Television review: Louis Theroux – Drinking To Oblivion

Theroux makes a superb return with his exploration of on all too familiar disease

Louis Theroux’s return to making documentaries in his home country with a film looking at alcohol seems a tame idea. It’s an almost boringly domestic proposal when compared with his recent US outings, where he explored the rich pickings on the fringes of US society such as death row inmates and fundamentalist wingnuts.

Except that's not how Louis Theroux: Drinking To Oblivion (BBC Two, Sunday) turns out. It's a powerful, sad and insightful film as he delves into the stories of four alcoholics at King's College Hospital in London, a specialist liver centre. He does his Theroux thing: loping down corridors; standing slightly in the way in small cubicles; giving awkward hugs; looking concerned; gaining the trust of his interviewees while they're puking, out of it, or, in the case of antiques dealer Peter, whose liver has clapped out, chatting while litres of yellow fluid are drained (again) from his extended stomach.

Peter’s just been given three months to live but he doesn’t believe it. This is alcohol presented as a drug without a hint of wine-of-clock cuteness; it’s as damaging as any illegal drug and once it has gotten a grip, impossible for some vulnerable people to shake off. And what is most troubling to see is the self-awareness of the patients: Auriele, Joe, Peter and Stuart each know they are killing themselves but can’t stop.

Their alcohol consumption typically began as a self-medicating response to situations they found difficult to cope with. The staff at the hospital are briskly realistic; both Joe and Stuart have been detoxed there several times. Cathy, the specialist patient liaison nurse says: “The logical endpoint to alcohol dependency is the person sitting in a room on their own with a bottle and nobody else left around them.”

Given this country’s relationship with alcohol there was that vague niggle at the back of the brain that surely we’d be seeing an Irish person in the hospital at some stage. And we do but it’s not as I feared. It’s Prof John O’Grady, the consultant liver specialist. His consultation with Auriele is a painful insight into the mind of an addict. The 45-year-old Frenchwoman hears his warnings about drinking herself to death – he’s said it several times before and she’s heard it – but in response she says she’s surprised that she’s not dead already and she seems disappointed about that.

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