Louis Theroux returns to our screens this evening with a series about the autistic young and demented old. Here’s a reminder of his stranger encounters…
When Sir Jimmy Savile died, the first thing that came to mind was not Top of the Pops or Jim’ll Fix It – no, it was Louis Theroux’s disconcerting documentary, When Louis Met… Jimmy, that strange glimpse into the surreal world of the bleached entertainer.
While not being Louis’ most famous documentary (that’s surely 2003’s The Most Hated Family in America), it’s nevertheless one of the purest examples of what he does best: weirdness.
Louis’ been exploring weirdness from the start: his first three series, Weird Weekends, and its sequel in book form, The Call of the Weird, were both concerned with some of the oddest subcultures imaginable, everything from diehard UFO believers to Thai brides to swingers. And it didn’t get any less strange when he turned to the world of celebrity in When Louis Met…
After this came his BBC2 specials. These started well, with Louis and the Brothel, and then, later, documentaries like Gambling in Las Vegas and The Most Hated Family in America. Sometime around 2008, however, Louis lost interest in the weird, and suddenly thought that he could throw on a bullet-proof vest and pretend to be a Serious Reporter covering some Big Issues. See, for example, Law and Disorder in Philadelphia/Johannesburg/Lagos or The Ultra Zionists. These were documentaries without heart – bland reportage.
Not long after, with this year’s two-part Miami Mega Jail, it seemed like we were in for more of the same, but as the emphasis was placed not on any sort of Hard-Hitting-Look-At-The-American-Justice-System agenda but instead on the strange lives of the jail’s inhabitants, the documentary came alive. The same could be said of Louis’ latest, America’s Most Dangerous Pets, which began as though hoping to take a superficial look at a serious issue, but instead ended up like an episode of Weird Weekends – in large part thanks to people like former cop/magician/pet store owner ‘Joe Exotic’, he of the blonde mullet and two boyfriends.
Louis’ talent ultimately lies not in investigating big issues, but in exploring everyday human weirdness. There’s barely a single one of his documentaries that doesn’t have a memorable and fascinating set of people at its core and, with over forty to his name, it’s a difficult task to choose the weirdest. There are, however, several that surely no one could ever tire of watching.
When Louis Met… Jimmy
Firstly, Louis’ aforementioned encounter with the nation’s favourite cigar-toting enigma: the late Sir Jimmy Savile. Jimmy may’ve seemed weird anyway, but this documentary confirmed it beyond any doubt. Right from the start he comes across as defensive to the point of lunacy: he’s always trying to avoid looking like a fool, and any sort of questioning often elicits a terse and evasive response followed by a bizarre, “Next? Next?” But that’s nothing: at one point we’re treated to a tour of his dead mother’s bedroom, which is preserved as though she were alive – right down to a full wardrobe. It’s unforgettable, and even if Jimmy wasn’t a famous eccentric it’d still make for brilliant viewing.
Louis’ talent ultimately lies not in investigating big issues, but in exploring everyday human weirdness.
Weird Weekends: UFO Hunters
In his second-ever documentary, way back in 1998, Louis took a look at the world of American UFO hunters. We’re introduced to self-styled Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate, Thor Templar, who has a dazzling array of anti-alien weaponry which seems to be masquerading as… plastic rubbish. Thor’s modest job is to destroy every single one of those pesky aliens, which he does with his ‘Alien Mutilator’. ‘Made with 25th century science’, this weapon is perfectly safe for Louis to handle because it only works on ‘mental energies’. Either that or it’s just a toy gun. But who can really know? He does have twenty kills to his name, after all.
Louis and the Nazis
Surely one of Louis’ most unsettling documentaries, Louis and the Nazis takes a look at the extreme American right. Weird doesn’t even cover it. Take Tom Metzger, for example. There’s a memorable scene where this former Grand Dragon of the KKK and all-round intimidating nutcase sings karaoke, and signs it like he means it, to a bar full of non-whites. There’s also Prussian Blue, two eleven year-old girls who sing racist songs at their deranged mother’s behest. It’s terrifying from start to finish, and you certainly wouldn’t want to meet Tom in a dark alley. Even if he’s wearing his sombrero.
Weird Weekends: Wrestling
This is an educational documentary. After watching it, you quickly realise that you should never question a professional wrestler on the authenticity of professional wrestling. Intrepid Louis pops to the question to one ‘Sarge’. A friendly, tolerant man, Sarge takes umbrage with the idea that ‘surely it’s all fake’ and puts Louis through a training session which leaves him looking like he’d prefer death. Louis also spends time with amateur wrestlers, most of whom seem to put their heart and soul into wrestling in front of tragically small crowds in what looks like a school gym. Something tells me they just like hitting each other with chairs.
The Most Hated Family in America and America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis
A veritable a goldmine of lunacy. Both documentaries focus on the Westboro Baptist Church and its members, and explore the controversy that surrounds the organisation. Called by Louis, ‘the most extreme people [he’d] ever met’, there’s malicious weirdness at every turn. They feel suspiciously strong about homosexuality, for example, with their website summing up their stance succinctly enough: godhatesfags.com. But, of course, it’s not the only thing they feel strongly about. Their picket signs, for example, cover everything from ‘Fag Troops’ to ‘Thank God for 9/11’. There’s even one of Princess Diana with the line, ‘Royal Whore In Hell’. I’m not even sure what that means. The whole thing, in the end, looks comically desperate. I mean, remixing a Lady Gaga song is one thing, but choreographing a dance routine?! Look, I’m fine with you preaching hate, but I just can’t take you seriously if you’re going to insist on dancing whilst you’re doing it.