Louis Theroux is a documentary maker, known worldwide for his probing investigations, and his capacity to remain cool and collected, even when in the most uncomfortable of company. Often uninvited, he takes us into the homes and hangouts of racists and extremist of one unpleasant variety or another - people we would not like to have as neighbours, yet about whose minds we want to know more.
On other occasions he introduces us to kindness and insightfulness, sometimes in unexpected settings. (For good reason, his production company is named “Mindhouse”, and you may have spotted this in the title sequence of his recently screened TV documentary series – “Forbidden America”)
Theroux has developed a unique laid back style of interviewing, that has become a defining characteristic of his documentaries. Whether it is in a US high security jail or a sex worker’s kitchen, his pursuit of the truth is relentless.
His documentaries are often not only informing but also inspiring (such as when he visited a care home for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and showed how you can remain in love even after you have forgotten your name). He is a master of discretion and of using thoughtful pauses, relentless in his questioning, but never pressurising.
For many, Louis Theroux must seem to be a paragon of good sense and moderation, but all of that was put to the test when the pandemic arrived. He did not take kindly to being confined to his albeit comfortable family home, and soon the pressure began to show.
Being suddenly immersed in so much domesticity at times left him in a sea of uncertainties, about himself, his relationships, and his work. Tidying the wires behind the TV may have helped calm his nerves, but it wasn’t something he was used to.
His aptly titled “Theroux the Keyhole” takes us into the Theroux household, with its newly emerging petty family squabbles (“So you haven’t emptied the dishwasher?”). There is also his growing fondness for alcohol that somehow coexists with a keep fit regime. “Exercise helps” he writes, adding disquietingly: “and also alcohol. The two men in my corner are Joe Wicks and Jack Daniels”.
People who make their living from words often exaggerate: His description of his household as “cabin-crazy” is hardly justified. This may indeed have been the case for many people confined to crowded, cramped, accommodation, who had young children and were on limited income, but assuredly it was not so for either Theroux, or indeed for so many of us who occasionally felt a little too sorry for ourselves.
Nonetheless, Theroux is not given to wilful self-pity, and there is a refreshing honesty about his admission to experiencing “amid the panic and sadness” of the pandemic “a strange feeling of privilege to be alive at a historic moment. That I, who was spared the scourge of two world wars and famines, have lived to see a world upended by pestilence”. On speculation that Lockdown might produce a baby boom, he is sceptical, reflecting that “nothing puts lead in your pencil, like being locked down in a house with your kids 24/7, loading and unloading the dishwasher.”
“Theroux the Keyhole” by Louis Theroux and published by MACMILLAN is available in paperback and is subtitled the “Diaries of a Grounded Documentary maker”.