By Michael A. Arnold
Celebrities often seem more than mere human beings, somehow, so the best autobiography from one is both relatable and revealing. Since the 1990s, Louis Theroux has been a symbol of quirky TV documentaries, most famous for Weird Weekends and When Louis Meets. Both series focused attention on people outside of the mainstream: Neo-Nazis, alien truthers, porn actors and brothel owners. Theroux has found a large fan base through these shows, and so it is a little surprising that he has only authored two or three books, of which this autobiography, Gotta Get Theroux This, published in 2019 by MacMillan Publishing, is the latest.
As a presenter, Theroux always appears very personable and non-judgmental. You could easily imagine him being your friend, and this is an impression you also get from his writing. A number of times he will interrupt a sentence to share a thought or an observation that always feels spontaneous. This coupled with his self-deprecating tone makes you feel quite close to him – like he is writing to you personally and he knows you well. There are moments where Theroux obviously got self conscious while writing. Many times he will also say something self reproachful, such as when he references a quote from (he thinks) a French philosopher, and then adds something like ‘My good friend Google lets me down, but trust me on that’, which is quite funny. Finishing it, this book feels a bit like a long letter from that clever friend you do not always keep in touch with.
There is not much literary flare to Louis’ language, unlike the writing of his father – the novelist Paul Theroux, but in this kind of book that really does not matter. It is clear throughout that Louis is well read, he was surrounded by books from a young age and was very well educated. When he describes it, Louis’ education sounds like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel: public school jokes, mixing with the sons of privilege, and ‘fagging’ – a system where a younger boy would be a kind of butler to an older boy or a sixth former. There is much less about his university days, but in general his education sounds like it was a happy time.
This is a big contrast with his experience of New York and his earliest journalism – Louis does not shy away from the danger in the city, even if you never get the impression Louis himself was ever in danger. This, to be honest, makes him seem a little detached from the things he describes. However Louis’s story is not without doubt; there were a number of moments of intermission in his life, when he was not sure exactly what to do with himself. These moments of pause (especially when he’s between Michael Moore’s TV Nation in America and the start of the BBC produced Weird Weekends) feel very revealing, they probably feel more revealing than they really are, somehow. They are admissions of a fear of failure, something everyone can probably sympathize with. There are also meditations about how his childhood and early career has affected his later life. Obviously Theroux has thought a lot about his own psychology, and these moments (especially when talking about his second wife) are brutally honest, and not always pleasant. This book has a lot about Louis Theroux the flawed and normal person – and that is very interesting, even if they are not easy reading.
However there are other sections of the book that get very dark. On April 13th 2000, Louis Theroux released the first episode of When Louis Met focusing on the now disgraced TV presenter Jimmy Savile. The filming of this episode is recalled in detail, and there is a long and careful meditation on Louis’ experiences and thoughts as the documentary was being made. This was obviously a difficult thing to write about, because Theroux found himself on quite friendly terms with the man who was later revealed to be one of the most notorious sex offenders in living memory. Although Theroux is careful to point out that Savile could never quite relax when the two were together, Theroux also admits he could not consider Savile as just the subject of a single documentary. There are a lot of complicated emotions Theroux is trying to unpack, and is to his credit he is so frank about them. These sections are easily the most uncomfortable in the book. There are also lengthy sections of filming the When Louis Met episodes with Neil and Christine Hamilton who were arrested midway through filming, but then Louis rushes through season two to describe the making of My Scientology Movie. While the My Scientology Movie section is interesting in its own way, Jimmy Savile is always in the background. The memory of Savile haunts this book
It would be hard to dislike Theroux, especially after finishing this book. There is something authentic and down to earth in him, and it is exactly this that makes his style of presentation work. He is eager to please, open, and welcoming to an awkward degree. As mentioned earlier, when finishing this book you feel very close to him, and as such this is a good book for Louis’ fans. It would also probably appeal to people interested in media, even though Louis does not give many specific details on how the industry works, and it is a pretty quick read. This book is not really very ambitious, and it does not try to be. It might not be a book you will keep all your life, but it is one you will probably enjoy.
‘Gotta Get Theroux This’ by Louis Theroux is available from any good bookshop