Louis Theroux on childhood worries: ‘I wondered if I would ever get any proper tackle’
Yungblud has long admired Theroux for his curiosity and fearlessness in tackling even the most repellent of subjects. Here, Theroux tells Jane Graham that his younger self would have been thrilled by the career he has built for himself
Louis Theroux is a journalist and broadcaster, and maker of quirky and controversial films and documentaries in which he infiltrates extremist organisations and groups that exist on the fringes.
Over the course of his career Louis Theroux has spoken to neo-Nazis and UFO chasers, Scientologists and sex offenders. Infamous interviewees have ranged from Joe Exotic to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. His most notorious subject was, of course, Jimmy Savile in the 2001 documentary When Louis Met Jimmy.
At Yungblud’s invitation, Louis Theroux has written a Letter To My Younger Self in which he recalls being a late developer and academic over-achiever, while secretly wondering how to be cooler and escape the burdens of his parents’ expectations.
Sixteen was a watershed year for me because it was the year I got admitted to Oxford. I was a weekly boarder at a London public school. I’d skipped a year due to being excessively studious, so when I got to sixth form I was a year younger than most of my peer group. And I hadn’t hit puberty. I had a high voice, what I call a piccolo voice. I had no pubic hair. I was sort of sexually ambiguous. Over-capable in the realm of books and academics and under-capable in every other area of life, particularly in relating to other humans and especially girls. I tried to be a hipster and buy my clothes from the King’s Road or Camden Market, but in a deep sense, I was a very square kid. I was very uptight, very worried about what people might think of me.
Among my earliest memories are feelings of profound fear about whether I’d ever be able to do the things you’re supposed to do when you get older. In my early teens I was trying to figure out who I was and also trying to get a girlfriend and not having a lot of luck. Then, that summer when I was 16, my voice broke, and the first green shoots of pubic hair began to appear. The long awaited ‘manhood’, of which I’d heard and read so much about, finally seemed to flower, which was a huge relief. Part of me had wondered if that would ever happen, if I would ever get any proper tackle. But at the same time, I was like, well, now what? What does it mean to be me?
I had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with my academic life. I worked hard and was good at exams. But part of me realised I was in danger of letting an important part of life slip through my fingers. All that stuff I saw in John Hughes movies – going to parties and kissing girls. I wasn’t absolutely incapable of hooking up, though I’m defining that very loosely. Not as in actual sex. But there was always this tension in me. I was conscious that I wanted to be young and be free and have fun and take risks, plough my own furrow. I was also conscious of this self-imposed need to be a model student, to follow the path expected for me.
Being 16 did get better. It was the year I struck up friendships with many of the boys who would become lifelong friends. Most famously, Adam [Buxton] and Joe [Cornish], who went on to form a comedy partnership, did lots of TV and radio and amazing things. We were in a little gang with Mark and Chris and Zach, who are not on the TV but mean something to us. It wasn’t exactly an act of rescue on their part, but I did feel rescued in the sense of having finally found a group of friends with whom I shared a set of interests like music and comedy and having fun and being silly and joking around, getting high some of the time and drinking quite a lot of the time, all of that. I’d always dreamed of having a little posse, a gang of compadres.
The Oxford offer also meant I could relax a bit, cut loose a bit. That didn’t take much in my world – maybe handing my homework in slightly late once or twice. My parents were going through some difficulties around the same time. I think that fed into a feeling of maybe my world isn’t as stable as I imagined it to be. And maybe I shouldn’t worry quite so much about bowing to convention.
My dad [Paul Theroux] was, and still is at the age of 80, a powerful personality. He’s a successful novelist and travel writer who’s still enormously productive. That probably made me think I was supposed to be a literary writer or a director or some sort of respected artistic figure. But when I wrote poems or short stories they didn’t feel authentic. I’d write a page and then be like, ‘this is probably garbage’. I think if I told my younger self you’ll be a documentary maker, making programmes about offbeat cultural subjects in America and mental health issues, you’ll go on journeys to a skinhead music conference to talk to neo-Nazis and into a prison to speak to sex offenders, and there will be moments of surprise and unselfconscious actuality that tell stories… the younger me would have been delighted, thrilled. I think I’d have thought, ‘Holy shit! Are you serious? God, that sounds perfect.’
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If I had to pin down a moment of realising that there was a possible way forward that would be exciting and fulfilling and different to the one I’d expected, it was when I lived in San Jose for a year. I got accepted to a newspaper there and thought, ‘Well, California seems like it would be quite sunny and fun.’ San Jose couldn’t really be more different to London. It’s a big, bland, sprawling mess of a city, not known for its temples of culture. But I loved being there. I loved the sense of liberation, and being somewhere my parents hadn’t been, my own terrain.
It’s not uncommon for people raised in the UK to go to America and feel lightened. You feel the burden of judgement lifted from your shoulders, the sense that people aren’t trying to figure out where you’re from, what class you are, what school you went to. That slightly tutting, curtain twitching side of life that we have here in the UK, they don’t have so much. They roll around in church aisles and speak in tongues, or go to the gun range and shoot cut-outs, and they jump up and down. When you go to America it’s like there’s less gravity and you can jump a little bit higher.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone… I’ve got a few different things in my head. Because I’m trying very hard not to say Jimmy Savile. If I did meet him again, instead of just speaking to him I’d bring along Kat Ward, an abuse survivor I interviewed. If she was up for it obviously. And basically I’d let her drive the conversation rather than me. Because there’s nothing I could have said then that would have made him be honest about anything.
He was obviously a pathological liar as well as a sexual predator. He was so wrapped up in his pathology, so wrapped up in his predatory characteristics, it would be almost impossible to communicate with him meaningfully about any of it. You could do a sort of, almost a piece of theatre, some sort of intervention. You could shout at him. But I’m not sure whether that would be in any way helpful to me. I’d prefer to focus on the dignity of the survivors. So if I could facilitate some kind of act of holding him to account that involved some of the victims, that would mean something to me.
I want to mention something I’ve never mentioned in an interview before. On some level I realised my parents had academic aspirations for me, and I was attempting to fulfil them. But there was a fear of doing a karaoke act through life. Singing a tune with words by someone else.
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When I left school, I took a year off. And I thought about doing a foundation course at a London art college. And I sometimes wonder what would have happened – imagine how much fun I might have had. I might have met people I’d never have met otherwise. I’ve always enjoyed being in an arty crowd of people, a little bit bohemian and fun and from different walks of life. They might have shaken me out of my academic ways. Adam went to art college, Zach did a foundation at St Martins, Joe went to film school. They learned to question the framework of how you look at the world, how you understand what creativity looks like, of your sense of the world. I went to do history at Oxford. It’s a silly thing to dwell on, but it’s one of my few regrets.
Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America is on BBC Two on Sundays at 9pm and on iPlayer @Janeannie
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