Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion: BBC2 alcoholism documentary promises to be a sobering experience

For The Independent

If you think you have a drink problem, you know someone who does, or who may have, then I beseech you to watch Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion. It will be, almost literally, a sobering experience, not to say an unpleasant one. Indeed, although there are mercifully few properly medical scenes to unsettle the squeamish, the conversations with mostly healthy-seeming and normal-looking alcoholics featured will be some of the most upsetting things you will witness on your screen for a very long time indeed. In case you thought there might be, there are no laughs.

In this one-off documentary, Theroux wisely tones down his usual contrived faux-naive personality and plays things about as straight as he can manage. The techniques he used to devastating comic effect with, say Ann Widdecomble or the last Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee (and which worked rather less well with the cunning Jimmy Savile), are abandoned in the fact of abject human suffering. Every alcoholic is a human being, after all, and they all have their own stories to tell, and they are not always sad. The fact that this drug has destroyed their jobs, their relationships and their health doesn’t make these characters any less complex than those fortunate enough to be able to stay sober for more than couple of days. But there is one common theme in their outlook, an almost friendly relationship with death, an outcome accepted with equanimity. In and out of detox at Kings College Hospital in south London, there seems an almost cheerful acceptance, even when relatively sober, that the booze is killing them and more than a hint that they would almost welcome the end. It is a suicidal kind of mind-set, and, as I say, makes for an excruciating hour of non-entertainment. Maybe it won’t cure anyone, and maybe all it will do is confirm what you already know about a friend, loved one or acquaintance who is losing control, but the stories are informative as well as terrifying. Theroux has never used his journalistic gifts for a greater good.

Not quite as dark, though dramatically under-lit, is Flowers, a new Channel 4 ‘black’ comedy. It is plenty of strangeness in it, as well as the utterly unstrange Olivia Colman playing another on-the-brink middle class middle aged woman in a difficult relationship. There’s an unexplained Japanese lodger with an unhealthy interest in extreme manga; a chap who has invented a “cheese fumigator”, which explodes with predictably smelly consequences; dementia; suicide; inappropriate sexual behaviour; a fantasy novelist; open marriages; and a “magic snake”.

Anyway, Flowers, a sort of suburban Gormenghast for our times, will run at 10pm every night throughout the week from Monday 25 April (with a double bill), culminating with the show’s finale on Friday, 29 April. The whole of the astonishing series will then be available on All 4.  It will run on Channel 4 at 10pm every night throughout the week from Monday 25 April (with a double bill), culminating with the show’s finale on Friday, 29 April. It isn’t as bleakly brilliant as Julia Davis’ Camping over on Sky Atlantic, but it shares some of the same morbid attractions. There’s an awful lot of that on the telly right now, I must say.

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