Mainstream television documentaries often follow a neat formula. First, find a compelling social issue that viewers are curious about – knife crime, anorexia, people who like to shag dead people. Once you’ve found your story and characters, you need a host. They might be endearingly naive, naturally charming, humorously uncool or well-meaning but out-of-place. Sometimes they’re a celeb, sometimes just ‘relatable.’ Although a host is just one of the many cogs in the production of a documentary, for your average viewer, they function as the face of the show.
As entertaining as it may be to watch Paul O’Grady wander around Battersea Dogs and Cats Home or Reggie Yates talk to prison guards, this formula isn’t without its problems. When a host closer to celeb than journalist tackles serious subjects, things get tricky. Earlier this month, BBC documentary Panorama: Stacey Meets the IS Brides was criticised when host Stacey Dooley inaccurately referred to a Muslim prayer gesture as an “ISIS salute”. The BBC eventually cut the clip from the broadcast and apologised for the mistake. This isn’t the first time the 32-year-old has been exposed for a naive, Western-centric approach to reporting. Last year, Dooley sparked a debate on Comic Relief and the white saviour complex, after posting a selfie with a black Ugandan child on Instagram during a trip for the charity, accompanied by the caption, “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSSED [broken heart emoji]”.
Another prolific BBC presenter, Louis Theroux, has already inspired critique for his upcoming documentary on sex work, driven by filmed contributors claiming that they were misled. This follows two recent Theroux shows – one on rape and another on mental health and motherhood – that were met with a mixed response due to how they handled vulnerable case studies.
Both Dooley and Theroux occupy a liminal space between presenter, journalist and celebrity, and this creates problems when reporting on subjects as difficult as sexual assault and civil war. Theroux began his career as a precocious twenty-something, unafraid to whip out Polaroids of his penis for porn directors or spend a weekend with UFO conspiracists. In more recent years, his subject matter has veered towards social affairs coverage, including a Royal Television Society award-winning piece on hospitals for paedophiles and his acclaimed Dark States series on substance use disorders and sex trafficking. Despite this clear shift in tone, Theroux’s fish-out-of-water presenting style has stayed the same.
Dooley’s past also gives us some insight into why she may not be perfectly suited to front a documentary about Syria. Her TV career began on BBC Three’s Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, a 2008 production that saw young Brits flown to India to experience life working in a sweatshop. As a young, working class woman who was comfortable in front of the camera, Dooley presented a golden opportunity for the broadcaster. With little journalism experience, Dooley began to present documentaries for the Beeb, including Stacey Investigates: Sex Trafficking in Cambodia and Stacey Investigates: Nigeria’s Female Suicide Bombers. Last year, she won Strictly Come Dancing, propelling her from documentary host to bonafide celebrity.
“TV documentaries come in a plethora of forms and purposes,” Dr Catalin Brylla, senior lecturer in film at the University of West London tells me over email. “The particular TV documentaries in which a well-known journalist or filmmaker (such as Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley) acts as a presenter who reports on current affairs serves two purposes that are ‘precariously synergetic’: to provide the factuality of investigative journalism and to entertain through [engagingly sharing] information.”
This attempt to entertain viewers, while reporting on serious subjects, is at the heart of the problem with such host-led docs. Dooley's Panorama documentary clearly intends to entertain. Her interviews with the women in the Syrian detention camp are combative, often resulting in a heated exchange or tears. At one point, she accuses them of turning their backs on democracy. This arguably makes better TV – depending on what kind of television you’re trying to make – but does it effectively represent the lives of these women or understand why they left Europe to marry IS supporters?
Theroux's presenting style at times also feels jarring. In Mothers on the Edge, a 2019 documentary about postnatal depression and psychosis, Theroux asks a patient, soon after her suicide attempt, whether she enjoys cuddling her child. In another scene, he tells the patient that he believes that she does love her child, even if she can’t feel it.
Arguably, Theroux is just mimicking the viewer’s shock here, but that's harder to pull off when faced with someone whose mental health is visibly in tatters while they're being filmed for a national TV audience. Though the chasm between his life and his subject might work for docs on neo-Nazis or body building, it’s not a useful distance when interviewing patients with postnatal psychosis. What you feel you need is more of an authoritative voice on the physiology of how this particular anxiety, depression and/or psychosis works inside the body (a role briefly filled by Dr Trudi Seneviratne, in one of the treatment centres Theroux visits). But then again, a science-heavy, 'this is your body on depression' film is not the nature of a Louis Theroux documentary.
Instead, you see that the women he’s speaking to in these docs are incredibly vulnerable, and are often seen days after they’ve attempted suicide or in the middle of a psychotic episode. On top of that there's a personal element that impacts the style as well. Theroux comes across as a family man (if the shots of him picking up the little babies and cuddling them from teary to giggling are anything to go by), with three children of his own. This partiality bleeds into his reporting style, mitigating his ability to be a distant observer (despite trying to appear as one). Inadvertently, it still brings to the documentary an assumption that mothers should innately love their kids, and how simply shocking it is when they don’t. Dooley’s white privilege works in a similarly blinding way. It’s unlikely a Muslim presenter would have made a similar “salute” gaffe.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that only those who have experienced a documentary’s subject matter are allowed to present them. A BBC spokesperson tells me: "Louis Theroux is a critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary maker who has made insightful, powerful documentaries tackling difficult subjects for over 20 years. His desire to cover complex topics, coupled with his naturally intelligent and curious style, ensures that his documentaries are handled with sensitivity and care. It is because of this reputation that he is able to gain access to a wide variety of contributors."
Hosts with humility, understanding and willingness to learn undoubtedly make better programmes. “The key factor [for host-led documentaries] is ‘reflexivity’,” Brylla explains. “How aware is the presenter of potential stereotypes and stigma potentially perpetuated through their documentary portrayal of other communities, and how aware does he/she make the audience about it?”
Netflix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, is one documentary that successfully employs the host format. Chef and food writer Samin Nosrat unpicks the four elements of taste in a series that explores her own culinary world (making Persian rice with her mother) as well as places she’s less familiar with, whether that’s speaking Spanish with tortilla expert Doña Asaria in Mexico or gushing over an olive farm in Liguria.
While food can be a tricky subject to document, it’s not usually as controversial, as say, IS wives or alcoholics. Dooley and Theroux could learn a lot from Nosrat's informed and respectful approach, even if her speciality is delicious olive oil. Overall, it feels time to rethink the traditional formula.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.