Louis Theroux walks into a room in the Groucho Club in London and admires some of the bright pop art on the walls before sitting down for our interview. He has cycled here and is fully bearded, casually dressed and slightly windswept.
Later I’m told that he was a little thrown by the latter part of our discussion, relating to Jimmy Savile. For most of it, however, he seems happy enough, answering all questions about his very entertaining autobiography, Gotta Get Theroux This, with the thoughtful, slightly hesitant delivery familiar to his fans.
“For years I’d been thinking about the Jimmy Savile experience, the experience of making this programme with him, having found out that he had this hidden side to his life,” he says when I ask why he wrote the book.
I just felt as though the accounts I was reading weren’t getting Savile quite right. People seemed to feel they had almost had to label everything ‘evil’ and ‘disgusting’. My feeling has always been to let the facts speak for themselves
“I just felt as though the accounts that I was reading weren’t getting him quite right. There was so much disgust that people seemed to feel that they had almost had to label epithets over everything ‘evil’ and ‘disgusting’. My feeling has always been to let the facts speak for themselves...
“The danger is that you make malevolence so self-evident that it leaves the realm of the real world and then, when predatory figures appear in your own life or the lives of people close to you, you don’t recognise them, because they don’t conform to this bogeyman image.”
He ultimately concluded that a book on Savile would feel unsavoury and wrote about his own life and career, starting with his privileged London youth as the son of the American writer Paul Theroux and the BBC arts producer Anne Castle.
Was it a bohemian upbringing? “My parents definitely had a more free-spirited attitude towards what it meant to be in a committed marriage, but they weren’t really exposing us to that... What I experienced much of the time was a very steady suburban petit-bourgeois lifestyle where they worried a bit about what neighbours would think... It didn’t feel in any way glamorous or in any way exciting.”
He writes that he saw himself as marginal. What does he mean? “I think I had the sense my brother was the main event and I was the support act at best,” he says. “So I was in the back of the car just letting things take place around me. My dad always said, ‘Oh, you were a terrific noticer.’ I don’t know if that’s the case... My role in the family really was as the joker, the silly one, making people laugh and occasionally doing goofy, embarrassing things.”
What did he want to do with his life? “I had an idea, I suppose, that I’d imbibed from my dad that I should be a writer, but my sneaking suspicion was that I wasn’t much of a writer,” he says. “Even to this day I feel ever so slightly envious of those people who always knew what they were going to do.”
After attending Westminster public school and Oxford University, he started working as a journalist in the United States. He was at Spy magazine when a friend got him an interview with Michael Moore’s TV Nation, a satirical comedy show. Theroux expected to be hired as a writer or researcher, but in order to placate his BBC cofunders, Moore wanted an English-accented correspondent.
So Theroux was dispatched to meet cults and conspiracy theorists and strange fringe groups. “I was genuinely interested in getting to know the people while the job was, for the most part, to make them look silly,” he says. “I knew my job was to try and get funny material so I’d ask the goofy questions, but more often than not the goofy questions didn’t lead to anything funny. But what did work, and it became my approach, was when a sense of connection resulted...
“It turned out that though I came at it from a position of desperation and eagerness to please, people would be quite nice and pleased to see [me], even if they were hateful. Then they would try to bring you the good news about when the UFOs were landing.”
His work on TV Nation led to a BBC development deal, but he prevaricated and took a scriptwriting job at a topical HBO comedy called Not Necessarily the Election. He felt, he says, that if he were really a talented writer, “I would be writing episodes of Larry Sanders or The Simpsons, not being a sort of puppyish BBC light-entertainment moppet”.
Eventually he went on to make 17 Weird Weekends programmes for the BBC, from 1998 to 2000. He’s proud of these explorations of weird Americana – covering survivalists, wrestlers and porn performers – particularly the episodes where the strangeness is balanced by dignity and pathos.
Theroux moved his focus from American oddballs to British celebrities with his When Louis Met... series, in 2000, and that’s where he found real fame. The first episode was about Savile, but the one to hit the headlines was on the controversial Tory MP Neil Hamilton and his wife, Christine, who were falsely accused of rape just as Louis and his team were filming them.
“Some people said that we had planned it all and were involved in the false allegation,” he says. “I’m being mentioned in news coverage as ‘wacky presenter Louis Theroux’, [but] I’d accidentally stumbled across something through no talent or investigative skill on my part... On a personal level it was confusing and uncomfortable. Afterwards I realised that the discomfort was good for the programme.”
Something similar happened, he says, when he made the excellent and sad Drinking to Oblivion – about addiction in Britain – in 2016. “I became a lightning rod for the outreach of someone who was in throes of a terrible addiction, and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It’s only later I realised that when you see how uncomfortable I am, that discomfort is more eloquent than any piece of writing I can do.”
He sighs. He feels ambivalent about this, he says. “Who wouldn’t rather have a craft where they felt in control? I’d far rather be someone who could reliably write a short story or a sitcom script or a poem... Instead I seem to have arrived at a place where some of the best things I do are accidental, which is sort of bitter-sweet.”
I suggest he should think of it more like the compositions of John Cage, who often set up a musical scenario and then let it play out. He laughs. “That’s very grand.”
How close is the real Louis Theroux to the person who appears in the programmes? “People used to give me too much credit and assume I was playing a role,” he says. “Much of the time it was my natural gormlessness shining through.”
Drinking to Oblivion is from the second half of Theroux’s career, which started, he says, with Behind Bars, a documentary about San Quentin prison made in 2008. It was then he realised that if a subject had some “journalistic heft to it, it’s probably better that I’m not goofing around”.
Subsequently he has made documentaries about frightening subjects like paedophiles and the US opiate epidemic. He tells me about getting a man smoking marijuana to sign a release form after filming firefighters resuscitating an overdose victim in his house. “He said, ‘Unless you have a puff of this I’m going to assume you’re the police.’ So basically I did, thinking it was my best chance of winning him over... Then I was stoned and scared.”
He also writes in the book about more personal things like the ongoing disagreements he has with his wife, Nancy, about “overprivileging my work life at the expense of my family life... When I do my journalism about other people, I kind of figuratively and literally try and get into the bedroom. I thought I owed it to my readership to extend the same courtesy... I suppose I also wanted to reflect what a special person Nancy is and that I admire her for fighting her corner.”
I note that the most recurring subject in the book is Jimmy Savile. “Yes. There are at least five or six chapters that deal with that,” says Theroux.
What does he think of his documentary on the subject now? “It strikes me as a hard-nosed piece of work,” he says. “It’s not soppy or sentimental. You’re conscious that I’m at pains to try and elicit something from Jimmy Savile...
“It’s far from the case at the end I’m saying, ‘He’s all right, Jimmy Savile’... He’d told me about beating people up in his nightclubs. He’d told me about his macabre attitudes to human relationships and romantic relationships... The relationship with the mother, the strange, machinating way of carrying on, the evasions, the threats of him suing us, all of that’s in the programme, right? And a kind of black hole, a blank space, in which his sexual interests reside.”
Where he feels “strange feelings of guilt and responsibility”, he says, is regarding the year or two after the documentary when he was still in touch with Savile for various professional reasons.
“It was during that time that, without the presence of the camera, and in a more relaxed atmosphere, I sort of began to think of him in a more friendly way,” he says. “So later on, when it came out that he’d been abusing and assaulting men and women, boys and girls, that was what my mind turned to, the sense that I’d allowed myself to think of him in a friendly way.”
In the early 2000s Theroux also received a letter from two women who had sexual relationships with Savile in the 1960s. When he met them they described having sex with Savile when they were in their mid-teens.
In the book he writes: “The impression I had was that the sex was something they tolerated as the price of being part of his inner circle.”
This information seems at odds with Theroux’s position, elsewhere in the book, that clues to Savile’s predatory behaviour were not evident before his death. Does he feel he could have investigated their story more? “I think in hindsight, yeah. I think that’s the part of it that I struggled most with.”
Were these women underage when they had a sexual relationship with Savile? “One was.”
If I’ve learned anything over the last few years it’s how grooming works and how people who have been sexually victimised sometimes don’t recognise themselves as victims
He didn’t know this when he first received the letter, he says. “The letter was along the lines of, ‘You asked about his love life. He had girlfriends. Lots of them. And we know because we were two of them.’ So it didn’t really ring any alarm bells. Why would it?”
About a year later he met them. “And at that point it turned out one of them had been underage, 15, I think. But, at the same time, a lot of the recollections were positive... There was no sense of, ‘We want anything to be done.’ Nor was there a sense that, ‘And we are indicative of a pattern of predatory behaviour.’
“I suppose I thought, That’s what happened in the ’60s. Because it was the late ’60s. And if they want to do anything about it, which I didn’t particularly imagine that they did... it would be up to them.”
After Savile’s death these women characterised their early experiences with Savile as assault. Didn’t they also tell Theroux that they thought their letter would have triggered some intervention on his part? He speaks softly. “Yeah, one of them did say that. So that’s a lot to take on board.”
He explains further. “I genuinely think that they were on their own journey. And at that time when we met, although one of them later said, ‘We thought you might do something,’ I’m not sure if I agree with that, if I’m honest... I don’t think they thought of themselves as victims at that time, strange as that may sound, in 2001. It’s hard to say.
“So if you had a woman who was 15 when she had a relationship or was abused by this older guy in the late ’60s, I took that to be, ‘I guess she feels more or less okay with that.’ Or, at least, not so not okay that anything is supposed to happen... Certainly, if I’ve learned anything over the last few years it’s the nature of how grooming works and how people who have been sexually victimised sometimes don’t recognise themselves as victims.”
So at the time he didn’t see this information as evidence of anything predatory? “But John Peel had spoken about having relations with underage girls,” he says, and then he pauses. “I’m not in any way trying to normalise it... I think in the end I sort of trusted them to know their own minds... But in a sense, I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you in as much as if I had that to do over, sure, I’d do it differently.”
We end up talking about this for quite a while.
“I’m only sensitive on the subject,” he says, “because I think that for very understandable reasons in the immediate aftermath there was a sense there must have been some organised web of complicity or some sort of deliberate cover-up [in the BBC]... And the only reason I feel a little bit as though one has to be careful about how one speaks about it is because the stakes are so high and people are so ready to find scapegoats and cast blame... It’s quite easy after the fact to say, ‘Well, it’s so obvious.’”
The idea of having got away with it would have pleased Savile. I also think, though, that he was lonely, especially towards the end. So he paid his own small version of a price
He stresses that the woman who said she had a relationship with Savile while underage did not suggest he go to the police, and that she had met Savile socially in the intervening years. “The mistake I made, if it was one, was more or less taking her at her word, which was that she thought of herself as his girlfriend.”
Did he tell Savile about meeting these women? “No. They wouldn’t have wanted me to. They were enormously private, and I think that was, in hindsight, why she didn’t go to the police.”
I change the subject to his next BBC documentary, Selling Sex, but Theroux quickly returns to Savile. He talks a little about the guilt some of Savile’s victims felt about not coming forward earlier.
“I really wanted the guilt and shame to be on Jimmy Savile, not the people who interviewed him or heard rumours, even if, like me, I met someone who in the ’60s, before I was born, had had sex with him, who I later learned had been assaulted. I sort of think, Why should I be carrying a sense of guilt on that? Let Jimmy Savile have that.”
Does he think Savile was laughing at everyone? “I think the idea of him having got away with it would have pleased him. I also think, though, that he was a lonely person, especially towards the end. So he paid his own, I suppose, small version of a price.”
At this point he looks pained by the whole discussion. “It was the hardest part of the book to write,” he says. “Not so much technically, but more in the sense of, ‘How do I feel about this?’ And I’ve thought many times about what I could have done differently.”
Gotta Get Theroux This is published by Macmillan