Louis Theroux has been one of my heroes growing up. I’ve always been a documentary fan, and factual programmes make up a huge chunk of my weekly screen hours, although I’m often down the YouTube rabbit hole at the moment. Understandably, 2020 has been a fairly dry year for hard-hitting documentaries, despite Theroux’s decent job of reflecting on his career and favourite contributors in his Life on the Edge series. Human stories fascinate me and I love the way Theroux’s documentaries dissect what drives peoples towards extreme situations and beliefs, as well as making an attempt to present his contributors with nuance and warmth, even those who believe in or who have done terrible things. The world is never black and white, only thousands of shades of grey, and Theroux’s ability to connect with people on the fringes of society was in some ways pioneering. People reveal more when they feel they are not being judged, which make his documentaries some of the most insightful I have ever seen. A small part of me still wants to get into journalism, and I pray for this every night at my altar to the omniscient Theroux. Maybe the last part was a little hyperbolic.
I am deducting half a star here for the absolutely terrible title. There’s an argument for this being ironic, but honestly, the cringe-worthy pun cheapens the experience somewhat.
I am deducting another half a star for Theroux’s overuse of the word ‘pathos’. Admittedly, I did have to look up what it meant, but there’s a whole cacophony of synonyms he easily could have used: poignancy, raw emotion, feeling, sentiment, passion etc. You can tell from the style that Theroux is a better documentarian than he is a born writer, but there’s no excuse for forgetting the thesaurus. Or the 357 instances of ‘pathos’ all making it through the editing cycle.
I give the book plus points for not shying away from his own privilege. Theroux is the son of two first-generation brainboxes: a successful author for a father and a mother who was an arts producer at the BBC. He grew up with various au-pairs and attended a highly elite and ridiculously expensive boy’s school in Westminster, before going to Oxford University to continue to cloister amongst other pale, white, nerdy boys his age. It’s true that it would have been a waste of money had Theroux not turned out to be successful or prominent in some field. It was pretty much the ‘done thing’ for Oxford graduates with the world on a platter. So this isn’t a ‘working-class boy done good’ story. It doesn’t offer a bland I-did-this-so-anyone-can treatise on the lie of meritocracy. It is still a shame that there aren’t more working-class people working in the media or getting screen time, that much is true. I’ve often wondered whether my provincial background and lack of connections will turn into a huge minus point in the incredibly middle-class world of translation and editing. I can throw the thought of a PhD out the window now, because I wouldn’t be getting paid for it.
So, Theroux may not be entirely trendy to idolise, knowing he comes dripping with privilege, but you can’t blame him for being born posh either. At least he didn’t try to hide it, because I had some reservations going into the book. I’ve met enough of the faux poor at university to get righteously irritated at their play-acting. Parading around campus in threadbare tracksuits and then going home to the country pile at the weekend sound familiar?
Anyway, I also really enjoyed the book for its focus on his professional, rather than private life. There are some details about his childhood, marriages and children, but it’s definitely a backdrop to his career. I am so glad about this, because too many public figures fall into the trap of thinking that we care about their childhoods so much they can fill half their autobiographies with it. We just don’t (with the notable exception of Roald Dahl’s effervescent, charming and brilliant entire book on his childhood named Boy: I still remember the mouse-under-the-floorboards chapter to this day). I loved the behind-the-scenes feel to the book, describing the context of all his best-known shoots, as well as his thoughts and feelings behind each project and interview. The book focuses a lot on his relationship with Jimmy Saville before the wave of revelations in 2013. Theroux processes his confusion and guilt in a candid and relatable way as he is driven to reevaluate every conversation and every piece of footage: could he really not have known? What could he have done differently?
I would recommend this book for a read which is often laid-back, sometimes serious but maintaining its heartfelt candidness throughout. Occasionally, he does sink into the role of armchair philosopher, but what do you expect from a chronicler of the human condition?