Did we like it?
The legendary Jimmy Savile documentary apart, Louis has always been more interesting and better served by his ‘weird weekend’ type projects, and this was a return to form as he visited the Phelps family in America who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets against homosexuals (‘fags’), even at military funerals.
What was good about it?
• It’s difficult to describe some of these things as ‘good’ – but they were certainly jaw-dropping. Shirley Phelps, who seemed to be in charge of much of the picketing, began the programme by saying to Louis: “God hates you. Just don’t think of fags as those guys who are taking it up the tail pipes.” And immediately we saw the extent of this insane family’s sickness.
• Louis, as usual, showed admiral restraint throughout the programme, even when sheer anger must have been building inside of him. He also came up with some classic understated lines, such as when he suggested Jesus had ‘other priorities’ than concerning himself with homosexuality.
• Louis not feeling comfortable enough on occasions to stand too close to the picketing.
• The moment when, after Shirley argued with successive drivers angry at their picketing, Louis said: “You know, the reaction has been almost 100% negative. Is there maybe another way of delivering the message?” Shirley maintained they were not in the business of saving souls.
• The moment when the family picketed a store selling Swedish hoovers because they disagreed with a law about homosexuals in Sweden.
• The wise decision with the funeral of soldier Craig Foitec to film the mourners rather than the picketing. This really emphasised the cruelty of the Phelps’s, and the dignified funeral contrasted sharply with the flippancy of the picketing.
• Yet despite all of these points, and the ones below, Louis rightly pointed out that away from religion and the picketing, this seemed to be a genuinely warm family who cared about each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Apart from Steve Drain and the pastor Fred Phelps, most of the family were even pretty likeable when not holding up their odious signs.
• Several times Louis almost got through to one or two members of the family, even Shirley at one time. But the closest he got was with 21-year-old Jale Phelps. He persevered with her and right at the end there was a superb piece where she was wavering. As she spoke, the positivity in her beliefs seemed to be frail and she hinted that she had doubted in the past. She was sitting in the car and behind her the young kids were loading the truck with the placards. For a brief moment we felt she might crack and just drive away. But by trotting out a few stock phrases she pulled herself together and got out the car.
What was bad about it?
• Not bad about the programme, but it was particularly offensive to watch the family picket a military funeral. They believe that soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have been struck down for fighting for a depraved nation. Theroux revealed in the BBC podcast after the programme that on one occasion one of the group informed the daughter of the soldier being buried that he was now in hell.
• They’re picketing is almost so offensive as to be laughable, yet it was sad to watch them infuse their own young children with their hurtful beliefs. Louis suggested that the seven-year-old girl had no idea what her sign meant, and neither did the young son, Noah. When asked by Shirley: “If you’re not a practising fag, but you support it, what are you?” Noah looked doubtful before answering: “You’re a dyke,” thereby beautifully and unwittingly exposing the ridiculous nature of their name-calling.
• All the children of the group were outcasts at school, and while they claimed not to care there were moments when it was clear that it bothered them. “Who’d want to marry us?!” one laughed with her sisters – they all laughed with her, but it was a tell-tale comment. When challenged by Louis they often resorted to parroting phrases: “Friendship with the world is emnity with God.”
• The frankly loathsome Steve Drain, a documentary film-maker who came to document the family and ended up staying with them. Louis felt he might be able to get through to him, but he was irritatingly obstinate and refused to argue coherently or with any patience.
• Some of the signs they carried were unbelievable – ones preaching against Desmond Tutu, for example, or one that said: “Royal in Hell Whore” with a picture of Princess Diana. Drain explained she was a ‘fag-enabler’.
• Shirley was always worrying about fornication. Amazing for a woman with eleven children.
• Worst of all was the reclusive patriarch, Fred Phelps, so insecure in himself that he refused to answer most of Louis’ questions and was continually downright rude to him. A man so deranged and full of hate that his sermons resorted to unintelligible ramblings about baby-eating.
• We can see why Theroux chose not to do so, but it might have been interesting to have seen an interview with one of the four of 13 of Fred’s daughters who had ‘fallen away’ to hear their thoughts on the family.