Louis Theroux is Gonzo journalism’s head boy elect. He’s spent much of the last decade inserting himself into the personal space of everyone from anti-icons like Jimmy Saville and Max Clifford to inmates at San Quentin prison. If there’s a terrifying celebrity, nut job collective or violent sociopath ripe for a quizzing, he’s the BBC’s go-to guy.
Theroux’s most repugnant target to-date was Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, which he first profiled in 2007. Made up of around eighty members of one family, the Phelps, the church is best known and despised for staging protest outside the funerals of US soldiers. Here, they wave gaudy banners and shout about how military deaths are God’s way of punishing Americans for tolerating homosexuality. An easy-going, live-and-let-live sect they are not.
This Sunday (BBC2, 9pm), Theroux is back in Topeka, Kansas for a catch up. In the intervening few years, several members have left the church (presumably with their forked tails wedged firmly between their legs), but the remaining dozens are still off-the-chart bonkers. This time they’re more wary of their guest, but not enough to ask him to leave. Though his questions are irksome, Theroux’s tone is disarming. “Is it possible that you’ve become even more weird?” he asks, charmingly.
Since his last visit, they’ve added to their odious cannon, including denouncing Obama as The Beast. And, as Theroux observes, they’ve layered on some more crazy. One member prophesises that the family will soon relocate to a pink cave in Jordan. Naturally, they don’t think this is weird in the slightest, so the journalist’s enquiry is met with confused, irritated laughter.
Theroux’s most engaging attribute is keeping his cool no matter what. He refuses to raise his voice however much he’s provoked. If he’s really getting a hard time he might go as far as to fold his arms and tilt his head. Perhaps Theroux’s steadfast cool explains why he’s yet to be sucker-punched by a fuming redneck. It baffles them. So while his interviewee grasps for the appropriate reaction, they find themselves accidentally answering his questions.
But when you’re leaning on the breakfast bar of someone who believes the Almighty uses cancer and war--aka “God smacks”--to keep people in line, maintaining that friendly façade must be an epic struggle. Still, Theroux seems compelled to engage with people who are predetermined to hate him. So long as he can keep the rage at bay, we’re delighted to watch him work.