TV review: A time to die

For some with a terminal illness, their fear is not death but leaving the last bits of life unused, says Gary Day

June 23, 2011

The Right Reverend Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, did not like Terry Pratchett's film, Choosing to Die (BBC Two, Monday 13 June, 9pm). At first he was "concerned", then he was "disturbed" (Choosing to Die: Newsnight Debate, BBC Two, Monday 13 June, 10pm). He thought that it was "one-sided" and questioned its "ethical basis".

Comedian and disability rights campaigner Liz Carr went even further. With the film, the BBC had become "the cheerleaders of assisted suicide". This seemed a cheap shot. No one who saw Christine Smedley stroke her husband Peter's hand as he fell into his final sleep at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland could fail to have been moved by his bravery or her stoicism.

But Liz's point was that if we legalise assisted suicide then pressure, particularly in this economic climate, would be placed on those who are considered a burden to end their lives. The bishop, whose daughter has Down's syndrome, said that we should "help people to live rather than to die". He also spoke a lot about the dignity of life and the need to protect the poor and the vulnerable, "those without choice". He seemed like a nice man. It made you wonder why he'd joined the Church.

The law on this matter is unclear, even less so now that it's been clarified. The Suicide Act 1961 forbids anyone to aid or abet another in bringing about their own death. "If it is deemed to be in the interests of society that my wife can go to jail for 14 years," Peter wrote to his solicitor, "then I am sure Mrs Smedley will be happy to do her time." This was wrong on both counts. Guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions imply that Christine is unlikely to go to prison, but Peter's much greater error was to imagine that his wife could be happy without him, even in jest. She did not want her husband to kill himself, but she respected his choice. It's called love. And sometimes it can be very, very hard.

Peter suffered from motor neuron disease. He knew what awaited him: loss of mobility and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing. "The other day I fell over and couldn't get up," he said. Terry, who has a bob or two himself, marvelled at the opulence in which the couple lived. "There's a wine cellar I would kill for," he said admiringly, if slightly tactlessly, given the situation. Christine showed him a model of the red sports car Peter had when he was young. "He used it to pull birds," she said with a smile. "You both seem to be taking this very calmly," said Terry. "I work on keeping up a good front," said Christine. The family business was canning. Sealing things in tins had served both husband and wife well.

Mick Gordelier also suffers from motor neuron disease, but he has no desire to take a trip to Switzerland. Before the disease took him between its teeth, he had been a taxi driver. "Can you still drive around London in your head?" asked Terry. "Yeah," said Mick. "Where do you want to go?" "The Athenaeum," said Terry. "Woolwich Road, Jamaica Road, Tower Bridge, left on the Embankment." "Yes, that's right," said Terry, prompting speculation that he may have moonlighted as a cabbie. "That'll be £28.50," said Mick. He is the spit of the chirpy cockney. His body may have been forced into a wheelchair, but his spirit roams free. All right, so he's got a terminal illness. No point in bringing about sooner what's going to happen later. "Let's have another throw of the dice. Hospice. Yeah. Let's have some of that."

Terry had now heard both sides. But this wasn't some academic exercise. He has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. His memory is already crumbling and he can no longer type. The time will come when he will not be able to write and then "I will not want to live", he said. The problem with his condition is that if he waits until the disease takes hold, then he will not be in a position to give his consent, and he doesn't want to give his consent while his mind is still relatively intact. It's not the fear of something after death that scares Terry, but the thought of leaving the last bits of life unused. Ripeness is all.

The Newsnight debate was disappointing because the participants did not respond to the individuals portrayed in the film. The bishop couldn't see beyond his own pieties to the very real dilemmas of Peter, Christine and others. Liz protested about the lack of safeguards even when a doctor employed by Dignitas waved them under her nose. Sometimes it's harder to escape the confines of the mind than it is of the body.

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