Theroux seems to relish the challenge in his documentary on BBC2, Law and Disorder in Philadelphia. The endearingly weedy Theroux is seen bounding in and out of police cars, thrust into the frontline of rapid response teams. “My first thought was, If I get killed it’s not because I’m going to get shot or mugged, it’s because I’m going to die in a car accident”, he says. “The cops are unbelievable because they’re breaking all the red lights, going down one-way streets the wrong way, going down the middle of the road in heavy traffic, and dodging other cars.”
The new documentary is certainly his riskiest assignment yet. The BBC’s safety guidelines meant he had to wear a bulletproof vest so thick he was unable to do up his seatbelt. But you can’t blame the production team for being cautious when you consider that there are an estimated 400 homicides a year in Philadelphia, more than 10,000 aggravated assaults and almost 40,000 thefts.
On the other hand, you might say Theroux’s style is sometimes dangerous because it could easily backfire. In an innocent-seeming, almost boyish way he asks the blunt questions that other journalists might want to ask but doesn’t have the nerve. Critics have accused him of faking naïvety, in order to lull his subjects into a false sense of security. But he says there’s nothing cynical in his approach.
“I just believe in taking people at their word and I’m inclined to trust people”, he says. “Maybe I’m a bit naive or overly trusting because when somebody lies to me I’m shocked. But I think it’s good manners to take people at their word.” Indeed, as Law and Disorder in Philadelphia show, Theroux’s trusting interview style actually helps him elicit more information from hostile criminals than his all-action, macho peers such as Ross Kemp and Donal MacIntyre. The new film may not be as quirky as the ones that made him famous, but Theroux has again succeeded in exposing his audience to an alien world.