Theroux, Attenborough and Why Documentaries Are Cool Again

Octavia Bromell /
Feb 21, 2017 / Film & TV

For anyone that hasn’t noticed, Louis Theroux is having a bit of a moment.

After a year or two not directly in the spotlight, our favourite slight, bespectacled, lovable nerd has made something of a comeback. He’s gone from successful, albeit slightly off-radar, documentary maker, to living, British icon. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Stormzy was pictured wearing a T-shirt with his face on, and a few days ago Theroux himself posted a picture on Twitter posing with The 1975’s Matty Healy and both lads from Slaves.

Since when was the same man who has awkwardly stood on the side-lines everywhere from brothels to hard-line Christian organisations so au fait with pop culture?

In the recent rise and rise of Theroux, the public has seen him transform from meek and mild documenter to someone with a real voice in society. Last year’s ‘Savile’ was a refreshingly self-aware reflection on his experiences with Jimmy Savile before he died, back when the sexual abuse convictions were still just allegations. His first feature film ‘My Scientology Movie’ has enjoyed a strong reception, picking up Film of the Year at last week’s NME Awards, and reportedly causing such a stir that the Church of Scientology are rumoured to be creating a propaganda-style film about Theroux. So meta.

At the other end of the scale, and with a gravitas that would silence ‘80s-era Take That fans, veteran narrator David Attenborough is no stranger to adoration. Both him and Theroux are notable anomalies to the stuffy, dull reputation that documentary film making still faces as a topic. Never one to disappoint, Sir David took this to the next level with last year’s Planet Earth II, which has become the most watched natural history programme of the past 15 years.

While shows such as Gardeners World and Countryfile have garnered a strong audience of a particular ‘maturity’ for decades, what has become apparent over the past few years is that Generation Y has developed a keen interest in the drama of non-fiction broadcasting. Planet Earth II not only attracted a larger audience than scheduling rival The X Factor week on week, it also boasted 100,000 more viewers between the ages of 16 and 34 in each episode.

This, understandably, made Sir David very happy. “I’m told we are attracting a larger than normal number of younger viewers, and that pleases me enormously”, he said in an interview with the Radio Times. When Attenborough’s happy, we’re happy.

The landscape of documentaries itself has also changed. In marketing Attenborough’s latest outing, the BBC – not known for their inherent sense of humour – released memes and gifs of clips from the show. Achingly aware of the ridiculous amount of time we all spend on the internet, the show trended on Twitter during each broadcast and the gifs in particular made for an entertaining spread of public engagement.

In standing at the top of the relatable factual broadcasting pyramid, Theroux and Attenborough have created a fresh bubble of interest, drawing in a fresh, younger audience to the genre. In the wake of this we’ve seen Reggie Yates talking us through a batch of Brits being trained to extreme standards in ‘Special Forces Ultimate Hell Week’, Lord of Downton Abbey Hugh Bonneville tackling all the drama of the high seas in ‘The Cruise’, and David Tennant present animal-infiltrating programme ‘Spy In The Wild’. Which is just as awesome as it sounds, by the way.

A clear precedent has been set for the refreshing, humorous, and informative brand of true life storytelling that Attenborough and Theroux serve to become one of the most popular genres of entertainment with what my grandmother would call “the younger generation”. And with Sir David signing on to do a new series of ‘Blue Planet’, and lovely Louis enjoying an American cinematic release of ‘My Scientology Movie’, long may it continue.

Words by Octavia Bromell

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