Louis Theroux wants to ask me something: “Are you not curious about my eyebrow?” We are technically in the last minute of our conversation, after which he’ll go to the east London studio next door to be photographed. In fact, we’ll talk for slightly longer, as I have yet to elaborate my theory that everything that went both right and wrong for generation X was, if not caused then certainly represented by him. “I’m not going to tell you now because you didn’t ask,” he continues, but he can’t let it go: “Have you not followed me on Instagram?” (Actually I have, so I know it’s alopecia. He’s had it since January, and worries about it a lot, initially because it made his beard grow into a tiny and slightly lopsided Hitler moustache. Seriously though – you can hardly see it). “I would never ask that,” I say. “Why?” “Because it’s rude.” “It’s not rude to ask. It’s rude to expect an answer.” “OK, I don’t know the difference between those things,” I say.
He pauses, then demonstrates: “Can I ask you a question about your hair? And feel free not to answer.”
“Do you dye it?”
“There. That wasn’t hard.”
He thinks he’s proved his own point; he’s actually proved mine: only Louis Theroux can interview like Louis Theroux. He never sounds rude, or cheap, or critical, and he often sounds a bit random, so subjects – faced with the combination of his total acceptance and a naive curiosity it would be churlish not to indulge – slip into the conversation like a warm bath. And maybe the inveterate liars among those subjects might continue to lie, and maybe some people, even at their most honest, are less interesting than others, but they always show themselves.
During a Q&A after a screening of the new season of Louis Theroux Interviews the following week, he makes a distinction between his documentary style – distilled in his very first work for camera three decades ago on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, where he’d do breathtaking segments on, say, the Ku Klux Klan – and his encounters with celebrities, which this series include the boxer Anthony Joshua, Joan Collins, singer Raye, actor and rapper Ashley Walters, Pete Doherty and Chelsea Manning. His documentaries, he says, were “the easiest job in the world. If I turn up at San Quentin prison, I just say: ‘What did you do? Why did you do that? Really? What’s that man doing?’” He contrasts that with set-piece interviews with people like Chelsea Manning: “I own that occasion, I can’t come across as cringing or anxious.”
I’m not so sure. To my eye, Theroux alters remarkably little from one context to another, one era to another: whether as a speccy British nobody going behind the scenes in the porn industry in the late 90s, or an accomplished transatlantic somebody interviewing people who are objectively a lot less famous than him in the 2020s, his manner is unchanged. Completely non-judgmental, any self-consciousness camouflaged beneath comic self-deprecation, he is utterly intrusive but in a way that is charming, like a dog who bowls up and sticks its nose in your pocket. There’s a lovely moment in the Anthony Joshua interview when Theroux asks, straight out, whether one of the world’s best heavyweight boxers thinks he could beat him in a fight. Joshua says yes, he could, but not because he doubts Theroux’s strength, just because he probably doesn’t have a boxing IQ. It’s not a revealing moment in the classic sense, because obviously Joshua could beat Theroux. But you see a lot of the boxer’s character in his tactful, funny, considered answer, which you have to admit is what the whole thing’s supposed to be about.
Louis Theroux grew up in south London. His father, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, is from Massachusetts, and his mother is the British journalist, therapist and writer Anne Theroux. I actually went to the same primary school as him, a standard Wandsworth 70s state school that socialist boho parents sent their kids to before sending them private. “My mum was left-wing, a socialist,” he says. “My dad was politically undefinable, a free-thinker, a literary novelist.” “Yeah, I’ve heard of your dad.” “You should be interviewing him, he’s really interesting.”
“I was taken out aged about eight or nine,” he says of the school. “It was a big wrench. My recollection of primary school is that I was really happy there. And then I went off to this prep school, and I wasn’t happy. I really wanted to fit in – I’m a bit of a people-pleaser. I thought, ‘I can do this. I’ll just copy what everybody else is doing.’ And I think I overcompensated, and I got the nickname Posh Claude. Because I was trying so hard to be posh. It was definitely the unhappiest time in my childhood. Home life was fine. I just wasn’t happy at school.”
Theroux then describes a short story his father wrote called Children in this very equanimous way: “He’s a bit of an anglophile, and he liked the idea of us learning Latin and getting a classical education. But at the same time, he’s a working-class boy from Medford, deeply distrustful of authority, so he was conflicted. And he’d overhear us, all the kids, saying, ‘Where are you going on skiing holiday? Oh, no, Klosters is rubbish.’ Basically, he’s got a story about a father putting his kids in private school and then being dismayed by them becoming little twerps, which I think” – a fraction of a pause, Theroux’s comic pause deployment is fabulous – “may be founded in fact.” There is something in the extensive chronicling, the soup-to-nuts transparency of the Theroux family, that must a) be hard to live with, and b) create an unusual tension between the public and the private.
Not only would very close readers of Paul Theroux’s work know that he maybe sometimes thought his sons were twerps, they would also have a partial but legible account of the parents’ marriage, which became more complete two years ago when Anne wrote The Year of the End. Detailing infidelities on both sides, it wasn’t necessarily untypical of 70s and 80s marital turbulence – it was confusing; a lot of men and women who thought they were feminists had actually been forged in the patriarchal 50s – but of course it’s unusual for it to be in the public domain. “Technically, in a strict legal sense, I believe they got divorced in 1993,” Theroux says. “But they’d been separated from about 89, 90. My mum sometimes would joke that when we left home my dad thought, ‘I’ll do that as well.’” He had gone to Oxford by this time. “But here’s the thing: they were very good parents, and even though there were ups and downs with respect to infidelities and definitely arguments, it was all within the bandwidth of normal – normal is a terrible word. But I guess the best way of putting it would be, I do feel lucky for feeling loved. I was in the lucky position of taking that for granted.”
In the event, he says, “When they split up, I thought, ‘This is different. This is a plot twist.’ I felt fairly boring before that. Me being able to say to my girlfriend, ‘I think I’m gonna go down to London this weekend and make sure my mum’s all right,’ put me in an unexpected caretakey role that felt pretty cool.”
It’s still tricky, though – two and a half memoirists in a family of four writers (Louis has written Gotta Get Theroux This and Theroux the Keyhole in 2019 and 2021; the second chronicler is Anne; Paul is half a memoirist in the sense that if you were poring over his work for autobiographical clues, you’d find them; only Louis’s brother, Marcel Theroux, writes novels you couldn’t say that about). Who’s trespassing on whose memories, if everyone’s at it? “I’m definitely not going to umpire that ethical conundrum,” he says, decisively. Well, he wouldn’t be allowed to umpire it … “Right, yes, I’d be on the pitch. OK, good. So I don’t have to.”
Never minding ethics, it makes sense of one thing: Louis Theroux’s guileless, surely-you-don’t-mind-telling-me-this-thing delivery. He has this foundational belief that is deeper than self-confidence: sooner or later, everyone’s going to tell everybody everything.
After Theroux finished at university, he toyed with the idea of a regular career. “My parents weren’t judgmental. I think if I had been gay, they might have even quite liked it, for example. But the one time I saw a bit of judgment, was: I saw a thing on TV about how hard the civil service exam is. I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at exams,’ and I liked the idea of taking a really hard exam, and a job that required that. So I said to my mum, ‘I’m thinking about joining the civil service, there’s this really hard exam.’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s for you.’ That was like the bridge too far.”
Instead, he went to the US, got a job assisting an artisanal glass blower, and, “had a period of writing down pensees in a notebook, got a letter from a friend in London and she’d started doing reviews for Time Out, and I had a pang of jealousy and almost competitive anxiety”. He got a job on a weekly newspaper in San Jose, and by the time he was making films for TV Nation, that was pretty much the die cast – he had a peculiar gift for getting under the skin of subcultures, cracking open worlds with his charm that we definitely wouldn’t have been able to enter without it, and may not have realised we wanted to.
This led to the BBC’s Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends in the late 90s, fish-out-of-water explorations of misfit worlds: white separatism, rap, born-again Christianity. “It’s a kind of travel, if I can put it a bit pompously. You’re travelling through a world, it’s rule-based and culture-based. And you can plot a little journey as you learn the words and practices, and discover the forms of honour, and the pitfalls and the self-sabotaging qualities. It often struck me that so many of the worlds I was looking at required you to adopt a new name, whether it was gangster rap, or wrestling, boxing to an extent: it’s an identity that you’re taking on. That makes it somewhat voluntary, and prevents the story from being overly ethnographic. Why are you laughing?” I’m laughing at the idea that “travel” would be too pompous, but “overly ethnographic” would be fine. “Let’s say you were to do a story about the Amish. Because that’s a culture you’re born into, no one’s really exercising a great deal of free will in terms of the practices. Your journalistic leverage in conversations like that – ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ ‘Have you ever thought about going back to the old way?’ All of that has less merit in it. I think that’s clear. Right?” Actually yes: there is a moral clarity to his oeuvre. He is very exacting about his terms of engagement: he can only ridicule people in arenas they’ve entered by choice, and he by and large, white supremacists aside, does it with love.
This is the bit that I think is the best and worst of generation X, as personified by Louis Theroux: that we had this generationally heightened sense of the absurd, and it made a lot of discourse that was previously very tedious and cold suddenly very funny and warm. But it takes a civic toll when you don’t take anything seriously: you’re basically absent from the political sphere. The only Louis Theroux film I’ve ever found depressing is the one from a Miami Mega-Jail – there’s another in San Quentin, and truthfully they’re both pretty grim, but Miami was so brutal, so counter to any principle of decency in incarceration, that it simply didn’t do justice to the injustice to see it handled in that trademark, non-judgmental way. I wanted someone to say, “This is wrong.” “You wanted to see John Pilger in there?” Theroux asks. “Or Paul Foot,” I suggest. “Paul Foot would be perfect, get him in there,” he agrees enthusiastically, exploring the idea: “He’d be perfect, other than being dead. Even him dead would be better than me alive.” I bet Theroux would be really fun in a meeting, and I bet you’d come out having decided to do it his way, having forgotten what your point was.
The much more ubiquitous talking point of that question – what are the hard limits of playful neutrality – was the Jimmy Savile interview of 2000. It was the starting gun of BBC Two’s When Louis Met … series, and it was magnetically, spectacularly weird: Savile irascible but needy, Theroux feigning lack of control but actually in total control. It’s very sinister to watch now, because Savile’s impunity is so palpable, so sociopathic. Theroux, with his gentle curiosity and not-at-all-obvious conversational direction – Why didn’t Savile have an oven?; Didn’t he mind the years living with his mother because it meant he couldn’t bring girls home? – drew out a man who had never had a relationship with a woman and didn’t seem to have ever had any human feelings for one, except his mother. Theroux was basically showing us Norman Bates, which no one else had ever done. He does also ask Savile outright whether he’s a paedophile, and gets the non-answer that we “live in a funny old world”. In the end, there are some questions – did you rape and sexually abuse multiple women and children, and desecrate the dead? – which anyone can ask but only the criminal justice system can really nail down.
Nevertheless, when the truth came out about Savile, Theroux was haunted by it, and wished he’d taken one of the victims with him to confront Savile: he made a second film in 2016, speaking to victims and associates of Savile, trying to figure out what he and the rest of society could have done differently to get the truth out of a pathological liar. “I do think that ‘in plain sight’ idea can be overdone. It’s like what they say about quiz questions. It’s only obvious if you know the answer,” he says.
That documentary made a huge impact on the whole concept of the celebrity interview, because, “Jimmy Savile threw the doors open – in a way that was surprising, because even though he was over the hill, he was still very famous. Then we did Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee – that felt OK, but maybe a little bit diminished because the doors weren’t quite as open.” Neil and Christine Hamilton became the subject of a police inquiry into a sexual assault accusation during the filming: they were cleared, but these 10-day interviews had set a new norm that chat wasn’t enough, the viewer had to come away with some extraordinary hunch or insight, even if you didn’t know what it meant. “Anyone at the top of their game is not going to say, ‘Come and hang out with me for 10 days,’” he says. “And I was fine with it being defined as people who maybe weren’t totally at the top of their game, although that wasn’t quite how anyone wanted to position the series. ‘Do you want to be part of a series that’s about has-beens?’ So then we’re having to slightly pretend it’s not about people who are off-the-boil. I shouldn’t say that, because maybe Christine Hamilton will read that and think she was totally on-the-boil.”
The other side-effect was, of course, that When Louis Met … made Theroux both award-winning and pretty famous, which alters the dynamic. It would be as if the elephants started showing off in front of David Attenborough. It’d be cute, but would it be their authentic self? “Actually, in certain ways, it’s kind of helpful feeling a little bit known,” he says. “It means that people upped their game a bit, they were a bit friendlier with me.” In the last series of Louis Theroux Interviews, there’s an interview with Stormzy that almost feels like actual friends role-playing an interview. “I’d never met Stormzy before,” he says, “which gives the encounter a little frisson, a kind of realness. But the truth is, I had had friendly contact with him online, because I think I’d seen him wearing a Louis Theroux T-shirt in an Observer profile. Miranda Sawyer asked him about it in the interview, with understandable incredulity. And he said, ‘Louis Theroux is a G.’ And then of course, I was tickled beyond belief.” I’m compelled to check whether Louis Theroux produces his own T-shirts, or whether there’s a rogue agent out there. “No, no, I see no income from that. Am I a mug? Definitely in one sense, and probably in another.”
He has a production company, Mindhouse, with his wife, Nancy Strang (they’ve got three children), which he introduces as his hedge against the possibility that TV ever has enough of him. “There’s a sense of security that comes from being involved in programmes that you don’t actually present. So if I took to YouTube or Rumble and started saying the Earth is flat, if I expressed my real views about geology, and the construction of the universe – is the irony coming across?” “Not on the page,” I say. “Well, add it. If I came out and said something really weird on Rumble, and I was no longer viewed as brand-safe – something I’m not intending to do – I could still be involved in making programmes through Mindhouse. I’ve been doing this for 25, 30 years, there’s no reason to think it’ll end but that doesn’t mean it won’t.” I like that he’s scanned the horizon for any possible blot that would dent his popularity, and the only thing he can think of would have to come from the inside of his head; the only victim would be reason. He has the peace of a person who hasn’t made any enemies, but can that be true? Goddammit, if I’d been Louis Theroux, I’d have asked him.