Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die

Tuesday 14 June 2011, 10:56

Charlie Russell Charlie Russell Producer/Director

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Two years ago I directed Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer's for BBC Two, following the author on and off for a year to document his early days with Alzheimer's.

By the end of it Terry and I knew each other well and I had won his trust.

We seem to know instinctively what the other is thinking at any one time. He needs the minimum of guidance, so my role in filming Choosing To Die was often just to capture what he was experiencing.

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

He is brilliant at wrestling with the moral conundrums that the subject throws up - not least because he is genuinely considering some form of assisted death for himself.

But I was still surprised at how emotional he found the experience of making this film.

I had never seen him cry until we went to Switzerland.

We knew that if we wanted this film to be entirely honest about assisted dying then it was important to show the whole process, including the death itself.

When Peter, the man who dies on-camera in the film, agreed to let us record his end, the challenge was to film it respectfully, sensitively, but most of all truthfully.

We don't romanticise it - there could be no fade to black before he drank the poison.

It is up to you to decide whether his last moments are deeply moving, distressing, or rather ordinary.

I suspect it is a little bit of each of these and, depending on your own family's experiences, so much more.

Helping someone have an assisted death is still technically illegal, so we were very careful to make sure that we were there purely as impartial observers.

We didn't break the law, though it was impossible not to feel a deep connection with Peter and his wife - and for Andrew and his mother, who also journeyed to Dignitas.

Everyone involved in the production, no matter what their views on legalising assisted dying, has been profoundly affected by the experience.

I hope that you are too.

Charlie Russell is the director and producer of Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die.

Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die is available in iPlayer until Monday, 20 June.

Choosing To Die: A Newsnight debate with Terry Pratchett and Jeremy Paxman is also available in iPlayer until Monday, 20 June.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Thank you Charlie Russell and thank you Sir Terry. I find it hard to keep writing about my own experience of Dignitas so if I may, I'll just post a copy of the letter which I sent to them after seeing your Television programme.

    Dear People At Dignitas,

    I have just watched a programme on BBC television, made by Sir Terry Pratchett and I want to say "Thank you" again to all of you.

    Ivan came to you for help and you did not refuse him. At that time, back in December 2008 you did not have the little blue house - but for Ivan that didn't matter. I saw Erika and I remember her kindness (she gave me a hug afterwards). His death was more difficult than usual because he needed to be given the drug intravenously and all did not go to plan.

    But Ivan got what he wanted, with your help and I know that he would want me to thank you and to remind you of the kindness and the good work which you do.

    The past two years have been very very hard for me and of course I still miss him terribly. But seeing another man and his wife go through with this has helped me. In a strange way I found it a comfort - when I didn't expect that.

    One day, maybe, we will be able to make a choice about the time of our death in our own country. This would be my hope. Until then I will ALWAYS be grateful to you and to the people of Switzerland for helping. I understand that it is still controversial in your country too - but the difference is that there are enough people there who think that this is a reasonable choice to be able to make.

    Thank you again,

    Yours faithfully and with gratitude,

    Keith C Balding.

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    Comment number 2.

    I think the BBC have done well to bring this issue to the fore. In amongst the roots of society where I spend most of my time, there is a common desire for something to be done about giving people more control over what happens to them as they approach death. The more discussion and enlightenment on how things are done now compared to how they might be done better in the future, can only help.

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    Comment number 3.

    This was an excellent programme and it is good that at last someone is supporting those of us who want the Human Rights Act to be used to support our right to die in the comfort of our own country, if not in the comfort of our own homes, when we choose to.
    I hope that Politicians and others who think that they should determine our right to die and not allow us the same freedom, will think again.
    I hope that this programme will lead to a huge campaign.
    Well done Terry Pratchett, the whole team and the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    People have a choice to live or die, and i work in a nursing home at the end of life I dont think that the elderly people Ive looked after wants to live like a cabbage and loose their dignity that someone has to clean them, dressed them, bathed them. But they have no choice, Vulnerble peolple with have a long term illness should not suffer. If Im in the situation like the people in documentary I would end my life in switzerland and I am sure my family that i will left behind will understand the situation.

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    Comment number 5.

    It is very interesting documentary of Sir Terry, its very sad. I think that we should respect the choice of those people that wanted to end their life because of the long term illness, If Im in the situation like one of those people in documentary I would not want to live in a nursing home, loosing my dignity and suffer.
    Thats all I can comment
    Thank you very much for this documentary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    what an amazing programme,although a little difficult to watch.
    mrs smedley was so supportive of her husband.her family must be very proud of her,it must take an incredibly strong ,loving partner to help their loved ones

    like this.i agree that if a person chooses to end THEIR life like this,it should be allowed,but in their own homes

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Say what you like this is propaganda in favour of non voluntary euthanasia, where a little pressure will encourage the sick and under treated to excerise the right to be deprived of proper attention and treatment. Go for it BBC, your record on truth is challengeable in many areas. Basically, your objective, despite the comments produced here, is to cut costs. What did Hitler say about getting rid of useless eaters? There are very serious ethical issues bound up with giving and witholding treatment, accelerating or delaying the dying process. But those of us attending conferences, producing research papers, and engaging with hospital staff, will not fit in with the BBC's preconceived agenda. Bah, the times I have been interviewed by BBC researchers only to be rejected once I tried to show how complicated these issues are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I find it intensely irritating that people demand a 'balanced' programme, and refer to this marvellous, sensitive, moving documentary as "propaganda". Why should it be balanced? What is to stop another producer making a programme entirely dedicated to the other side of the argument? It is only by studying a moral issue to its limits - on both sides - that we can ever hope to reach a fair, just and ethical outcome which satifies a majority.

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    Comment number 9.

    what an amazing programme,although a little difficult to watch.mrs smedley was so brave and so supportive for her wonderful husband, it must of been very difficult and painful for her.i hope her family are proud of her.it is a very brave decision for someone to have to make and it is probably made a lot worse because they have to leave their own homes to do this.i agree with us being able to choose when we need to end our suffering and pain,but we should be able to do so in our own homes with our family around us.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I watched the documentary and went through so many emotions, it was hard hitting but was made with sensitivity. There are arguments for and against and everybody has an opinion, but i think unless you are directly affected by the subject we cannot judge or say it is right or wrong, because we are only looking from outside. As for comments saying it was pro suicide, well it was called Choosing to Die! not about living with an illness and how people cope and make the most of thier remaining days. Maybe the BBC should air a programme on that subject then we will see both sides of the coin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    My comment is a response to ProfPheonix. I agree that there are ethical issues in giving and witholding treatment – of course there are – but why can't we include assisted suicide as an option? This programme showed very clearly that the users of Dignitas were acting independently and with sound mind. Dignitas has helped just over 1,000 people in twelve years. That is an average of 83 people per year. I don't know how many people they turn away, but to me, 83 is a small number for an organisation that is available to hundreds of thousands of people, and a reflection of the strict, ethical guidelines Dignitas must use in approving its clients. I wouldn't doubt that the issues are complicated, but I would be interested to know how many people have been forced to do the job themselves, leaving family members traumatised and vulnerable. Why not offer a safe, sanctioned alternative for people who choose to determine their own death? It's a difficult question, and introducing Hitler into the conversation is erroneous, completely unhelpful, and does damage to your credibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Thank you BBC and Sir Terry for a moving and thought provoking programme. #

    I have to say that I find it hard that as humans we are such control freaks! So much so that we even feel the need to be able to control our own deaths. And how very sad that we are programmed to feel useless, a burden or ‘un dignified’ if we require care – I am sure children do not feel all these things.

    I know from personal experience that we can all achieve a peaceful, dignified and pain free death here in this country through the wonderful work of our hospices.

    Surely what we need to do is change peoples thinking. It is alright to be cared for and dignity comes in many forms! Quality of life is about living the life you have left to the full. Enjoy life, it is precious and do not be afraid of death, with the love, care and support of family, friends and the hospice movement it does not have to be something feared and controlled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I would like to thank the BBC and Terry Pratchett for making such a caring and sensitive documentary last night. My sister took her own life many years ago by using barbiturates and I have always worried that she suffered at the last. Having seen how peacefully and with such dignity Peter passed away, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Like many people who have lost someone close because of suicide, we all wish that they had never made that decision. However when circumstances are such that a persons standard of life is no longer worth living, I truly believe that they should have the option to end it in peace and surrounded by those they love.

    Making someone continue in sufference is something we would not even put our pets through, and if people can be prosecuted for leaving an animal to suffer, how can we be so hypocritical as to expect a human to have to go through the same suffering?

    I believe that the decision should only ever be made by the person who wishes to die, but I also believe that they should be able to make a living will that gives permission when they are no longer able to communicate themselves that they should be allowed to go in peace. That too would prevent people who still have much to live for (eg Andrew) ending their own lives too early, for fear that if they do not die now, they will not be able to have the choice later.

    Thank you once again to the BBC for making the program, I know that many people have complained, but I hope that you receive as many praises too for I really think this program deserved them.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I watched your programme out of curiosity; but I was deeply moved by the courage of the people involved, who decided that their lives must be over.
    However, it somehow left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, due to the fact that it seemed all so easy and clinical...where are the boundaries. If a patient is critically ill and bound to die I totally agree with speeding up the process, so that the suffering is over. Here in Holland that is common practice, but apart from hospices for the terminally ill, I do not think we would ever have these kind of "death houses". It all seems very macabre and very sad that people cannot die peacefully in their own homes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I can't help but feel that this was the most balanced documentary I have seen on any subjecty, let alone this highly emotive one. I'm not sure I am entirenly convinced about teh rights and wongs of it, even after this, because it showed aome powerful reasons that argued either way, myself. One thing I did, however, make up my mind to some time ago, and that decisions was only re-inforced by working with disabled people, some of whome didn't even have sufficient mobility in any limb, or sufficient control of their limbs to operated a power wheel chair,and yet they all enjoyed their lives and would never end them. This led to my decision that I will never hasten my own death, however should I die I have no wish to be revived. However that is purely myy own take on this and anyone elses is between them and their conscience, or between them and God.

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    Comment number 18.

    I missed the programme last night and have just watched it on I Player - still wiping away the tears now!

    Well done BBC and particularly well done Terry Pratchett. It's a very difficult subject to approach but one which needs to be addressed. This programme was done with taste and dignity for all involved.

    It was good to see how Dignitas handle each person, how they are assessed to make sure that dying is the right option for them and making sure on several occasions that they are sure they want to die.

    I have known one person go through the horrors of being diagnosed with a terminal illness and witnessed the torture he went through in coming to terms with it. He had Motor Neurone Disease, diagnosed at 58 after a very full and very active life. He knew he couldn't cope with being totally dependant on others and knew he wouldn't cope with still having a totally active mind and totally inactive body. Very little was known about Dignitas at that time but I'm sure if that option had been available it would have been something he would have considered. Instead he took himself off one night, with a bottle of pills, a bottle of brandy and was found a month later in the local river, having gone in on the night he disappearead. It would have been so much kinder for him to have gone to somewhere like Dignitas.

    The programme was in no way propaganda as someone has suggested - just a realistic view of the options that are available to those who find themselves faced with those circumstances. Only the person suffering a disease like MND, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimers etc can know what they can and can't cope with. It should be their choice and their choice alone about how they choose to die. Dignitas just provides an option for them for when they feel that they can't go on any longer.

    Those who believe that organisations like Dignitas clearly have no compassion and no understanding for the situations that Terry Pratchett and the 2 men on the programme are/were in.

    Ultimately if someone is going to die anyway at the hands of a particularly nasty disease for which there is no cure....it's their life and they should have the right to choose how they're going to die. I hope that those who are sat in judgement against Dignitas etc never have to go through those circumstances as they would never cope!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    What an amazingly sensitively put together programme. My respect to all of those involved.
    Mrs. Smedley as Sir Terry said "you make us proud to be British"
    So touched by this sensitive issue, lets hope that the government consider the relevant changes.
    Sincere thanks to the Smedley family for allow us all to be a part of such a powerful, moving event.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Loaded with heart wrenchingly palpable scenes. Perhaps it is strange but the programme offered a sense of Macabre fulfilment because it really encourages you to assess and question what you think is right. Your synapses are alight with the tragic dichotomy of either outcome for Andrew or Peter you have met not even an hour ago. You are left, like Terry, with a feeling of loss and uncertainty. Terry’s rudimentary question of ‘who owns your life’ echoing around your very being. Crushingly sad and without resolution for our narrator but fantastic programming from the BBC. Informative, all encompassing, and intelligent.


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