Equipped with an unquenchable curiosity and a sense of bravery which seemingly knows no bounds, Louis Theroux has managed to carve his name out as one of the world’s foremost documentarians since his inaugural series, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, debuted all the way back in January 1998.
The intervening 20 years has seen the 48-year-old tackle a range of challenging topics and often hugely-controversial subjects, from chilling encounters with neo-Nazis to boldly exploring the terrifying jail culture which permeates through some of the US’s most notorious prisons.
To celebrate his two decades of filmmaking, Theroux has perused his way through the BBC’s voluminous archives to pick seven of his favourite documentaries for a new BBC iPlayer collection. All of the films – which, for fair warning, are not generally for the faint-hearted – are available to watch now on the BBC’s online catch-up service, with Theroux further explaining the reasons behind his seven choices in a short introductory film, which you can watch here.
But before you go and binge-watch all of the films in question, here’s a handy guide to the seven documentaries chosen by Theroux.
Inside Story: Mini
A bizarre tale indeed: Mini follows a troubled 11-year-old, Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper, who just happens to be a serial arsonist who has torched both a church and his family home – the latter while his father was inside.
Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam helmed the 1975 film, which shocked viewers across the UK as an attempted exploration of the motives behind Mini’s behaviour – filmed while he was housed in a young offenders’ home in County Durham – were laid bare across 45 gripping minutes.
Life and Death Row – ‘Truth’
BBC Three’s award-winning Life and Death Row series is a challenging watch generally, but the ‘Truth’ episode – which first aired back in 2016 – is an especially enthralling film which delves into the immense complexities of capital punishment in the US.
This episode focused on the murder of 18-year-old Justin Back in January 2014, with two of his 19-year-old friends – Austin Myers and Timothy Mosley – later arrested and charged with his murder. The twist? Both Myers and Mosley have totally different accounts of what happened – leaving prosecutors, who were seeking the death penalty for the murderer, with the hugely difficult task of coming to a decisive verdict.
Between Life and Death
Filmed at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge over six months, Nick Holt’s gripping 2010 documentary follows doctors working in the country’s leading brain injury unit. Its main focus is a male patient who can only communicate by moving his eyes, which serves as his only method of telling doctors whether he wants to live or die.
Between Life and Death inspired Theroux to go on to make his 2014 documentary Edge of Life, which focused on LA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre.
Storyville – Philip and His Seven Wives
Another bizarre set-up: released in 2006, Philip and His Seven Wives – directed by Marc Isaacs – tells the story of former British rabbi Philip Sharp, who claims he was told by God that he was destined to become a Hebrew king and is therefore permitted to have as many wives as he likes.
“The surprising thing, in a way, is that he’s managed to convince seven women to be his wives,” Theroux said about Sharp – whose home in Hove is opened up to Isaacs over the course of 69 very revealing minutes.
Storyville – Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds
Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds tells the story of James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, who enjoyed a career as a magician and escapologist for over half a century. Randi’s later mission, however, is to expose ‘con artists’ (including faith healers, fortune tellers and psychics) who he believes have co-opted the art form of magic and deception for their own personal gain.
One of Randi’s big rivals is Uri Geller, who just so happens to be one of Theroux’s most sought-after subjects – so it’s no surprise to see this 2014 film included as part of the collection.
Fourteen Days in May
A deeply affecting film, Paul Hamann’s Fourteen Days In May documents the countdown to the execution of Mississippi inmate Edward Earl Johnson. Johnson always disputed his conviction for murder – the only crime he was ever accused and convicted of committing – and attempted to appeal against his death sentence for eight years in the US courts.
Filmed and released in 1987, this heartbreaking documentary – which makes a powerful case against the use of the death penalty – also provides insight from prison guards and other inmates on death row at Mississippi State Penitentiary, as well as members of Johnson’s own family. A must-watch.
Rain in My Heart
The final film in Theroux’s curated collection is this powerful 2006 documentary, which follows four people in Kent who are struggling with alcoholism.
Paul Watson’s documentary is an unflinching, fly-on-the-wall portrayal of a set of troubled individuals who are either battling their addiction with alcohol or, quite incredibly, seem ignorant of its potentially devastating effects.