Entertainment TV Reviews

Saturday 24 February 2018

How to Die: Simon's Choice review - A harrowing final journey

How To Die: Simon's Choice, BBC 2

Dignity: Simon Binner, who suffered from Motor Neurone Disease, ended his life at the Dignitas Clinic. His journey was filmed in the BBC2 documentary ‘How To Die: Simon’s Choice’.
Dignity: Simon Binner, who suffered from Motor Neurone Disease, ended his life at the Dignitas Clinic. His journey was filmed in the BBC2 documentary ‘How To Die: Simon’s Choice’.
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There may very well be a more upsetting and challenging documentary to appear on our screens this year than How To Die: Simon's Choice, but I doubt it.

How To Die: Simon's Choice was difficult to watch and, to be frank, it's even harder to review.

In fact, I'd say this is the most difficult programme I've seen in recent years and reviewing the tape for a second time makes for more harrowing viewing, not less.

Simon Binner was a larger than life character who contracted that hideous, terrifying condition, Motor Neurone Disease.

As his body became its own biggest foe, and conspired to heap ever more indignity and pain on this once vital and vibrant bloke, who bore a striking resemblance to the comedian Greg Davis, Binner made the decision to end his suffering in the ever controversial Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

This is one of those cultural hot button issues which brings out the crazy in some people.

As we have seen in this country, particularly in the wake of Marie Fleming's struggle to end her own life without her partner, the redoubtable Tom Curran, prosecuted, the law is not just an ass, it is also unspeakably cruel on occasion.

The morality of assisted suicide may well be a grey area to some, although many of its supporters - and I am one - see it as the most profound and private moment of an individual's existence and one which should be beyond the State's grasping, ever intrusive reach.

What made Simon's Choice such an impressive piece of work was that the producers didn't shy away from both sides of the argument.

After all, using a dying man to propose an argument could be seen as the most vile form of low emotional manipulation, but it is to the eternal credit of Binner, his remarkable wife Debbie and the film-makers that it never descended into sloganeering agit prop.

Instead, it was as even-handed as you can be when trying to document a man preparing for his own death.

Binner first came to attention when he announced his decision to end his life on networking site LinkedIn. There was something strangely apt about using that forum; given how much of our life is spent on social media. It was inevitable that people would start discussing their end-of-life plans in a similarly matter of fact fashion.

Director Rowan Deacon knew this 90-minute documentary would ruffle feathers, and there were moments when, apart from sheer sadness the viewer felt, things became extremely uncomfortable, although not for the reasons you may expect.

What made me feel twitchy while watching it was the sense that we were intruding into something we had no right to be part of.

Debbie revealed that they had already lost an 18-year-old daughter, Chloe, to a terminal illness. As she recalled the trauma of Chloe begging her to help her kill herself, the thought was inescapable - how much can one woman endure?

If Simon Binner was, for want of a better word, the 'star' of the show, Debbie was the unsung heroine; someone who had already been through the emotional devastation of watching her own daughter beg for death now had to repeat the process with her own husband.

As she admitted: "I've always been quite anti-assisted dying. It's one of those dinner-party conversations you have, never dreaming that you would actually have to have the conversation (for real)."

What elevated Simon's Choice above the level of grotesque ghoulishness was the fact that they obviously wanted their story to be heard, so there was no possibility of them being exploited.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, Binner's life-long friends appeared throughout the film and they were open about how conflicted they were with his decision.

As one of his old pals said: "Simon always liked the big gesture, and that concerns me. This may be the big gesture to end them all… I worry that he will feel locked into it even if he has second thoughts later."

Certainly, the fact that he wanted to die on November 2, the date of his own birthday, was a sure sign of a man who not only knew how to make an entrance - there was plenty of evidence of that in the footage of him before his illness - but also how to make an exit.

If anything, there was such a torrent of heartbreaking moments that there were times it felt like an emotional rollercoaster that only ever went downwards.

Simon playing with his beloved dog, Ralph, was one of them.

As he said of his dog: "When the time comes, we will bring him to the vet, and he will go to sleep."

His frustration was evident and it's a familiar, and logical argument from right-to-die proponents - we take our dogs on that last, hideous journey to the vet not because we want to, but because it is the kindest thing to do. No matter how heartbreaking it may be - and it is truly wrenching - we know that only an act of selfishness bordering on cruelty would stop us ending our beloved pet's suffering, yet we don't extend the same degree of basic humanity to people who can simply no longer live with the pain they bear every day.

There are, of course, two sides to every story and that was dealt with fairly here. After all, his wife, friend and even his mother expressed their fears that he would eventually end his life out of frustration and impatience.

In a programme of astonishing depth and sensitivity, it was fitting that his own mum came up with perhaps the most devastating line. When asked if she would attend his last meal in Switzerland on the eve of his self-directed death, she replied simply: "Of course - I was there when he was born, after all."

A remarkable film about a remarkable man, but one which I never want to watch again.

Irish Independent

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