Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Two documentaries show it's important to choose your subject carefully

<strong>Louis Theroux: Gam

Some targets are so large that it takes a special sort of genius to miss them. Las Vegas is the fastest-growing hell in America. More and more people choose to live there. Visitors, although they can take day trips to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, mostly stay in their hotels - giant casinos with thousands of rooms above - gambling round the clock. Time is abolished, as these places have no windows and no clocks on their walls. The hotel shops do not sell books or magazines, in case you stay in your room reading. Room rates used to be dirt cheap to lure the gamblers in. Then hotels discovered that charging normal prices made no difference. The addicts came anyway.

Louis Theroux missed all of these salient facts, but then he is never one for providing context, even if the context of this documentary's scheduling was the announcement that Britain's 24-hour super-casino is to be sited in Manchester. He likes people, and the intimacy he achieves often produces wonderful results. His films on the Hamiltons, Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Paul Daniels, American televangelists and the husbands of Thai brides (he ended up as best man to one of them) were truly memorable. He never pretends to like his subjects more than he does, but each probably now regrets liking him as much as he or she did.

For this outing (4 February, 9pm), he befriended the Las Vegas Hilton. We met Richard, the hotel employee responsible for toadying up to the casino's highest rollers, among them his "friend" Alan, a Canadian mattress millionaire. Alan spends so much on the gaming floor that he gets to stay in his room, a not-so-mini version of Versailles, for free.

At the other end of the wealth scale were two youngish salesmen, John and Tim, there for the weekend. John, who initially boasted of his "technique", was soon enough $14,000 down and making a slightly deranged "I'm not a quitter" speech. Tim, mildly drunk, wept like a crocodile at his plight. Between the two extremes lay a wealthy but not insanely wealthy little old lady called Martha, who in seven years had managed to lose $4m on the hotel's slot machines.

Theroux had only three questions to ask the punters: Are you winning? Can you afford to lose so much? Don't you realise the Hilton is being nice to you only because you are making the hotel so rich? (The replies were no, yes and yes.) He settled for moralising when he should have been attempting a psychological investigation of what made them gamble. Seeing the "logic" of gambling by winning some dosh himself was not enough. From the banal title they chose onwards, Theroux and his producer, Stuart Cabb, could have tried harder.

More impressive was Theroux's older rival Christopher Sykes, whose documentary on Channel 4 on Saturday 3 February - Do You Want to Live Forever? (6.35pm) - tackled another topical subject, this one made current by Bryan Appleyard's well-reviewed book How to Live Forever or Die Trying. (Incidentally, this slack use of "forever" annoys me. To quote Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage: "For ever" means "for eternity" or "for one's lifetime"; "forever" means "constantly or continually", as in: "He's forever singing that song.")

Sykes profiled Dr Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge biologist who claims to have identified seven deadly things that make us age and die. Each, he asserted, can be conquered within the next few decades. The microscope-peering scientific community finds these highly speculative theories irritating. Although Sykes clearly had the loosest grasp of the science involved, he mounted a proper investigation of the claims and reached a proper psychological conclusion: that de Grey's quest for the elixir of life could be explained by his having married a woman 19 years older than himself. It was a love story all along.

Both documentary-makers don a mask of reluctant scepticism. The difference here was that Sykes was willing to take on someone cleverer than himself while Theroux, once again, aimed his charm at those more stupid.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Primeval
10 February, 7.45pm, ITV1
Dinosaurs rush through the time portal: ITV crawls on to the sci-fi bandwagon.

The Verdict
11 February, 9pm, BBC2
Mock rape trial features J Archer as juror. Well, they say justice is blind.

Life on Mars
13 February, 9pm, BBC1
It's yesterday once more. Hurrah!

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia