As his memoir is published, documentary maker Louis Theroux talks to Luke Rix-Standing about Jimmy Savile, gratitude, keeping his cool and being on both sides of the lens.
To this day Louis Theroux admits he liked the Jimmy Savile he met.
He famously filmed a documentary with the Leeds-born disgraced television presenter before the serial predator was unmasked.
He’s struggled with his failure to see through the charade, and found it hard to answer the resulting, sometimes pointed questions.
“A couple of police forces asked me questions,” he recalls, “but the director and producer tended not to be asked, which seemed odd as they’re as involved as I am. Even within the industry, I think people think I’m more of an auteur than I am.”
There have been times that his programmes have hurled him into the middle of a story - as a subject rather than a chronicler.
Does he dislike being interviewed? He pauses. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve worried less about being the subject of journalism. You have to be grateful for interest people take in what you do.”
After 25 years spent documenting the lives of others, Theroux has now produced something focused on himself.
His new memoir, Gotta Get Theroux This, is a candid and surprisingly personal read from someone often on the outside looking in, detailing his exploits from cradle to the 2019 BAFTAs.
Theroux’s open secret is that he’s pretty much the same off camera as on. The courtesy, the considered yet slightly stuttering delivery, the genuine interest in both his interviewees and his interviewers.
“I don’t really know what people think about me,” says Theroux, 49. “But they have definitely thought that my persona was more of a persona than it is. I’m more or less who you see on camera.”
Where once his programmes were sly-winking segments on swingers, UFO sightings and survivalists, the modern Theroux explores eating disorders, postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression.
He views his work quite straightforwardly: “I find a subject that interests me - something complicated, stressful, or baffling - then I figure out what’s going on. In one sense, there’s not much more to it than that.”
From the outside, his nerves seem made from the stuff they put on armoured trucks, but beneath the inscrutable demeanour he insists he’s rather thin-skinned. “It’s one of my weaknesses,” he says, almost apologetically. “If I read a bad review, I tend to mind.”
At the heart of Theroux’s work lies a ravenous appetite for storytelling. He got his start on the Michael Moore-led satirical news show TV Nation in the mid-Nineties, tasked with covering offbeat social issues through a mixture of gonzo journalism and comedy.
“When I look back, I see enormous good fortune,” he says. “I had virtually no qualifications and no reasonable right to expect to be hired.”
He’s now his own brand, based partly on an often wince-inducing willingness to throw himself headlong into the worlds he investigates.
“A level of discomfort can be quite positive,” he says cheerfully. “When I was making a programme about wrestlers, they took against some of my questions and pushed me so hard in training, I threw up.
“As awful as it was, they did me a huge favour - the real punishment would have been to cancel our filming and revoke our access. It was a positive experience, in a way.”
These hard times have never yet threatened life or limb, but he’s braved the slums of Johannesburg, the gangs of Lagos, and several of America’s most notorious jails in the line of work.
For Theroux, it’s worth every second: “I love doing my job. I love telling stories the way we tell them, and getting to know people quickly in an intimate way.”
Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £20. Available now.