TV blog: Louis Theroux and other compelling television this week

Benjie Goodhart / 27 March 2015

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart takes a look at Louis Theroux's latest documentary, plus good, old-fashioned journalistic reporting from Trevor McDonald and two very different approaches to travel programmes from Simon Reeve and Richard Ayoade.

Review: Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, Sunday, March 22, 9pm, BBC Two

“You can measure a society by how it treats its weakest members.” The quote is variously attributed to Churchill, Gandhi, Pope John Paul II, and pretty much everyone of note you’d care to mention, bar Jeremy Clarkson. 

Of course, it’s easy enough to be charitable and compassionate when you’re dealing with poor, sick children or injured servicemen. But what if you’re talking about people with severe, rather alarming mental conditions, who have committed egregious crimes? 

In this absorbing film, the first of two, Louis Theroux spent time with the patients and clinicians in Ohio’s State Psychiatric Hospitals. He met people who were both extremely vulnerable and potentially extremely dangerous. People like softly-spoken Eric, a gentle soul in a porkpie hat and glasses, who takes a trolley round the hospital selling cuddly toys to other patients. The last time Eric was let out for a weekend, in 1989, he stopped taking his medication, and shot dead two strangers in a bar. 

Corey, also as meek as a lamb, assaulted a police officer with an iron bar. He was trying to goad the officer into killing him. The officer instead kept shooting him in the legs. Corey survived, and for a while believed his shooting helped get Obama elected. He now sees that this is unlikely, so that’s progress of a sort. 

William felt that he was being watched from space. He also felt he was the Muslim Messiah, and that he was psychic. He was receiving messages from Binyamin Netenyahu to speed in his car. Now he laughs – a little unconvincingly – about this. William is being released after a five year stay. Naturally, he’s terrified. He’s also, to my desperately untrained eye, not completely well. He’s gentle, and kind, and scared, and excited, and it’s horrible to think of the torment he’s endured. And will most probably endure again. 

Judith is as sweet a little old lady as you could wish to meet.  She reads the paper and plays cards. She insists there is nothing wrong with her. But she stabbed a stranger on the bus with some scissors. (Not according to her she didn’t). She seems lucid and plausible and bright. But later, offhand, she mentions that she is Jesus. This may be true, of course, but I like to think Jesus wouldn’t go round stabbing people with scissors. 

In truth, it is occasionally difficult to hear these outlandish beliefs without having to stifle a smile. Just as so much that is sad and difficult and tragic in life can be funny. Why do they always think they are the Messiah? Why not a bank clerk from Solihull? But it’s also a desperate film. The people are well cared for, and the staff around them are professional and capable and kind. Theroux himself is a quiet, sensitive and friendly interlocutor. But they are all so damaged by life, and with sufficient self-awareness to appreciate the tragedy of their situation. The chances are, none will ever know the simple pleasures and privileges of normality. And there’s nothing funny about that. 

Review: The Mafia with Trevor McDonald, Monday, March 23, 9pm, ITV

In contrast to the Louis Theroux programme, The Mafia with Trevor McDonald featured a far more insidious type of murderer – the kind who kills without compunction, for financial gain. 

The murderers in question are Mafia hoods. This grimly fascinating programme, the first of two, saw McDonald meet some of the Mafia’s most notorious mobsters from days gone by. He spoke to a former lieutenant called John “The Sherriff” Elite, which seems like a singularly poor choice of nickname. I wouldn’t suggest he as the first line in law enforcement. Elite talked frankly (and with a little too much relish) about his murderous past. 

Then it was off to Miami, to meet the magnificently-named Mikey Scars, a Mafia turncoat whose testimony wrought havoc on the Cosa Nostra, sending 80 of them to prison. Until recently, he was in Witness Protection. Until recently. Hmm. That’s not a library card you want to expire. “You never really feel safe,” he admitted. “You take each day as it comes.” He sleeps between one and four hours a night. “It’s not if, it’s when,” he said, matter-of-factly. 

Were I Trevor, I’d have ended the interview after, ooh, seven seconds, and got the hell away from such a bullet-magnet. Instead, Trevor decided to go to Mikey’s old stomping ground of New York with him, where they pottered around Little Italy, practically wearing signs saying “Informer: Please Kill Me.” I would respectfully suggest, Mr Scars, that the end is likely to come that much sooner if you keep popping back to Mafia Central. 

Next up was Michael “No Nickname” Franzese, a gangster who made more money for criminal families than anyone since Capone. He later turned his back on the Mafia, despite extensive family ties. His father, currently 93, is the oldest federal prisoner in the US, serving four years for racketeering. Finally, McDonald meets with a current Mafioso enforcer, who laments how “You can’t trust nobody no more.” Like honour among thieves was ever a real thing. 

There is something fascinating, and ludicrously comical, about the Mafia. For all their monstrous intent, they come across like guys who have been watching too many Mafia films. The whole smooth, sharp-suited, shades-wearing tough-guy act is so clichéd as to be embarrassing. They could learn a thing or two about disporting themselves with real class from the man holding the microphone. 

Good old Trevor did a bang up job here. His approach to film-making might be journalistic, straightforward and slightly old-fashioned, but he secured superb access, asked the right questions, and managed to not run away crying with fear from these Brylcreemed psychopaths. “Eh! You done good, Trevor. I’m proud of you. Capiche?” 


Preview: Caribbean with Simon Reeve, Sunday, March 29, 8pm, BBC Two

Poor Simon Reeve. You make a name for yourself as a charismatic, brave, handsome and eloquent adventurer who goes to some outlandish and dangerous places for our televisual satiation, only to be usurped by someone who embodies those characteristics even more. 

In the extraordinary Walking the Nile, Levison Wood spent almost a year tramping through what was essentially an open invitation to death. So what does poor Simon do? There’s no point in trying to outdo him in terms of danger, short of travelling to the Islamic State dressed as a Hasidic Jew. So, instead, Simon’s gone to the Caribbean. Oooh, scary! 

I missed the first programme of the series (this is the second of three) but I can’t imagine our Si will just settle for pottering about going snorkelling in Barbados. He doesn’t strike me as the next Judith Chalmers.

So we join him on… ah. Barbados. He looks positively euphoric on arrival – possibly because it’s nice to go somewhere that people aren’t shooting at him. Mind you, knowing Simon, he’ll soon be in the middle of some murderous drugs cartel, looking to… oh, he’s off diving. Now he’s eating fish, and looking cheerful. 

Ah well, next up he’s off to St Vincent. He’s off in search of a marijuana farm – that’s more like it. He’s bound to get into strife here. Oh, except when he and his film crew arrive, the farmers produce some weed “and they all begin to relax.” No kidding? 

Now he’s off to Venezuela. That’s more like it. Venezuela is proper nails. Caracas has the second highest murder rate of any city in the world (top of the list is Royal  Leamington Spa, of course). This place has a real air of menace about it. His guide warns him he could easily be shot for having a camera, which makes his current occupation a somewhat hazardous one. 

Caracas is hellish and depressing. But the extraordinary thing is that Venezuela should be one of the world’s richest countries. It boasts the largest proven oil reserves on earth, and has earned over $1 trillion from oil sales in the last 20 years. Sadly, grotesque corruption and astonishing incompetence means many Venezuelans still live in abject poverty.

Three thousand of them live in the extraordinary Tower of David. This skyscraper, abandoned during construction by a failing bank, is a temple to the hubris of banking where people now live in one of the world’s most remarkable squats. The tower is home to families, to criminal gangs, and to a crèche, cafes, shops, and small businesses. 

Finally, Simon crosses from Venezuela into Colombia, and expresses his relief. If you’re expressing relief at arriving in Colombia, you’ve just come from somewhere very, very dodgy. Myself, I’d have stayed in Barbados. It might not have made for such good telly, but I’ve got my allergies to consider. An allergy to bullets, principally. 

Preview: Travel Man: 48 Hours in Barcelona, Monday, March 30, 8:30pm, Channel 4

Travel programmes can take two forms. There’s one that could have been made by the local tourist board, where a B-list celebrity goes horse riding and hill-walking and eats in nice restaurants and says “stunning” a lot. And there’s one where Simon Reeve or Levison Wood or some other lantern-jawed hero travels to places no sensible mortal would ever visit, and tries to avoid dying for as long as possible. 

Except now there’s this new series from Channel 4, which falls into neither camp. Instead, it sees comedian, actor, writer, director and presenter (and quite possibly brain surgeon and professional cricketer)  Richard Ayoade, accompanied by a slightly less polymathic guest, going on a mini-break. On said break, he tries to enjoy himself, in spite of an inherent dislike of going anywhere or doing anything. (Travel show presenter might not have been the ideal career path…) 

It is, by some distance, the funniest programme I have seen this year. Ayoade, while not to everyone’s taste, is a comic genius. This week, he goes to Barcelona with actress Kathy Burke, and the two of them have an absolute scream. At least, Burke does. She spends most of it weeping with laughter, as Ayoade does his best deadpanning. 

They visit the Barcelona stadium and football museum, to Ayoade’s evident misery. “I feel it is my duty to pour scorn on this in a glib way,” he muses. When confronted with an opportunity to have a photo taken against a green screen, which will have Messi photo shopped in, he is asked to put his arm out around where Messi will be placed. “I wouldn’t touch Messi. I don’t know him. It’s inappropriate.” The resulting photo sees Messi with his arm around a stand-offish Ayoade, who is casually reading a book. 

They go Cava tasting. Ayoade watches the taster go through their routine, and says “I don’t know what you did, but I’ll try and make that same face.” The heroic taster explains how different all the wines are, to a baffled Ayoade. “It’s more similar than different, I’d say,” he reflects, as Burke collapses into fits of giggles. 

They go to a modern art gallery (“We can probably get this done in 70 seconds, if we focus”) and to a restaurant serving bizarre, experimental modern food. They are served watermelon that looks like a tuna steak. “He gets his kicks giving someone a Wispa, but he’s actually replaced the Wispa with a Lion Bar. Wait til they taste the peanuts! They won’t know what’s happening!” 

Finally, they visit the beach. Ayoade takes the cable car. Burke, scared of heights, takes a taxi. When she arrives, he is sitting on the beach, reading. “I probably should have realised you were coming when they started filming.” Bliss. Barcelona looks nice too – not that that’s really the point. Which is odd

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