let’s look at the footage from his own home. So what do we learn about life chez Theroux? Well, the family – he has three sons, Albert, Frederick and Walter, aged 14, 12 and five – is disappointingly low on the dysfunction scale. The footage of him at home doesn’t involve much more than pottering around, making the kids their breakfast, but he does joke about being part of the cult of Joe Wicks.

‘I discovered him early in lockdown and he’s brilliant. I’ve used the time to get fit. I was never overweight, and I’ve always cycled, but I had this idea that one day I’d go to a health farm or join a gym, and dedicate myself to getting fit. Lockdown gave me an opportunity to do that.

‘So every morning I was out there doing Joe Wicks, and I’ve kept it going. And when I hit 50 I felt quite pleased with my general sense of well-being. It’s cumulative too. 

‘Each day you get a little injection of whatever it is – endorphins, I guess – and in time, you feel stronger.’ Very aware of how he’ll sound in the edit, he stops. ‘I mustn’t go on. I’m in danger of sounding like a cult member.’ But the results are evident when he turns up bristling with energy for our photo shoot, atop the Courthouse Hotel in London’s Shoreditch.

The documentary star says he has always avoided being classed as a celeb which has meant keeping most of his personal life private

So what did his wife make of him mooching around at home? ‘Obviously I showed her any bits that had her or the kids in it. She only asked for one thing to be removed. There was a shot through a doorway, into a room that was extremely messy.’

And the kids? They sound reassuringly unfazed by their dad documenting their breakfast habits. Have they seen some of his sex documentaries, such as the one where he was filmed semi-naked being fed strawberries, or the one when he moved into a brothel? Er, no, he says. ‘Mostly they think I’m ‘cringe’,’ he says. ‘That’s a word that’s used a lot.’

The idea of using his family as subjects is clearly there, though. He starts to quote Nietzsche, who said that ‘at times of peace, the warrior goes to war against himself’, and wonders if this is happening with him. ‘Prevented from digging into other people’s lives and how they make sense of themselves, I’ve been doing it to our own family, a little bit.’

Episode: Louis Theroux: Take My Baby. Louis with Brandon and Jessica who planned to put their unborn child up for adoption

He’s a compelling mix of the deeply serious and the deeply daft, and it’s sometimes hard to place which Louis you are getting. We talk about his childhood, which was quite unusual.

His father, the travel writer Paul Theroux, was a colourful character, and a philanderer. His mother was a BBC World Service producer. He was a sensitive child, socially awkward, and is at once proud of his parents and very aware that a series of au pairs helped raise him. ‘It certainly made us a bit unusual. At school, other mothers would come in as school helpers, slicing oranges or making lemonade for the teams. My mum was at work. She wasn’t going to do that.’

So how does he feel he turned out? ‘I think you’d have to ask someone who knows me. I think I’m pretty well adjusted. I mean, I like to think I am a kind and thoughtful person. As a human being, I’d give myself six or seven out of ten.’ There’s a pause. ‘That’s a joke.’ Later, when we’re talking about parenting, he does it again, musing, ‘How would I grade myself on my parenting?’ Answer: quite harshly.

Louis Theroux: Selling sex. Louis with contributor Victoria

Louis outside the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, California, for his documentary, My Scientology Movie

He says he has endless patience with his youngest son. Less patience with the older two. ‘My wife says I’m better with younger children, which is the wrong way round really, isn’t it? I am good doing jigsaw puzzles and Duplo and sticking things with glue.’

With the older ones? ‘Sometimes I feel as if I’m channelling my dad,’ he says. ‘I hear myself and think, ‘You sound like your dad when he was grumpy or snappish.’ But as long as I’m aware of it, it’s OK, isn’t it? I think you have to remind yourself there are more risks with being overbearing than underbearing. Those moments of regret are more likely to come when you think you’ve been too harsh.

‘I think every parent has at least a few moments of feeling like they are the worst parent in the world, when you feel that you’ve failed in some profound way. If you don’t feel like that… well, you are either doing brilliantly or you aren’t thinking about it hard enough.’

He thinks deeply, but the jury is out on how emotionally intelligent he is. In his autobiography, published last year, he made an attempt at a mea culpa about the failure of his first marriage, to Susanna Kleeman, which lasted from 1998 to 2001.

His inability to communicate – or express any feelings at all – seems to have been a major factor. Typical man, then?

‘I think you have to be very hesitant when making broad generalisations based on gender, but I think the stereotype of the man who lacks a certain level of emotional intelligence is not wholly without merit.’ In his book he talks about approaching relationships ‘like a man radio operator trying to make out a signal through a code of static’.

Louis Theroux: The Night in Question, Louis with Saif Khan who was accused of sexual assault at Yale University 

He met Nancy when they worked together and it sounds as if she is shrewd and sensible. ‘All those things I lack, she has in spades,’ he says. ‘She is extremely perceptive and intuitive. She will often see more than I do. It’s actually a running joke. I’m quite literal-minded. I like things being spelled out.’

He wonders if this is why he is an award-winning documentary-maker, suggesting that his life-long habit of simply not ‘getting’ stuff – and having to have it spelled out – is part of the secret of his success. ‘Even as a child, I’d say, ‘But why does the man have his mouth open?’ I never understood. I think maybe this feeling of not understanding quite a lot about life has helped me.’

Of course, there will always be situations where you don’t dig enough. His 2000 documentary on Jimmy Savile was well received at the time, and a stunning piece of television in its own right, revealing Savile as an oddball, slightly creepy and a bit weird.

Louis Theroux – Altered States – Louis with (clockwise from top left) Joelle, Marilyn, AJ and Mattias. They are part of an extended polyamorous family in Portland, Oregon, USA

It included the revelation that he’d been talked to by the police about some unsavoury behaviour in a nightclub. It fell well short of unveiling him as a child abuser, though, which eventually put Louis in a difficult position.

He revisited the subject in a follow-up documentary in 2016, and is torn about what to say about Savile now. ‘You can either see the first film as a success, in as much as I revealed a lot about who he was. Or you can see it as a failure to get to the whole truth.’

He points out the 2000 programme was filmed in a very different environment. No one was looking for sex offenders hiding in plain view then.

‘What many people have woken up to is the extent to which predatory behaviour exists across society – in showbusiness, in the corporate world. Since Savile, you’ve had Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein. The danger in focusing on Savile is that you blind yourself to a world in which predators have been able to get away with terrible things.’

What shows will he be making next? Well, he seems quite a convert to the podcast formula. In his BBC podcast Grounded, produced during lockdown, he’s interviewed the likes of Boy George, Gail Porter and Helena Bonham Carter. ‘They’ve been fun to do. They’ve taught me that it’s OK to laugh and be silly. A bit of silliness is sometimes required.’  

  • Louis Theroux: Life On The Edge is coming soon to BBC2

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