Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge review – 25 years of oddball odysseys

This new four-part series sees the documentary maker revisit the highlights of his long and varied career, from cornering hucksters to run-ins with neo-Nazis

Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge (BBC Two), which showcased the highlights of the documentary maker’s 25 years in the weirdo-pursuit biz, probably wants to be called a retrospective rather than a clip job. I am feeling generous, so I will let you choose. But there were a lot of clips, and not much else.

But what clips they were. The first episode of four thematically arranged outings dealt with matters of belief. So we met – or re-met, if you remember his first appearance in the inaugural episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends in 1998 – Colonel Bo Gritz. The real-life inspiration for Rambo and the founder of the Almost Heaven covenant community, Gritz and his ilk were last seen hunkering down in the Idaho hills and prepping for war with the federal government and the ensuing New World Order. A brief Zoom call to catch up with the head of the community’s leading family, Mike, revealed that he has retained his old certainties and is impressed with Trump’s fearlessness in sticking it to the gubernatorial Man.

Next up was more 1998 footage, this time of the extraordinary sight of the Rev Robert Short channelling unearthly lifeforms in the Weird Weekends’ episode about UFOs and the Alien Resistance Movement (“We have killed extraterrestrials – we consider ourselves warrior knights”). The year after that it was Black Nationalism, followed by the Whites film in 2000, and Louis and the Nazis after that. During his interview with the neo-Nazis in their memorabilia-lined garage, they became suspicious that Theroux was Jewish (“A Jew would not be allowed on my property … Are you a fucking Jew?”). It remains utterly horrible to watch, especially when Theroux stood his ground and would neither confirm nor deny it. And it is all the more upsetting when you realise its relevance has only increased since its first broadcast 20 years ago.

A glimmer of hope was vouchsafed us by the other participants, Lamb and Lynx Gaede, who had been formed by their white supremacist mother into the Holocaust-denying pre-teen pop group Prussian Blue. They publicly renounced their (her) beliefs nearly a decade ago. “Racist beliefs are taught and learned,” they said in another Zoom chat with Theroux. “And they can also be unlearned.”

“Belief” as a theme was stretched to include the near sociopathic self-belief embodied by the likes of the motivational speaker and performance hypnotist Marshall Sylver. He has gone bald since we last saw him but he has also avoided, via a hung jury, a conviction for obtaining money under false pretences so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

That made the absence of Theroux’s most famous true believers – the members of the Westboro Baptist church (wavers of “God Hates Fags” placards and picketers of US servicemen’s funerals on the grounds that they died protecting a country that does not persecute “degenerates”) all the more conspicuous. Maybe Theroux’s two films about that spiritually twisted clan are being saved for another episode, possibly titled Regrettable Oxygen of Publicity Given to Hate Groups Who Then Gained a Profile and a Power the World Could Well Have Done Without. We shall see.

The clips were interspersed with scenes of Theroux rooting through his loft and study for the original research material while musing on the reasons he was drawn to investigate certain groups and people. As ever, he was far too controlled and cautious to give anything much away. Disingenuousness has always been a notable part of the Theroux brand – or a tool of his trade, for this is not a criticism – but it could perhaps have been set slightly more aside for these supposedly reflective pauses on a quarter century of work. Maybe he could have permitted us a little more insight into his process, rather than repeating previous explanations such as being drawn to those who have faith because, as a long-time atheist, he can muster none of his own.

Other motivations were mentioned – “There is a pleasure in seeing someone do something really weird,” he said after one of the Rev Short’s convulsive inter-planetary channelling sessions. “I don’t want to complicate it – it’s funny.” But that was about it for honest commentary or new insight. A documentary about Theroux would almost certainly be a meta-step to far, but it would be interesting to see him pushed on matters of, say, unintended consequences, unspoken potential complicity, the boundary between disingenuousness and lying or hypocrisy. They are not charges to be brought – just areas of discussion I would be intrigued to hear his thoughts on.

In the meantime, I will keep you informed of if and when the Hamiltons are due to reappear. We are all too fragile to cope with that without due warning. Stay safe.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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