I’m not much of a documentary person. I generally get enough of reality… well, in reality, and enough non-fiction on my various and well-dispersed readings on the Internet. My leisure time entertainment tends to be somewhat more… fantastical, as regular readers will have noted.
Now, Sir Terry Pratchett is not just one of the best-loved fantasy authors in the world, he’s also the man, alongside Douglas Adams, Arthur C Clarke, PG Wodehouse and Isaac Asimov, to provide me with the reading material that weaned me off a steady diet of comics and books-on-tape into the realm of the written word. His humour and love of absurd metaphor has been influencing me since I was 11 years old. One of the first ‘adult’ works of fiction I read was a dog-eared, mis-printed copy of ‘Pyramids’ my brother gave me, and Sir Terry’s latest book, Snuff, is on my Amazon wishlist so I can buy it the second its published.
And so my curiosity was engaged and we iPlayered it last night.
It’s an amazingly sensitive and well crafted piece of filmmaking. Apparently honest and without emotional manipulation (the content is gut wrenching enough without the need for that, I imagine), amazing access, incredible people being unbelievably open about what must have been a remarkably difficult process.
The programme follows Terry Pratchett’s investigations of the practicalities of assisted suicide – illegal in the UK and only manageable for British citizens in Switzerland (despite the fact it is legal elsewhere in Europe, non-locals have to go to Switzerland). He looks in particular at the not-for-profit organisation Dignitas and interacts with two British families going through the process – an MS sufferer and a man suffering from Motor Neurone Diseases. Both in tremendous pain at the end of their tether.
The ordinariness of the proceedings at Dignitas is jaw-dropping. Cups of tea (the secretary general of Dignitas describes himself as a [sic] tea-o-logian), a peaceful garden (in an industrial estate as that’s where the gov’t requires them to be), chats with the empathetic Dignitas workers, the acceptance of the families of the two people going through the process. It was evident that – for those families at least – they’d experienced enough of life that there was some certainty about going through the process.
Terry remains set about his desire to choose a dignified death for himself when his Alzheimer’s – diagnosed three or so years ago – has progressed to the point where he can no longer pursue his passion, his writing. He picks out two critical limitations for himself – for Alzheimer’s patients, once the disease has progressed too far – it may not be possible to make the choice of assisted suicide for yourself. And if you do make that choice earlier – it takes tremendous determination to carry it through. The Dignitas Secretary General observed that the vast majority of people that make contact with Dignitas do it once to get on the books and then don’t get in contact again – the knowledge that the option is there is enough to give many the strength to go on.
I don’t have a well-formulated view on the issue. I can see the rationale for people in vast amounts of pain and suffering, for whom their quality of life has deteriorated to such a point where they just can’t bear to go on. I struggle a little more with the people, as Dignitas puts it, who are just “weary of living,” who they would also support through the process as part of their fundamental view that all people have a right to ‘self-determination.’ But I can understand where Terry is coming from – when he has to go, if one outcome is with his brain addled and his life completely dependent on others, he’d rather choose the time – and preferably the place. He’d like to see it legal in the UK so the end isn’t contingent on a blue house on an industrial estate in Zurich.
The show’s still on iPlayer for those curious. It is heart wrenching and well made, thought provoking and saddening, and worth a watch, despite the debate it’s kicking up and the complaints being submitted.
Postscript. I’ve just noticed the extent of the furore over this programme. It’s not my intent to get drawn into the debate of whether assisted dying is a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t ‘converted’ by the programme and didn’t really consider its agenda – if anything, to me it underlined the importance of the choice of the individual – and I didn’t feel that the programme trivialised, oversimplified or proselytised a specific choice despite Terry’s own agenda. To me it was clear this is a – difficult – personal journey for him.
One of the particularly inspiring moments was Terry’s visit to a hospice where he met someone who had chosen to live with his disease. But that was the impact it had on me – I’m aware there are other perspectives on it. I just found it to be an interesting, thought-provoking and well-made piece of television, and yet another reason I’m glad the BBC exists…