While the debate rages around the BBC’s decision to screen the last moments of a dying man at Dignitas, in the company of Sir Terry Pratchett, in Choosing to Die (BBC2, Monday), another piece of television has addressed the issue powerfully and in front of a much wider audience than any documentary could ever hope for – unless it has Big Fat Gypsy in its title.
Last night’s Emmerdale saw tetraplegic Jackson Walsh die, assisted by his partner Aaron (Danny Miller) and his mum Hazel, played by Pauline Quirke. Reaching an audience of 7m, the soap’s sensitive and serious depiction of the moral minefield around the issue of euthanasia shows soap’s power to tackle the toughest of issues and raise a subject – how we’d like our life to end - that we’ll all have to think about eventually and the sensible among us have thought about already.
Though the Emmerdale storyline has the added edge of dealing with the assisted death of a young person injured in an accident - the death at Dignitas of 23-year-old Dan James, who was paralysed in a rugy training session, in 2008 caused much controversy and the Jackson storyline reportedly criticised by spinal injury charity Aspire – Emmerdale’s assisted suicide story has echoes of the death of Ethel in EastEnders in 2000.
Helped on her way by her dear Dot, Ethel’s departure did more to raise awareness of end-of-life issues than countless documentaries because it did so with beloved characters and showed the complexities and consequences – emotional and ethical - in a fictional world that factual approaches often fail to fully address. And they did so with calm and consideration – attributes often lacking from discussions that involve the Daily Mail frothing at the mouth like a rabid badger.
But the deaths of Jackson and Ethel did more than that. They once again demonstrated soap’s ability to understand its audience in a way that lawmakers and leader writers, churchmen and columnists can only hope to. The truth is that assisted suicide and euthanasia are not the rare, extraordinary circumstances that the shrillness of media coverage and the outrage of politicians would lead you to believe.
It happens all the time and no one embarks upon it lightly. And it’s about time that such decisions didn’t have to be made shamefully in the shadows. Who would have imagined that Emmerdale, once the home to pyromaniac lesbians and Patsy Kensit, would talk so much sense on such a pressing issue?