TV Review – 'Choosing To Die'

Posted on: 15 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

Terry Pratchett's exploration of assisted dying raises many questions

Image courtesy of BBC/KEO Films

He's trending on Twitter, he's sold millions of books and he wants to die. Such is the current situation of fantasy author Terry Pratchett, he of the orang-utan librarians, dyslexic 'wizzards' and emotionally complex grim reapers.

He also has Alzheimer's and is contemplating whether to sign the papers to go off and die at Dignatas, the Swiss 'suicide' clinic. But as last night's documentary, Choosing To Die (BBC 2), reminded us, death is never quite the easy answer its advocates claim to be. Pratchett speaks to two prospective Dignitas customers, and one hospice patient stubbornly clinging on despite motor neuron disease. Then there is the final act, where one of the chronically ill men, Peter Smedley, takes a lethal overdose of barbiturates on camera and then soon dies.

At first, the documentary veers to the ridiculous, with far too much artifice and dramatic shooting for such a serious documentary. We don't really need to see Pratchett musing in the car or on the train, nor do the extreme close-ups of his beard as he talks seem appropriate.

But still, it's his documentary, in the sense that it is him who goes to bear witness to these things, his responses and motivations driving proceedings along. He's clinically depressed and increasingly betting the farm on assisted death. After all, you'd be depressed if you now needed to dictate your novels, Barbara Cartland-style, to a bloke in a scarf. There's even a brief flash of anger when he's challenged on his possible suicide by a hospice worker.

And yet to his credit, Pratchett remains a calm, ambivalent and objective figure (it's often forgotten that he used to be a journalist), afraid to be pitied and all too aware that he is in a society that values those that 'can do', and is tough on those who 'can't'. His future, if he can't exercise his choice to die, is one where he will no longer be able to make his feelings clear, and where his wife will have to be his full-time carer.

Still, Pratchett's responses to what he sees are muddled too. 'One day there will be protocols for days like this' he says with bleak humour, when meeting a friend about to go through with his suicide. But he doesn't sound all that convinced himself. Suicide itself doesn't seem to be in his nature, and yet he feels driven towards it. This dilemma is what drives the documentary. “I can't believe the calmness” he says.

The other theme running through the documentary is the notion of death as it is envisaged by the 'Right to Die' movement. Being described variably as 'an easy way out', a means towards freedom, and simply another consumer choice, it's hard to feel comfortable with the notion.

'Death with dignity', after all, is a mantra, a distorted perspective, with assisted dying often seen as a convenient way of avoiding hard decisions. Sometimes it comes across as a fear of life, when life means something other than pleasure, while the rhetorical question 'why shouldn't I?' seems to be the only reason you need to give.

Still, that leaves us with a conflicting question. Just because it's 'your decision', does that make it right? On the other hand, who owns your life if not you? Therein lies the problem.

It doesn't help that the ever so slightly creepy Dignitas clinic gets a too-easy ride here. The other option, of proper support and care for the terminally and chronically ill, is overlooked. Instead we have an alternative that charges £10,000 for a quick, clean death that's glib, euphemised (as opposed to euthanised) and too tidy. Perhaps this reflects how we see our lives and, increasingly, our deaths.

It all seems macabre, what with the longed-for 'wonderful release' and claims that now's the time to do it while 'the going is good...' The timing of one suicide, just before Christmas, would be a sick joke if it wasn't so serious, or underpinned by the saddest moment amongst many: A mother accusing herself of being selfish for not wanting her son to die. It seems the need to fall in line behind this expression of 'self' is crushing.

It also reaches absurd heights. As a heartbroken Terry Pratchett has a drink in honour of a now-dead friend, the dead man's 'official' suicide soundtrack of favourite songs and themes plays in the background, underlining the simple fact that suicide is, in a sense, a profoundly narcissistic affair.

And while the starkness of the filming doesn't exactly soft-soap the process at Dignitas, it doesn't ask enough questions. Isn't it, after all, a conflict of interest that the doctor who assesses you before your suicide is hired by Dignatas? And it's hard not to feel like a voyeur for all the documentary's good intentions.

And while the doctor who gives Peter Smedley his overdose comes across as well intentioned and kind, the death we see is too casual, like it was a measuring of cough syrup casually slugged back.

As we watch through a shot of a camera itself filming the suicide, sweetened with chocolate, we see no real dignity. There is just a cry for water, then snoring and then death, all dressed up as an afternoon snooze. It's just a set of procedures and formalities, before and after. Is this what it really comes down to?

Of course, we are neither the ones who want to make the choice nor the ones left behind. But there is no true dignity in death, as any pathologist will tell you, nor ease in our parting. It is how we live and are remembered that matters, and sometimes suicide risks undoing both.

In fact, it seems 'assisted dying' is just trying to substitute the pain of death with something clinical and abstract. Yet it remains an unconvincing prospect, for all Pratchett's wish to one day 'die in the sun'. Sometimes, the sun does indeed shine in Switzerland, he says, hopefully. But often it does not.

Many thanks to the BBC/KEO Films for the image used with this article.

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Alexander Hay

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