Over the course of his 20 year career as a documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux has immersed himself in some of the most bizarre and confronting modern subcultures. He’s spent time with porn stars and wrestlers, neo-Nazis and serial killers, and has created a unique brand of journalism by approaching them all with unmitigated curiosity.
What tends to strike viewers most about Theroux’s approach to his subjects is his ability to establish empathy and rapport with anyone. It’s this skill which then allows him to challenge those individuals – who are usually met by the media with pure outrage – in a manner unlike any other journalist. Scenes of Theroux patiently asking the family at the core of the deeply hurtful Westboro Baptist Church the reasons behind their beliefs remain some of the most powerful documentary moments I’ve seen. He asks the hard and important questions, awkward as they may be, with the genuine intention to understand.
So when I had the opportunity to interview Louis Theroux, I had approximately one million and seventeen questions to ask.
Listen: Clare Stephens talks to Louis Theroux about his latest documentary series. Post continues after audio.
Towards the end of our chat, I asked whether there was anything in his career, or a documentary he’s made, that he wishes he could go back and do differently, to which Theroux gave a surprisingly candid answer.
“You know I wish I could go back knowing what I know now and confront Jimmy Savile, you know, while he was alive, while I was making the program,” he said.
Jimmy Savile was an English TV presenter and radio personality, known for hosting Jim’ll Fix It, a show that granted the wishes of a number of viewers (usually children) each week, and Top of the Pops, the iconic BBC music chart show. In 2000, an episode of Theroux’s series When Louis Met… aired featuring Savile, who was 73 at the time. He had been accused of paedophilia and sexual assault, but at the time of Theroux’s documentary, the allegations had been vehemently denied by Savile, who even took legal action against some of his accusers.
After Savile’s death in October 2011, hundreds more allegations were made against him – the scale of which police described as “unprecedented”. In 2013, it was reported that 214 of the allegations made against him would have been criminal offenses had they been reported at the time. It was also found that sixteen of those who said they had been raped by Savile were under the age of consent (16), and four were under the age of ten.