Musings on Minutiae

Review: Louis Theroux: behind Bars (BBC2)

Preview from the Radio Times:

Louis Theroux: behind Bars

Sunday 13 January
9:00pm – 10:00pm
Behind Bars

This is Louis Theroux at his best, not toying with eccentrics but taking on a meaty story. When Louis gets his teeth into a situation, he genially peels the layers from a story and lets us see it anew, while apparently doing little more than chat idly. In this case its life in San Quentin State Prison in California, from where Louis (and his director/ cameraman Stuart Cabb) deliver a series of striking, often poignant encounters. Life in San Quentin means, in many cases, life. There’s a 21-year-old first timer facing “50 to life” for murder who argues, possibly for his own sanity, that “it’s like a playground here”. It doesn’t look like it, although there is humour, good cheer and more romance than you might think. You may even be touched by the budding relationship between the ex-Nazi gang member and the gay Jew.
Source: Radio Times

I really, really got a lot out of this documentary. Louis Theroux is known for his ultra deadpan approach to documentaries, never more so than when he’s doing them stateside. I’ve seen the ones he’s done of the plastic surgery industry and also of Hollywood’s seedy porn industry. In this doc he was in one of the toughest maximum security prisons in the United States. And it was brilliant.

It’s late so I can’t go on at length, but what fascinated me from the very outset (and I expect most who watched it) – were the relationships between the men. There were brothers in arms, comrades, tribal allegiances formed in blood (or should I say tattoos – mostly along racial lines) – and lovers. ‘Deborah’ – the transvestite was charming. She was seeing ‘Robert’, an Adonis-like younger thing who was head over heels in love, staunchly reaffirming when pressed by Louis, that they’d still be together ‘on the outside’. Deborah was a bit more worldly and candid, giving Louis something of a sideways knowing look which said “young, earnest love, eh?”. You saw her again just as she was being released. She had a disarming smile and infectious laugh; you liked her instantly.

I was shocked by the number of transvestites in the prison. I kept seeing them appearing as the camera panned. This prison, housing some of the toughest, roughest, grittiest, butchest, ‘manly’ men you’re ever likely to see in one place – and all these ‘man-women’ there too. And they all seemed to get on.

I don’t want to spend hours writing this post so it’s not going to be excessively heavy – but it re-affirmed one absurdly obvious thing. That men have loved men since the dawn of time. It actually reminded me of ancient Greece and some of what I’ve read about that period. Sure, in our Western Civilization it’s still often frowned upon, often not accepted (or accepted with strings attached – conventional gay relationships/stereotypes/expectations thrust upon you, etc), but in that ‘other’ reality of the prison – ungoverned to a large extent by the socially accepted mores of the outside – it flourished. I know – the counter argument is “yes yes yes – but there were no women in there, it’s a sex thing”. But I disagree entirely with that. These were men having monogamous same-sex relationships that were based on companionship, love, understanding and male bonding; not purely on sex. Of course there will be lots of sex-only based relationships, it’s no different to other all male environments *cough* boarding school *cough*. But this revealed (and reminded me…) of the much, much wider panoply of male-to-male relationships that can and do exist…

Another example were those ultra ‘butch’ white guys he had lunch with who were as hard as nails, saying anyone who shared their food with a black inmate would be beaten up (the entirety of the prison self-segregate along racial lines, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). Anyway, they hugged one another when they were split to go back to their own cells. It was automatic. It’s fairly safe to presume they do this every day of their lives.

There was then a bit on the white supremacist ex-Nazi, a jovial chap, 37 or so. He’s married on the outside and has two children, but has fallen in love with a bubbly young thing called Chris who wears a little mascara and is a pound or two overweight. Chris also happens to be Jewish. I almost wept. It was desperately touching. Just seeing how they were with each other.

There is so much about same-sex relationships that is entirely lost behind cliché, the all-enveloping rainbow flag and the ‘count yourself in’ brigade. This was the antithesis – the ‘back to basics’ – a revelation and reminder of the primal nature of male-to-male relationships. And it was brilliant.

Am keen to hear the views of others who watched it.


See clips of the episode and read more about it here on the BBC website.

Or, watch the whole thing online using the BBC iPlayer (I think you have to be resident in the UK for this to work).

EDIT: There’s also a good article on the BBC (news site), on their magazine pages. This appears to give a lot more detail about San Quentin and about the program itself, what they encountered, etc.

18 responses

  1. Aaargh! I missed it! BBC iPlayer, here I come. You’re right about men loving men though: it’s been around so long I’m constantly surprised people aren’t bored of talking about it.

    14 January 2008 at 7:21 am

  2. kim diggins

    I found the programme very interesting, but wished you could have spent some time, on death row, as i actually write to someone who is on there. He is an innocent man, and is trying to appeal against his conviction. Well done on a good programme.

    14 January 2008 at 7:19 pm

  3. Sveny – lol!

    Kim – I don’t have anything to do with the program or the BBC, I just wrote about it on my blog after watching it! However – I agree with you. Was amazed that they did almost nothing on death row.

    They kept talking about ‘the hole’ which looked quite scary and those cage things weren’t pleasant either. They did also talk about the large amount of drugs in the prison. That Silva guy, who was serving 500+ years, was fascinating to hear. He just seemed so lucid and self-aware, not how I’d imagined a serial killer to be… I just found the whole thing really insightful. HMPS would never allow something like that here I doubt.

    14 January 2008 at 7:30 pm

  4. Lance

    Without implying anything I would have preferred to see a more racially balanced perspective in that I never got to understand what life was like for Chris’ friend(the african american gu) and he looked lost just following around and it would have been interesting to find out what the other gangs had to say. Like I said, this is a critical review and not meant in any other way, does anyone concur?

    15 January 2008 at 12:21 am

  5. Lance

    I must also add that it was a brilliant documentary covering all the aspects of prison life and I would give it 4 stars

    15 January 2008 at 12:23 am

  6. bigfishlittlefish


    I always enjoy watching Louis Theroux, but there is a nagging insincerity in some of what he does if that makes sense.

    Particularly enjoyed the irony of Chris explaining to Louis why he ‘femmed up’; look at the man Chris, you think its an accident all these huge guys feel comfortable talking to him? Thank god for the English accent eh Louis…

    15 January 2008 at 10:03 am

  7. Lance – agreed the perspective given was a bit skewed. Considering the huge number of black and Latino inmates, it would have been good to have understood them some more. I guess the almost total self-segregation didn’t surprise me as I’d heard that it’s often like that in prisons. Not sure about this country but would assume similar.

    Bigfish – yup, that insincerity is part and parcel of his style in my opinion. He’s in his absolute element in America because he is ultra-dry, ridiculously deadpan (bordering on the monstrously sarcastic) and they usually have no idea whatsoever; which is why it’s so funny (for us) to watch. He’s not dissimilar to Borat in that what he does is borderline ‘mockumentary’.

    15 January 2008 at 10:20 am

  8. bigfishlittlefish

    I suppose it is part of his style; but no less (occasionally) offensive for that. He seems to bolt on a lot of his conclusions in the editing suite after working out which part of the story is the most entertaining. Feels a little exploitative… he gets away with it because what he is doing is almost a serious documentary. Almost.

    And im not sure if this is terribly bad form (in which case apologies, im new to this blogging lark) but are my thoughts on the program.

    oh, re the Greeks/sexual norms: i agree. just goes to show that these things are a lot more fluid than people would like to think. nothing more frightening than things that dont fit in a box!

    15 January 2008 at 10:45 am

  9. BFLF (tricky name you have, how would you like to be called?) – no worries re: posting the blog. I will check it out in more depth at home (CEO has line of sight to my monitor which is unfortunate). Glimpsed it and your take on Theroux looked most interesting though!

    And totally agree with you re: the fluidity thing. Society loves, more than anything else, to pigeon-hole people with labels (this is worse on the other side of the pond where most people are ‘hyphenated’, I’m sure) and that doc blew much of that out the water.

    15 January 2008 at 12:26 pm

  10. stuart

    Glad you all enjoyed the film….just to say that Californian law forbids filming on Death Row hence the reason it couldn’t be featured in the film.

    15 January 2008 at 5:37 pm

  11. Stuart – I just noticed your email address from the admin side of my blog – you were the cameraman/director right?! Thank you very much for stopping by. I have a few more questions if you don’t mind me asking…

    That scene in the training area when all the inmates had to sit down and you were in the middle of them all and the atmosphere suddenly went nasty looked extremely scary?! Was that the most intimidating bit of the shoot?

    How did this compare with others you’ve done (such as the plastic surgery one, the Hollywood swingers one, the US wrestling and perhaps my other favourite – at home with the Hamiltons!)?

    I remain fascinated by the number of ‘man/women’ as the camera panned – just wasn’t what I had expected. Anything else that struck you about the social interaction between the inmates? Really keen to hear any other thoughts or insights you had from first hand experience, however brief.

    Disclaimer: this being the internet I’m taking the liberty of dropping you an email (I notice your email address is your full name and it’s a UK ISP, rather than a hotmail, yahoo etc) – meaning if you reply I’ll be 99% sure you’re who you say you are! Hope you don’t mind, it’s just it’s so easy for people to assume others’ identities online.

    15 January 2008 at 7:24 pm

  12. bigfishlittlefish

    Err, yes, it is a little awkward isnt it. whatever you feel is suitable.

    I was similarly impressed that a walking pace was maintained when leaving the yard. And that paedophile with the thin lips was pretty terrifying. All that denial and equivocation. Nasty.

    15 January 2008 at 9:07 pm

  13. AAARGH I MISSED IT! Thought I’d set it to record – – still, BBC, they’ll repeat it – – enjoyed the review though, thank you.

    15 January 2008 at 9:56 pm

  14. Dome


    The most disturbing thing about the Silva guy’s crimes was the fact that he hadn’t actually been convicted of killing anyone – which he admitted to Louis but that his non-homicide crimes were so violent (torture, rape etc) that he had still received a thousand year sentance

    great show – I love Louis and everything he does

    His Dad’s a great writer too if anyone’s interested – the mosquito coast is a great read.

    16 January 2008 at 11:28 am

  15. Dome – hi. Ah, that clarifies it somewhat. I did hear a reference to torture which made me shiver a little. Just so odd, because he seemed almost… well, outgoing and an interesting and perhaps quite a witty/humorous person. He actually reminded me a lot of someone I knew at university in the US.

    Oh, I agree with you re: the father. I’ve read Mosquito Coast and loved it. I think I’ve read one or two of his other works but can’t remember the names offhand.

    16 January 2008 at 11:35 am

  16. Pingback: Tom Waits for no man (easiest joke ever) « Moore Than This

  17. wendy adams

    Loved the programme, as I do have a real fascination on the american prison society. I’ve been writing to my friend on death row at san quentin for the last 30 years. Why Louis did you not feature a segment of your show on death row? Was it too dangerous for you and your crew? Death row would have been interesting to feature. I hope you will do this next time

    28 January 2008 at 5:38 am

  18. wendy adams

    oops just read the reason why filming not allowed on death row, california forbids it

    28 January 2008 at 5:42 am

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