Compelling listening

Grounded with Louis Theroux, a new BBC Radio 4 podcast, reviewed by Steven Parkes (an undergraduate BSc Psychology student at the University of Derby).

As an avid watcher of Louis Theroux’s documentaries, I was delighted to find he has a new podcast series through BBC Radio 4. Think of it as ‘When Louis Met…’ with less confrontation, and guests including Lenny Henry, Boy George and Miriam Margolyes. In the first episode, he chats with Jon Ronson, a fellow documentary maker and author – or, as Theroux says, his ‘professional doppelganger’. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes as the topics range from arguing in the lockdown, to Skyping with Robbie Williams about ghosts and conspiracy theories.

Ronson shares a realisation he has had during the coronavirus lockdown; he is able to cope better in the current situation due to his anxiety. Ronson was diagnosed with adjustment disorder and believes that his experiences have prepared his mind for an eventual catastrophe. He explains how ‘you spend your life catastrophising in the most absurd ways’, such as thinking his son had been involved in a terrorist attack at school. So, when the pandemic started, he felt calm, focused and able to deal with it – as if he had been preparing for it his whole life. It is an honest and insightful admission by Ronson, although his experience may not be typical of everyone. According to a recent study by University College London, a large majority of people are reporting higher rates of wellbeing within the past three weeks – although there is less evidence for those with a diagnosed mental health condition.

Theroux and Ronson briefly discuss ethics within their work, and whether those they encounter are ultimately happy with the result. Ronson discusses his podcast, The Last Days of August, which investigated the suicide of young female porn star August Ames. He handled the project with care and was relieved to find that all involved, including Ames’ family, were pleased with the outcome. However, Ronson describes the anxiety towards his moral obligations. He mentions how this can develop into scrupulosity, a dimension of obsessive-compulsive disorder which involves overly stressing about moral or religious issues. As Ronson concludes, ‘there’s a danger in worrying not enough about it and a danger in worrying too much about it’.

Other intriguing ideas are introduced in the podcast, such as how leaders that behave in conspiratorial ways can lead to an increase in conspiracy theories. Theroux comments how it may be conceivable for some people to be especially predisposed to seeing patterns in data that are not there. Ronson relates this to schizotypal disorder; a plausible idea, although the delusions in this disorder can present in several different ways. This is where the podcast turns slightly stranger, with mentions of coronavirus 5G conspiracies, lizard people and Ronson’s letter of recommendation from the head of the Ku Klux Klan.

Interspersed with Theroux’s characteristic narration style and some light humour, the podcast is compelling listening. Difficult topics are discussed with honesty and open-mindedness. I look forward to what comes next. As Ronson says, ‘I think the complicated stuff is the most interesting stuff'.

-  Steven Parkes is an undergraduate BSc Psychology student at the University of Derby.

Listen now.

Find reviews of Louis Theroux's TV offerings in our archive.

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