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When TV is a matter of life and death

Chris Jackson | 11:17 UK time, Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett makes viewers and TV producers examine their feelings

I woke up this morning and the first thought to pass through my mind was the moving but harrowing TV documentary I had watched the night before.

Like many, I am sure, I found author Sir Terry Pratchett's examination of the assisted suicide debate a very difficult watch. He has Alzheimer's disease and he's considering whether he should follow in the footsteps of people like Peter Smedley. In the programme Sir Terry and the cameras were there as Peter took the fatal dose at the Dignitas house near Zurich.

Alongside him was his stoical wife Christine, who I felt desperately sorry for as she struggled with her love for her husband and the desire for him to live and the respect for his undoubted desire to end it all before his Motor Neurone Disease progressed any further.

The rights and wrongs of assisted suicide are being debated in great detail elsewhere and I won't add to that here.

After reacting to the programme as an ordinary viewer I was inevitably left looking at the documentary as a TV producer. It raises so many issues. Was it right to show as much of Peter's final moments? Could I have been part of making the film? Could I have been in the room as a seemingly rational man let poison pass his lips and watch him die?

On Inside Out we have had some experience of filming people who are terminally ill. The remarkable thing is that having faced the prospect of their own mortality the thought of cameras prying into their lives can sometimes hold no fear or concern.

Brenda Beecham knew she would die from bowel cancer but she wanted us to follow her as she examined her condition and campaigned for better early diagnosis of the disease, something that would have potentially saved her own life. It was a programme full of joyous moments and not morbid at all.

Mo Mowlam

Former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam died in August 2005

Mo Mowlam who'd always been feisty in her political life and more used to the cameras was equally open to the idea of allowing me and the cameras into her home. There was no doubting on all our parts that the film would be one of her last appearances as her cancer was progressing.

There are more examples besides and of course for others the last thing they would want is to be on TV at all, or to be seen at anything other than their best.

It is a conversation however that many are prepared to have and in our experience the common thread is that when it comes to discussing how, what and where we will film it is more likely to be the TV production team that is tiptoeing round the elephant in the room.

As I am drafting this blog I pause, as the actual producer of the assisted dying programme appears alongside Sir Terry on BBC Breakfast . Charlie Russell, who also filmed some of the sequences himself, explains that Peter and Christine actually invited them in to witness the end.

Charlie seems certain there was no hint of coercion - it was genuinely something that Peter wanted shown and debated.

The awkwardness of watching the couple wrangle over which chocolate he might like to take the taste of the poison away was excruciating to see. Was it because the cameras were present that they were engaging in apparent small talk or was it just true to the nature of an extraordinary situation. How would any of us behave? How should any of us behave?

Sir Terry tells the breakfast TV audience that the couple had been typically "British" about it all. At 71 years old Peter had wished him and the crew "Have a good life" as he had had one himself.

How would I have reacted had I been in the room? I am not certain I could have been strong enough to witness someone who you would have inevitably formed a bond with do something so final.

After filming anything you are then left with the question of editing. What do you include and what do you leave out? In this film the decision could not be more important.

Charlie says the BBC and he were right to go as far as they did. They had the consent of Peter himself and because as extraordinarily difficult as it is to watch, the whole point of the debate is about whether it is possible to have a dignified self-inflicted end and see the practicalities of what that involves.

I don't doubt there would have been hours of ethical agonising in the production process. Whether it was gratuitous, too intrusive or even unnecessary is for the audience to decide, as is the decision whether to switch off. I struggled to watch through to the conclusion but did. I have no doubt there will be lots of complaints.

Am I better informed? Certainly. Could I have made the programme? Not sure.


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