Louis Theroux: ‘I’ve always found anxiety in the most unlikely places’

The broadcaster, 51, talks about his first memories, last meal, lockdown resets and his brainier older brother

I always felt like the second fiddle to my older brother Marcel, who I thought was impossibly brilliant and mature and seemed to be reading more or less from the womb, although I’m two years younger, so I wouldn’t have known that first-hand. I was the sideshow: the funny one, the ridiculous one my grandparents said was “good with my hands”, which at five or six I embraced. It was only as I got older I realised it meant, “might not want to stay in school past 14 or 15”.

From childhood I’ve always found anxiety in the most unlikely places. Aged six I remember watching maypole dancers skipping around and braiding these ribbons into beautiful patterns at my south London primary school and even though I was still in the infants and wouldn’t be doing it for years, I thought, “I’m never going to be able to fucking dance around a maypole.” All through my life I’ve tended to experience future events in a negative way. It’s always been a source of looming discomfiture.

When I hit nine or 10, my parents thought I wasn’t learning enough so they sent me to a prep school, which felt like a throwback to the 1930s. The school seemed to pride itself on being old-fashioned and still used corporal punishment. Pupils were hit on the hand with a ruler, spanked on the bum with a plimsoll, or slapped on their thighs with a bare hand. I wasn’t a frequent transgressor, but it did happen a few times because I was an unintentional rulebreaker. I wasn’t intrinsically naughty, but in the act of attempting to amuse my friends I sometimes ran foul of the authorities.

I arrived at the place I’m at in life by accident. My programmes are down to hard work, having the right collaborators, but also just being in the right place at the right time. It’s not something I aspired to be or ever expected and I’m reluctant to get too comfortable in the role of whatever it is that I am. For me, it’s healthy to recognise how much of what I’ve done is down to good fortune. I’m superstitious. The minute I believe I’ve got it cracked, that’s when it will come crashing down.

I try to remind myself to relax and see the bigger picture and experience life as something more than a process of alleviating your existential insecurity by achieving professional success.

The pandemic has been a moment to pause and reset. I’ve had a sense of resetting my place in the world, with respect to my family and my work. I’ve been at home much more than normal, and for all the stress and the arguments and everyone getting very frayed at the edges, it’s felt like a blessing.

My status in our family is equivalent to the mice under our floorboards. If there’s an argument going and my wife Nancy is talking to one of my kids and I weigh in, the kids’ response will usually be: “Shut up Dad, no one asked you.”

What I’d love my obituary to say is: “The world of television is in mourning as news comes that esteemed documentary maker Louis Theroux died in the arms of his wife Nancy Strang on holiday in Crete while eating a slap-up meal of Korean delicacies including snails, fava and copious amounts of retsina.” What it will probably say is: “Forgotten BBC2 journalist, Louis Theroux, the man who failed to get to the truth about Jimmy Savile, died while crossing the road.”

Theroux The Keyhole is published by Macmillan at £20. Buy a copy for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com


Nick McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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