Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion review – you’ll worry about your alcohol consumption

The docu-king is back in Britain with a brilliant, brutal look at addiction. Plus: the genius of Yehudi Menuhin, the 20th century’s greatest violinist

There’s a nice moment in Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion (BBC2, Sunday). Stuart, an antiques dealer with cirrhosis, is at the specialist liver unit at King’s College hospital in London having a lot of yellowish liquid drained from his bloated abdomen. Louis helps out, then sniffs the nearly overflowing container, comments that it has a nice head on it (appropriately, or maybe inappropriately, Stuart used to drink four or five pints of lager before coming home and drinking a couple of bottles of wine). Then he – Louis – raises an eyebrow, purses his lips, looks a little shocked, appears lost for words for a moment.

“Come on,” says Stuart, then he turns to the camera, rolls his eyes, points at Louis, says: “He always does this.” I think Stuart is familiar with Louis’s oeuvre.

It’s an interesting relationship Louis Theroux has with his subjects; it goes way beyond the normal journalist/interviewee dynamic. Here – with Stuart, Aurelie, Peter and Joe – he also acts as nurse, visitor, friend, liaison officer, Guys and Dolls singalong partner, French speaker, relationship adviser, awkward hugger/back-rubber, therapist, Therouxpist … It sure as hell works, though. Stuart, Aurelie, Peter and Joe are so gut-wrenchingly honest and open about themselves and their addiction, what may have led to it and whether or not they see any way out.

Probably not, in the case of Aurelie, who seems so smart and realistic and in some ways so together. Also not self-obsessed as addicts often are, but interested. “How does it make you feel when you see people like me?” she asks Louis, as they sit on a ping-pong table in a south London drinking park. Ha! That’s what he does, always asks how people are feeling, she’s Therouxed him, and he looks a bit uncomfortable about it, folding his arms, hugging himself awkwardly (well, that’s part of his shtick too, isn’t it – the awkward, uncomfortable thing?). And yet Aurelie is trapped in this cycle of despair, with her horrid abusive “boyfriend” and her cans of K cider and the devastating destruction caused by the drinking.

Cathy, the alcohol liaison nurse specialist, explains the way it usually goes. “One’s repertoire narrows and narrows to the point that alcohol is just the thing that you do, it’s the way that you cope with all adversity, and it’s your companion,” she says. “The logical endpoint to alcohol dependency is the person sitting in a room on their own with a bottle and nobody else left around them.”

Not that many nice moments, then. But it is good to have Louis back here in Britain, and on a subject that feels close to home and relevant. You may not know many gun-toting survivalists or neo-Nazis, but you will almost certainly know some serious drinkers, and know what alcohol is doing to their health, and to the NHS. Maybe you are one; certainly it made me think (worry) about my own alcohol consumption. Think (worry) about Louis’s too, actually. He, too, would drink four or five pints of lager, he says. “Or I might drink a bottle and a half, [tiny pause] maybe even two bottles, of wine, in an afternoon/evening. I wouldn’t do both, [tiny pause] I don’t think.”

Even so, a couple of words that might be cause for concern there, Louis: “two” and “afternoon”. Also the pauses, possibly, and the “I don’t think”. Something to maybe think about. Brilliant television, though – honest, brutal, numbing, sad.


Altogether more joyous is Yehudi Menuhin: Who Was Yehudi? (BBC4, Sunday). It wasn’t always so happy for the man himself, the 20th century’s greatest violinist. A curious, cosseted childhood left emotional scars. And genius isn’t easy to live with (I can tell you). But God, could he make maple, catgut, steel, horsehair and air sing. Sing and resonate with your soul.

Better than simply a trawl through his life, this shines a light into what his teacher Louis Persinger described as the “deep, mysterious and miraculous well” of Yehudi’s genius, and at his idealism and humanitarian work. Clemency Burton-Hill more than presents. She brings her personal experience; Menuhin heard her play when she was a teenager at the Royal College of Music, and asked her to study with him. She brings her own violin, improvises with Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, both seated cross-legged on the floor, as Menuhin did with Anoushka’s father Ravi. Beautiful.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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