Louis Theroux: Mothers on the Edge review: Clumsy and unforgivable

There is a big difference between letting Theroux do his little winkling routines on celebs and on women with post-natal depression

Sean O'Grady
Sunday 12 May 2019 12:55
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Louis Theroux: Mothers on the Edge

With his usual chutzpah, Louis Theroux prefaces a question to one of the new mums who appears in his latest documentary, Mothers on the Edge (BBC2), with the words: “I don’t want to sound naive, but...” This from a man who has made a career out his faux naive shtick.

I’m getting jaded by it. Often enough, Theroux’s let loose on people who can look after themselves, famously including Jimmy Savile, gun fanatics, Scientologists, survivalists and the like. Here, the new mums he meets have recently been sectioned and placed under close supervision. They have suffered a variety of psychotic episodes, including suicide attempts. They can’t look after themselves.

Mothers on the Edge should have been canned at the pre-production phase, or at least when the makers approached the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Southern Health NHS Foundation for “access”. I have no doubt the trusts and patients placed strict conditions and required various approvals in return (I certainly hope so), but it was still an error on their part. There is meagre public interest in it.

Like I say, there is a big difference between letting Theroux do his little winkling routines on Ann Widdecombe or Chris Eubank, sticking words in their mouths and trying to charm them into indiscretion, but not with a woman who – as here for example – has recently contemplated throwing herself under a train. She is a mother on the edge, for sure. The woman isn’t treated as a freak, but it isn’t far off. It is obscene.

Ostensibly Mothers on the Edge is a sensitive exploration of what childbirth can do to a mother’s mental health, extending to “extreme psychiatric difficulty”. Some post-natal depression is anything but mild: it can render the person catatonic, a completely altered personality, with a real risk of harm to mother and/or child. They can go to the mother and baby units for weeks at a time. I had always thought that one of the important facts about these units is that there are too few of them, though this wasn’t stressed in the film.

Another principal fact about mother and baby units is that they should be places of solace. Not, then, somewhere suitable for Theroux (plus crew) to saunter around, sitting in on clinical review sessions, chatting to the mums and their partners, changing the odd nappy and interviewing the solicitous medical staff involved.

A few sequences make the viewer feel especially uneasy, and I think prove the point. Lisa, mother to little Jake, is referred to the mother and baby unit in Winchester after starting, as she explains, to have delusions about “killer clowns” invading her home. After her discharge, Theroux calls round to see how things are going at her home in Horsham. Though he issues the caveat that Lisa is feeling “the side effects of high dosage of anti-anxiety medication”, he ploughs on, eliciting responses that are plainly slurred and a little rambling.

When he asks her whether she would prefer to wait to talk about herself (and, I’d add, to have her words broadcast on national TV and preserved in digital archives until the end of time), she is not really in any position to make a considered decision. So she carries on. One day that child will be grown up and might not like what was done when they were an infant. How would you feel?

Theroux is too persistent, though guileful about it. When he speaks to Barbara, someone suffering from post-partum depression, with her partner, she makes her discomfort perfectly apparent. She says, “Sorry, not feeling comfortable.” She makes to move away, but Theroux reassures her – “You’ll be fine.” He asks her, “What can we do to make you more comfortable?” To which the obvious answer is: “Just sod off and leave her alone, Louis.”

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As ever, he just carries on, and her partner recalls when she made an attempt to take her own life. Unforgivably, Theroux tosses it over to her: “Do you remember that?” Why invite her to relive the psychotic episode? Just, why?

It was also unforgivable for Theroux to ask a woman, referring to a previous termination, about how she felt about seeing her dead baby. “Intrusion” doesn’t come near to the pain of that.

The least of Theroux’s insensitivities is the way he blatantly and clumsily hacks into clinical sessions with medical professionals. “I don’t want to invalidate what you’re saying,” he tells a psychiatrist, with a patient, before doing so with some half-baked amateur analysis. All the way through, Theroux seems to want to prove that all you have to do to make someone snap out of a serious mental illness is to talk it through with Louis, like he is the messiah of the mental wards. As one mum explains to him, the turning point in her recovery came when they increased her medication (and it wasn’t when Louis was making friends with her and her kid). That’s what mother and baby units are for. They’re not for Louis Theroux.

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