TVE GOT A WEIRD SENSE OF HUMOUR' Louis Theroux Revisits Controversial Ground in America's Most Hated Family in Crisis. Susan Griffin Catches Up with the Bafta-Award Winner to Discover Whether He's as Naive as the Bumbling Brit He Depicts on Screen
Byline: Susan Griffin
* IMMY "Jim'll Fix It" Saville once described Louis Theroux as the "piranha of interviewers" after he was the focus of one of his documentaries.
"I found that flattering," says Theroux chuckling at the mental image.
"That's a great accolade." It brilliantly describes the innocuous-looking Theroux, who isn't satisfied until he's revealed the bare bones of his subjects - even if he does do it in the most charming of ways.
Over the last 13 years, he's interviewed Black Nationalists and UFO fanatics in Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends; shadowed eccentric celebrities such as Saville and the Hamiltons in When Louis Met... and delved deep into the world of plastic surgeons and paedophiles in a string of BBC Two specials.
His latest offering is Louis Theroux: America's Most Hated Family In Crisis.
Awaiting his phone call, it's impossible not to ponder how a two-time Bafta-award winning interviewer will enjoy a spot of role reversal.
'Challenging', 'patronising' and 'taciturn' are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe the bespectacled Theroux.
Suddenly his familiar voice echoes down the receiver and it sounds like it's a conference call.
"No, don't worry," soothes Theroux. "There's no need to feel uncomfortable, it's just me in the room."
So far, so charming - but then this is the man who's made a career out of putting people at ease.
America's Most Hated Family In Crisis is a follow-up to his acclaimed 2007 documentary The Most Hated Family In America, and sees Theroux return to Topeka, Kansas for a second visit to the Westboro Baptist Church.
A fire-and-brimstone Christian group, made up of 80 members of the Phelps family, has garnered worldwide notoriety thanks to their funeral picketing of soldiers killed in action.
Believing they were killed as God's punishment for America's toleration of homosexuality, the family wield anti-gay placards while singing their own disturbing lyrics to Lady Gaga tunes.
In the four years since Theroux's first documentary, a series of defections of family members has shaken up the church. They've also been at the centre of a landmark supreme court case (the court ruled that vicious anti-gay rhetoric was constitutionally protected) and their beliefs have become increasingly bizarre.
For Theroux the story has moved on, which is partly why he wanted to return. That and the fact he admits he's "fascinated" by the Phelps family.
"It sounds really odd to say this but there are aspects of them that are quite nice, given how hateful they and the pickets are," he says, adding he found his attitude towards them "modulated".
"When you're on the pickets you find yourself shocked and sometimes upset by what they're doing, and then at other times you see them as normal people. The challenge is to try and manage your reaction," he explains.
"I mean we're human beings, they're human beings, in some way you have to guard against demonising them too much, and against becoming desensitised by being around them."
He says it doesn't suit his temperament or approach to shout or get cross during interviews.
And it's interesting to hear him use the word "approach". It suggests premeditation and Theroux has been accused of faux naivety. …