I watched nothing but Louis Theroux films for a whole, weird weekend – and here's what I learned

From documentaries about neo-Nazis to soul-searching mea culpas, you can gain a lot from concentrated time with a master

Louis Theroux’s first series for television, in 1998, was a series of documentaries called Weird Weekends. The central conceit was that Theroux, an innocent abroad, would spend time in a community that was considered fringe, and tell us their stories.

Since the series first aired, there is now enough Louis Theroux available on streaming services that it is possible to spend a weird weekend entirely with him. So that is what I did. I sat inside and watched nothing but Louis Theroux films for a whole, weird weekend.

I didn’t move through his oeuvre sequentially. Stan has more than 35 Louis Theroux documentaries haphazardly displayed – the titles like a set of playing cards that have been shuffled and thrown down at random. I started only a few years back, with Talking to Anorexia (2017) and Drinking to Oblivion (2016) and then went back to 1998 for Weird Weekends, before fast-forwarding to 2007 for a show on plastic surgery, and so forth. Theroux’s work is easy to dip in and out of. But there is something about taking in the creative products of a long career in one concentrated sweep that allows you to see an edifice emerging, the overall aim of one man’s life’s work: illuminating and humanising the misunderstood.

Before Tiger King, there was Louis Theroux’s Beware of the Tiger: Theroux with former big cat breeder Joe Exotic.
Before Tiger King there was Louis Theroux’s Beware of the Tiger. Theroux with former big cat breeder Joe Exotic. Photograph: unknown/BBC

I began my weird weekend with Louis by watching his 2017 special on anorexia. The documentary received criticism for focusing on the very extreme example of eating disorders (in Australia anorexia and bulimia occur in less than 1% of the general population, while other kinds of eating disorders, such as binge eating disorders, affect a much greater number).

But focusing on the most harrowing aspects of eating disorders does make for gripping television.

Theroux spends time in two of London’s largest eating disorder clinics, meeting patients and grappling with the thorniness of the disease. Why do so many patients not want to get better? What is the best way to treat them? How do you stop people from dying?

Attending weigh-ins, eating with them in the clinic, visiting their homes and their parents, sitting in on appointments with doctors – Theroux is pretty gentle here. He’s part therapist, part friend. His questions are searching rather than pointed, but mostly he listens, and the women open up to him.

Next up is Savile. This is Theroux’s mea culpa. In the years since Theroux filmed a documentary with him in 2000, Jimmy Savile was revealed to be a sex offender on a grand scale. But for Australian audiences, a lot of the backstory is missing. How did this bizarre and incredibly grim looking man in a string vest end up becoming a beloved children’s entertainer? How on earth could Theroux – evidently so intuitive and intelligent – miss all the signs?

A promotional shot from Theroux’s 2000 documentary When Louis Met Jimmy.
A promotional shot from Theroux’s 2000 documentary When Louis Met Jimmy. Photograph: Justin Evans/BBC TWO

Theroux goes back and interviews some of Savile’s victims and interrogates his own work. “What did I miss? What did I get wrong? I really had to look at my own conscience,” says Theroux.

One of the victims turns the tables on him. “Do you feel like you were groomed?”

No, because he wasn’t abused, Theroux says.

“Mentally groomed,” she says. “He mugged you off.”

Then I go all the way back to Weird Weekends. Filmed when Theroux was in his 20s, all gangly limbs and John Lennon specs and oversized shirts, he appears to be more easily swept along by the enthusiasms of his subjects; more agreeable and less likely to be confrontational. There are five episodes, all from series one, on Stan. I start with an episode on Christianity. Theroux is in Texas, where he visits an assortment of Christians: some televangelists who hope he’ll decide to become Born Again, a man who hopes to convert people by driving around the state with Christian bumper stickers, and a group called The Family who walk around a nightclub district singing Christian hymns in the hope of converting passersby.

Theroux doesn’t ask too many hard questions in this early series. His shtick is to fit in and make people comfortable, so they’ll relax and maybe reveal something of themselves. He’s charming and young, but the early shows lack the ambition to go beyond the first layer of skin.

By 2016, there is less drift (and also less joy) but far greater empathy and much deeper engagement with his subjects. He’s less about trying to fit in, and more about illuminating subcultures from different angles.

Louis Theroux with members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Louis Theroux with members of the Westboro Baptist church. Photograph: Freddie Clare/BBC

It’s evident, as my weird weekend with Louis progresses back and forth through time, how good he is at interviewing people. He’s not even really interviewing them – he’s having a conversation, trying to create a connection.

This empathetic connection to his subjects is Theroux’s greatest contribution to the documentary genre. He’s made films about sex work and pornography, addiction, religion and far-right political extremism. His subjects have traditionally been in peril, marginalised, misunderstood or just plain odd. He is our bridge from their world to ours. His empathy is not merely a passive flow of connection and goodwill towards subjects but involves the work of listening, challenging them, spending time with them and properly seeing them in all their humanity, flaws and complexity.

Friday turns into Saturday, which turns into Sunday. I watch Louis watch people shoot up. I watch Louis have liposuction in LA. I watch Louis watching people make porn. I watch Louis hang out with paedophiles and Nazis and the most hated family in America. I learn something new and fascinating about human nature in each episode.

After 10 hours of documentaries, I wonder if the universities should just shut down the journalism schools and make people just watch Louis Theroux’s shows. It’s all there. How to gain trust with a closed group. How to interrogate someone’s position without totally alienating them. How to give someone the space to tell their own story. When to go hard with questions, when to pull back, how to learn from your mistakes when you miss the story, and how, without empathy, the stories will die through lack of heart.

• Louis Theroux’s documentaries are now streaming in Australia on Stan


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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