Louis Theroux’s latest BBC documentary that looks into the fatal effects of alcohol dependence in Britain is his most harrowing and hard hitting yet.
Theroux made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker in his series ‘Weird Weekends’ by finding sub sects of society that wouldn’t be considered ‘normal’ and gaining a snapshot of their lives in a richly human, welcoming style. He immerses himself in the practise and outlook of people or groups who normally find in the media, a foe. Theroux has an unassuming, passive style that as well as being disarming and informal is quintessentially British.
It is this last factor that makes his latest documentary ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ a standout in his vast collection. Whilst Theroux has documented Britons before in his ‘When Louie Met…’ series that saw him spend time with the likes of Jimmy Saville, Chris Eubank and Anne Widdicombe, for the majority of his adventures into weird, wacky and immensely interesting characters, he travels to America.
However, forget the brain numbing ignorance of the Westboro Baptist Church, the inhumane approach towards justice of the Miami Mega Jail in his ‘BBC Two Specials’ series, and the impossibility of trying to understand life with a terminal illness in ‘LA Stories: Edge of Life’, ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ highlights for Louis and for the British Public a horror that is on its doorstep, and for a lot of people, in its home.
Based at Kings College Hospital in south London, Theroux meets with several alcoholics who are at separate stages of their addiction. Either on the road to recovery, the cycle of relapse, or in a morbid state of acceptance of their imminent death, Louis finds them at a time of extreme fragility. The three main subjects that Louis interacts with are Peter, James and Aurelie, all of whom place at different points on the alcoholic spectrum.
James’s story is the one that has the most people talking after they watch, possibly due to his outward appearance not being one of a stereotypical drunk, combined with his story of attempted recovery being fraught with setbacks. Young, fresh faced and seemingly well put together, what goes on inside James’s head is far darker than what appears on the surface. Despite numerous attempts at reform and abstinence from alcohol, he cannot constrain himself upon release from the hospital and is left without a support system. This is something that Louis picks up on and attempts to remedy by spending time with James and offering much needed human interaction.
James’ story causes Theroux to act outside of his journalistic requirements on several occasions, taking a hands on role in the attempt to get James back on the right track. While this has happened before with Theroux, he usually does well to toe the line between reporting the story and being involved in the story, however with James being on the cusp of reform, it seems as though Louis cannot help but involve himself personally.
In one scene, Louis is waiting at James’s bedside while he is sobering up in hospital, convincing him not to leave and buy alcohol and hugging him as he bursts into drunken hysteria, less the actions of a devoted documentary maker and more of someone who is genuinely concerned by, and absorbed into the struggle of an alcoholic willing to change.
While Theroux is known for his compassion no matter who the subject, I get the sense that the subject matter of this latest documentary is much closer to home. He admits that he himself drinks on average a couple of bottles of wine a day, and the documentary seeks to see what separates him and everyone else who manages to do so from moving away from leisure drinking towards obsession and dependence.
Whilst ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ is a story of hope for James and Peter who we see recovered at the end, it is an overall dark story that leaves a sour taste when we think of Aurelie and others that Theroux meets who are beyond help. The last we hear from Aurelie is that she is more afraid of the effects of stopping drinking than she is of dying. For me, this is the most important thing to take away from the documentary. This fear of Aurelie’s is shared by all who are severely addicted to alcohol, a mentality developed by a slippery slope that could start with any number of things going wrong at the wrong time in someone’s life, causing them to become a slave to the numbing effects of the most accessible drug in Britain.
Written by Charlie Parry