I always want to know more about Louis Theroux, which is odd, since I’ve seen so much of him already. I’ve seen him hanging out with Nazis, auditioning for Broadway and undergoing liposuction. I’ve seen him chased by scientologists and given the runaround by Jimmy Savile. I’ve even seen him evading the insistent romantic advances of an American sex worker. Why am I still interested?
Perhaps it’s that his personality veers close to seeming like an act. The otterish earnestness, the jerky, mannequin physicality. The spectacles that feel like a prop. There is something in me that wants to lift the lid on the real Louis Theroux, to sweep the curtain aside with a flourish and say: ‘This is how he gets them to say what he wants!’ There is another part of me that would quite like to go for a drink with him.
It means that I can’t help projecting myself on to whoever he is interviewing, and end up feeling both flattered and perturbed by the clear but relentless attention beaming through those glasses. It happened again listening to Grounded with Louis Theroux, a new series of interviews conducted remotely during the three months we were all stuck indoors.
The subject list is strange: Boy George, Chris O’Dowd, someone called KSI. Why these people in particular? As it turns out, because many of them had turned down being interviewed by him before. They didn’t want to be looked at by Louis. I can easily see why you wouldn’t want to open yourself up to an interviewer who, as this series demonstrates, still leaves most of his field trailing in the gutter.
The standout hour is with Lenny Henry, who speaks sensitively about how his mother would hit him — once with a frying pan — leaving bruises and welts. It pains him to think about it now: he thinks she must have been unhappy, isolated. He was collared into touring with the scandalously racist stage show of the scandalously racist TV programme The Black and White Minstrel Show. His family came to see it and never discussed it with him. He thinks they were in shock. But at 17 — take a moment to remember how uncertain you were at 17 — he was already the chief breadwinner in the house. The show had paid for their fridge. What choice did he or his family have?
We get to hear Theroux and Jon Ronson swap pass notes on conspiracy theorists and compete over who has softer consonants. Miriam Margolyes is illuminating on the overlapping circles of indifference that British Jews experience, both from the world at large and from their own community. Only Helena Bonham Carter fails to register, coming and going like a Lib-Dem manifesto, leaving no impression.
Rose McGowan appears too. Raised in a cult, she became a homeless teenager who took speed to forget she was hungry. She thought Hollywood would be easier, but there she met Harvey Weinstein, whose harassment of her began with a violent rape and extended to a deep-reaching covert surveillance op to discredit her and prevent her from going public.
Theroux is quieter in this interview than in any other. He tentatively proffers his own brush with evil: the now-famous interview with Jimmy Savile, in which the disgraced man comes within a hair’s breadth of accidentally confessing to his crimes. It’s an experience that has haunted Theroux, who went on to make a self-flagellating documentary about his subsequent friendship with Savile.
‘It produces a sense of guilt,’ says Theroux, ‘because you feel that you failed to get to the truth.’
‘Well, you did,’ McGowan responds.
Theroux’s voice, which is always three decibels too loud, sinks to a whisper. ‘I guess I did.’ For a breathy moment, we seem to hear him completely vulnerable, beaten.
Or do we? McGowan is not known for pulling her punches. I couldn’t help but wonder: was he setting himself up to be punched? Interviewing KSI, a popular YouTuber with a lovable, boyish giggle, Theroux asks about the rift that his career has caused in his family. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
‘What that says to me,’ says Theroux, ‘is that you’ve got the maturity now to realise it doesn’t need to be put out in the public arena.’
The talk lapses into a long silence. The YouTube star teeters audibly on the edge of saying more about his personal life. Then he starts howling with laughter. ‘God damn it, Louis! You’re doing your thing! My girlfriend’s read your book, you’re doing this on purpose!’
And the conversation moves swiftly on.
He’s not a hangman, but he doesn’t mind giving out a bit of rope.
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