Television

For all its absurdity, it delivers the goods: BBC2's Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America reviewed

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America

BBC2

Rigs of Nigg

BBC4

In the latest episode of Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, Louis asked a rapper called Broke Baby if ‘it’s important to keep it real’. ‘You have to play your role,’ replied Broke by way of apparent agreement. Given how stoned he was, this neat paradox — that you keep it real by pretending to — mightn’t have been wholly intended. Either way, however, it was hard not to apply it to Louis himself. More than 20 years into his TV career, does anybody know for sure whether his familiar schtick is genuine or faked? Certainly not, I’d suggest, Louis — whose elaborate stage-English courtesy, wide-eyed bemusement and spectacular naivety are now so practised as to have become completely ingrained.

On Sunday, he was in Florida to investigate what he called — maybe disingenuously, maybe not — ‘one of America’s most creative music scenes’. Trap and SoundCloud are its main genres: both much concerned with drugs, guns, ‘bitches’, money and murderous threats to other rappers. So, wondered Louis at his most wide-eyed, could it be that such leading exponents as Hotboii, GlokkNine and NWM Cee Murdaa are ‘slightly glamourising the thug life’?

To find out, he hung out with many of the rappers (whose bemusement at him definitely wasn’t faked), heroically managing not to say ‘no’ when they ended their stoned rambles with the words ‘You know what I’m saying?’ He also watched their videos with them, making comments that did nothing to clear up the question of his sincerity. ‘I like the counterpoint,’ he remarked after hearing a new track by Broke Baby.

As ever, though, there was another Louis paradox on display: for all its moments of absurdity, the programme somehow delivered the goods. The rappers themselves mightn’t have made much sense. Yet by the end, their senselessness had provided alarming proof of a total and, it would seem, widely shared estrangement from American civic society. When faced with, say, Louis’s query about the potential contradictions in making a music video celebrating guns while at the funeral of friend who’d just been shot, they failed not merely to answer, but to understand what he was on about. Even sadder was the scene where some rappers led a bunch of awestruck neighbourhood children in a gun-related singalong, suggesting that the next generation is unlikely to be very different.


A rather more heart-warming documentary was Thursday’s Rigs of Nigg. During the 1970s, following the discovery of North Sea oil, the small coastal Highland town of Nigg found itself at the centre of a huge engineering project led by a Texan company to build ‘the largest oil structure in the world’: a rig to be towed out to sea.

And with that, the transformation of Nigg began. First, local folks who’d been getting £6 a week ‘from Colonel Ross for working on the farm’ were trained up for jobs that would earn nearly ten times that. Then, once it became clear there weren’t enough locals for the task at hand, thousands of people from Britain’s industrial cities were brought in.

All of course needed places to live, and on the whole they found them: whether in caravans, on disused Greek cruise ships or simply by staying with nearby families for ‘a few days’ that turned into several years. Wisely, the owner of Nigg’s quayside pub changed his mind about his pre-project plan to sell up — and saw his weekly sales of beer go from 400 pints to 5,000. Meanwhile, the fact that the workers received pay cheques rather than cash meant many wives knew for the first time how much money their husbands had, which led to a tenfold rise in the purchase of fridges, ovens and washing machines.

The programme spoke to an impressively wide range of those involved, from the engineers who explained the technical challenges to a female welder who cheerfully began one anecdote with, ‘I remember when my hair went on fire.’ All reminisced with a winning sense of wonder at how radically things changed in a previously sheltered community. The Texans (‘with strange names like Ike, Hank and Leroy’) seem to have been a particular hit, inspiring a hitherto unknown Highland fondness for cowboy boots and big hats — although the natives did draw the line at spittoons.

The always-touching effect was of people who’ve been bursting to tell their stories to a wider public for years, and weren’t going to waste the chance now they’d got it. Equally touching was the obvious and justified pride in what they’d achieved.

Such glory days have long departed from Nigg — but the impact was generally agreed to be permanent. As one resident summarised it: ‘People were shown another aspect of how life could be.’

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