How to Die: Simon’s Choice – important, absorbing TV

The story of a man diagnosed with a deadly neurological disease is an unflinching look at what it means to be in control of your life, says Terry Payne

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There are certain documentary films that stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. This story about one man’s decision to end his life as a brutally aggressive form of Motor Neurone Disease ravages his body is such a film. 

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Simon Binner is an ebullient character. His friends from his university days at Cambridge speak of him enviously as the life and soul of every party. But that life and that soul are being crushed by this cruellest of conditions.

Diagnosed last January he vowed during the car journey home from hospital that he would end his life prematurely rather than suffer the indignities associated with the later stages of the disease. His wife Debbie, a former TV news presenter, opposes his plan. One friend even suggests Simon might be “grandstanding”

But Simon wavers just once in his determination to take charge of his death. When we first meet him in June his voice has already become virtually inaudible. His sense of helplessness is palpable. “I speak four languages, but very quickly I won’t be able to speak at all,” he strains to say. As his voice is very quickly reduced to a grunt he takes to writing notes. One says simply: “I would genuinely die rather than be unmanly.”  Another says: “I’m afraid/terrified I’ll lose my hands soon. I can feel them going.”

The speed at which the disease diminishes him is shocking. His wife and friends maintain their unease at his intentions, but one dreadful incident convinces them of his determination to die.

There’s a final party for family and friends and then an airport farewell that will have you in tears.

The film ends in a Swiss clinic where he takes his life, with wife Debbie his sister Elizabeth and three friends at his side. Before triggering the deadly infusion Simon plays one last message to Debbie that’s been pre-recorded on his phone. It’s a scene of great tenderness and humanity and one that’s very difficult to erase from your mind. Though it is sad and unsettling throughout, laughter frequently does eclipse tears. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. It’s important, dare I say it absorbing, TV.

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How to Die: Simon’s Choice is available on BBC iPlayer