Jon Blair: "A Time to Die won't change minds but will hopefully inform undecided viewers"
A Time to Die producer Jon Blair shares his thoughts on the making of the ITV documentary on assisted death, and what he hopes viewers will take away.
*Warning: This article touches on themes of assisted death that some may find upsetting*
Fifty years ago, when I applied for my first permanent job in television, a long-haired bloke called John Birt who ran a programme called Weekend World sent me packing with the words, if I recall correctly, that I “wasn’t a good fit for TV!”.
Well, he’s Lord Birt now, and I have a pile of bling sitting on my shelves as rewards for my subsequent television endeavours, so I suppose we have both done okay in our own ways.
Back in those days, I was idealistic, passionate, ambitious and frightfully naïve. Nowadays, I am idealistic, passionate, less ambitious and I hope not so naïve. After all, I am still basically the same chap of which a middle manager at Central Television in Birmingham with whom I frequently clashed when we were making Spitting Image said: “I suppose there have to be people in the world like Jon Blair, but thank God there’s only one of him.”
But here, with this film, A Time to Die, about the debate surrounding the extremely contentious subject of whether individuals seeking an assisted death in the UK should have that right or not, was perhaps a chance to do something positive; not, I hasten to say, by advocating for one side or the other, but more by doing just a bit to better inform the debate.
Currently, anyone helping another person to die in England and Wales, whatever the circumstances, commits a criminal offence with a prison sentence of up to 14 years. However, before they are charged, the Crown Prosecution Service will consider the particularities of what happened and whether any malevolent intention can be ascribed to the crime.
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Nonetheless, everyone will almost always get investigated by the police at a time when they may very well be grieving for the loss of a loved one, and, in some cases, the investigation can continue for months and even years, with the threat of a trial and a jail term at the end of it.
When I started on this film a year ago, I thought that it was a simple matter of right and wrong. Since then, I have come to see that it is a much more complex matter, and I hope that our film, made with my colleague, the BAFTA winning producer, Rachel Cumella, at least gives some sense of the nuances that are involved. No, we will never change the minds of those on either end of the spectrum, but maybe those who are undecided, and those who have never thought about it at all, will now be prompted to make their minds up with a recognition that this is not straightforward, and that, at the heart of things, lie certain irreconcilable differences.
On the one hand, there are those who, were they able-bodied, could quite legally take their own lives should they so wish, but who are denied that freedom through their disability or illness. Alongside of them are those with a terminal illness, which in the words of one of our interviewees, means that they live a life not just of anxiety, but of anguish, such that their lives now have little meaning.
That’s anguish that is untreatable, unlike pain, which can usually be minimised with drugs or palliative care. But for our interviewee, other than starving himself to death or disconnecting his breathing apparatus when he is lying down, he has no other option than to implicate his wife in a criminal offence by helping him to die, or to wait it out until one or another of the conditions that afflict him lead to him choking or dying by some other ghastly means, perhaps in an ambulance, perhaps in an A&E or in a hospital, but definitely not at a time or place of his choosing.
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But, set against that apparently self-evident injustice, are the fears of others. The fear that legalising assisted dying, however limited, might result in a culture that legitimises the underfunding of social care, along with a failure to put in place proper, uniformly available, high-quality palliative care for those who want it, and a sense that the vulnerable are an expensive luxury whose lives are not worth extending.
After all, only last week we heard accounts of how, during the pandemic, the elderly were seen by the then Prime Minister as essentially disposable. And then, what of possibly the most pernicious of all pressures, the pressure someone puts on themselves coming from the feeling that they are a burden to their family or loved ones, either through their disability, their age or the cost of the care they are receiving which is depleting any future inheritance for their children? Should they too have the right to choose an early death?
As the filming progressed, I came to see this issue as a battle between two absolutely conflicting sets of rights, with what I came to call the “collateral damage” that would inevitably be inflicted on one set of individuals or the other. In the absence of any definitive research or evidence on numbers that we as a team, at least, could discover, it is impossible to say how many there are on each side of this divide.
Yes, it may be easier to find out roughly how many terminally ill people, or people whose lives have lost all meaning through illness even if they are not terminal, would opt for an assisted death for legitimate reasons while being fully in control of their mind, though even that number would be pretty rough and ready, and neither Rachel nor I could find any definitive figures for them.
But how do you find out how many vulnerable people who did NOT want an assisted death would end up opting for a lethal prescription of drugs as a result of being coerced, or because they felt guilty about being a burden, or because life has become so miserable because they are receiving inadequate medical, social or palliative care, or as a result of a mistaken diagnosis? Are those numbers just a handful, or are they huge? No one can say with any certainty, and of course to those for whom the numbers are less important than the protection of just one vulnerable life, they don’t matter.
And that’s the nub of it. There are a lot of anecdotes out there, both from jurisdictions where there is already a right to an assisted death, and those where there is not. But while I suspect that the numbers who would get an assisted death were the law to change, who should not would be vastly out-numbered by those for whom one can only sympathise with their desire to be put out of their anguish for quite legitimate reasons, one simply doesn’t know for sure.
In the meantime, do we protect that unknown number of vulnerable people at the expense of the many thousands of others by keeping the law as it is? Or do we, like a growing number of states and countries, see what we can do to protect those who either do not want or should not have an assisted death by enacting well thought-out legislation embodying the best protections possible, at the same time as giving those who want and deserve an end to their suffering what has been termed “the last human right, the right to a dignified death at a time of one’s choosing”?
To the opponents at one end of this conflict, there can be no law that protects enough people adequately, as every individual life is important, so that just one mistaken death is one too many, and mistakes will always happen. Against which there are those who argue that the lack of safeguards that currently exist in the dying process already leads to abuses, on top of which hundreds of ill people a year who can no longer bear their suffering take their own lives, sometimes in horrific circumstances, while many more fail in their attempts to kill themselves, and that none of that is necessary in a civilised society.
And as for me, there were times making this film when I said to my wife: “I get up in the morning and go to work to weep.” I hope ultimately that some of those tears I shed in the making of A Time to Die will be worthwhile, whatever position our viewers choose to take up as a result of watching the film, and, just as importantly, what our politicians ultimately decide.
Jon Blair CBE is an Oscar, BAFTA, two times Emmy and many other award-winning television producer/director.
A Time to Die airs on Monday 13th November at 10:45pm on ITV1 and ITX.
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