TV preview: Louis Theroux’s LA Stories

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Whether he’s flirting with a tipsy Christine Hamilton, cuddling a chimpanzee or stripping down to his pants alongside a burly bodybuilder, Louis Theroux’s documentaries could never be described as dull.

And yet, after moving to Los Angeles for his latest series, LA Stories, the bespectacled broadcaster discovered that his day job didn’t sound very exciting to those unfamiliar with his back catalogue.

“I go to parties here and people ask me what I do and I say, ‘I work in documentaries for the BBC’,” says Theroux, who is speaking to me on the phone from sunny California.

“I can see their eyes glaze over, or panic as they think, ‘How can I get out of this conversation?’”

Theroux and his gently prodding interview style first came to prominence in the late Nineties and early Noughties, with shows like Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and When Louis Met..., in which he spent time with Hamilton and her husband Neil, and Jimmy Savile, among others.

Over the past few years, he’s moved away from celebrity interviews and more off-the-wall subjects to cover issues like prisons, dementia and America’s medicated children (his 2010 documentary, America’s Medicated Kids, explored the lives of families with children being treated with psychiatric drugs).

Relocating from London with his family (director wife Nancy and their two sons, aged eight and six) enabled Theroux - who holds dual British and US citizenship - to dig even deeper on the three-part LA Stories.

“I’ve taken the risk of choosing stories that might not have seemed natural subjects for me a few years ago, because I don’t want to repeat myself and stay in one place journalistically,” the Singapore-born, Oxford-educated Theroux says of his more recent work.

“It’s been very satisfying that I get an audience and people respond to them. So it’s given me a great deal of pleasure.”

There are still glimpses of classic Theroux awkwardness in the new series, in which the presenter’s subjects include neglected dogs, terminally ill patients and sex offenders.

In the first film, entitled City Of Dogs, we see the presenter gingerly offer up his arm - albeit heavily padded - to become what he describes as “a human chew toy” for an angry guard dog named Prowler.
“One of the guys said afterwards, ‘We’re going to have to check your pants after that’, meaning I might have soiled them,” Theroux recalls.

“My trousers were on the verge of falling down too, because my belt wasn’t tight enough, so it looks like a rodeo move, one arm behind and the other one being chewed.”

And while Theroux might lack the Rottweiler instincts of interviewers like Jeremy Paxman, his gentle, informal style serves him well in the series.

We also see him forge bonds with people with terminal illnesses, attending the wedding of a dying leukaemia patient in the city’s Cedars-Sinai hospital, and clasping the hand of a young cancer patient as he’s wheeled out of the hospital to die at home.

“It was bittersweet; I felt very lucky to make a connection and get to know these people. I made something bordering on friendships with people who were in the most extreme life-threatening situations,” says Theroux.

“What I could bring to it was that they were happy to be filmed and it felt that they wanted this crisis they were going through documented, knowing there was a strong likelihood that they would be dying, and that the family could get a record of this sort of leave-taking.”

It’s OK for a documentary maker to get emotionally involved with his subjects, he argues. “To respond to something as a human being is part of what I do as a presenter. I think sometimes the best moments in the films are when I step out of my journalistic role and engage in a more emotional way.”

Louis Theroux’s LA Stories, BBC2, Sunday 9pm

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