What you may be about to watch is not easy, but it is important”.
So went Terry Pratchett’s opening gambit in the extraordinary documentary, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, which finally aired on Tuesday, months after news of its existence was propelled on to the front pages of a BBC-bashing Daily Mail report accusing the corporation of being a “cheerleader to assisted suicide”.
It was anything but.
All I’d ever known about Terry Pratchett was that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago and now, aged 60, had been handed the task of fronting a highly personal and controversial film looking at the issue of assisted dying.
Pratchett, who admits he wants to die at a time of his own choosing, was clearly wrestling with the rights and wrongs of euthanasia which are open to anyone, at a price (£10,000) at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich.
Along a journey that ends, as anyone watching surely knew, with the filming of a death, Pratchett talked openly and honestly about his condition and meets others locked in their own minds or bodies.
Such as the chirpy, middle aged former London taxi driver now living in a hospice in a body racked by motor neurone disease..It was painful to watch him cheerily run through his “Knowledge” watched by Pratchett.
Here was a man, with a perfectly functioning mind trapped in a body collapsing around him, conversing with a physically spry world famous writer, whose mental powers were decreasing by the proverbial second.
Eventually, we met Andrew, aged 42, diagnosed nine years earlier with MS and preparing for the final flight to Switzerland and the modern day hemlock that would end his life.
We later watched as Pratchett left Andrew to spend his final hours with his mother after the three had talked in remarkably calm and occasionally high spirited fashion about the choices he had made.
When, at the appointed time Andrew was to die, Pratchett listened to Elgar’s Nimrod via a laptop. The tinny sound of a beautiful music playing through a PC slowly morphed into piece being played as it should. Pratchett stared into space, clutching a restorative glass of whisky.
It was hard not to cry.
Eventually, it was Peter Smedley’s turn to end his life with his wife by his side. The pair of them were extraordinarily stoical. “Are you having tea or coffee, darling? “I am having a coffee darling”. And so on. They could have been waiting for an appointment at the opticians.
The Dignitas doctor asked Peter: “Are you sure you want to die? “Yes”, replied Peter, “I am sure, yes, I am sure”. And with that he effectively signed his own death warrant. All the time chomping on Swiss pralines.
After taking the initial drug, the nurse kept Peter informed: “The next one is…” “...the killer” said Peter, calmly, matter-of-factly.
He imbibed, looked around, said his farewells and then fell into a final sleep as his wife caressed his motionless hands. It was over.
Pratchett was speechless and so must have been the millions watching.
So what might be the legacy of this film? Certainly, it will keep the debate raging about the moral rights and wrongs of assisted dying and whether or not it should be made legal in this country.
Pratchett was careful not to commit either way, rather instead he left it up to the viewer. For what it’s worth, this viewer was struck more than anything by the complete and utter conviction of those going ahead with it and the total support of their loved ones. They hadn’t simply rocked up at a snow-blanketed clinic and asked to die, they had thought long and hard and come to a very personal decision.
Pratchett described Peter as “the bravest man I’ve ever met”. I don’t concur with that, but both men in their different ways have done much to inform us all on what will remain one of the great moral questions of our times.
Anything else this week seemed to pale into comparison, even Luther (BBC1, Tuesday). The premise of the programme is pretty straightforward - a troubled and very maverick cop running a serial killer unit - but the very odd relationship between Luther and the psychopath Alice from the first series (the excellent Ruth Wilson) is stretching the imagination to say the least.
Colleagues described the last series as “bonkers, but great fun” and the second series looks like more of the same. Fortunately, Idris Elba in the title role is magnetic as anyone who saw him as Stringer Bell in The Wire would know. He brushes off a simultaneous Taser and Parva spray attack like he’d just banged his head on the shed door and brazenly wanders into rescue a scantily clad teenage girl as she’s about to be set upon on the set of a porn film. That’s Luther for you.
Stick with it, even if it is nonsense.