Simon Binner used to be able to speak four languages. Now, he jokes, he can barely manage one. Robbed of his voice by the onslaught of motor neurone disease, he takes to writing scribbled notes to communicate. That he wants to die is central to many of them. But the present tense is wrong here, for Simon did get his wish. Aged just 57, he took his own life in a Swiss suicide clinic last October – his final months chronicled in one of the most agonising and thought-provoking documentaries you’ll see this year.
The film will undoubtedly reignite the right-to-die debate and, most likely, see the BBC in the dock accused of flag-waving for euthanasia. Film-makers Rowan Deacon and Colin Barr defend themselves against any such charge.
“I made it clear to the family that the film was not dependent upon Simon ultimately choosing assisted dying,” says Deacon. “Had he allowed his illness to take its natural course, we would have continued to film up to and after his death, however long it took, and that film would have been broadcast.”
They say the programme “shows all perspectives on assisted suicide – in favour and against, emotional, legal, moral, practical”. But it is unarguable that as a piece of television it is more powerful because Simon’s ultimate choice was to end his life – and specifically because the viewer sees Simon open a valve allowing a lethal sedative to enter his veins. His death, four minutes later, is not seen and was not filmed.
Barr, who won Baftas for his BBC3 series Our War, says, “We were constantly gauging the impartiality and balance, engaging with the complexities – so it is not a campaigning film, neither pro nor anti.”
We first see Simon in July. Though showing no outward signs of ill-health his speech is already greatly affected, and the speed of his subsequent decline is brutal. “It was shocking, much faster than anyone had predicted,” recalls Deacon. “In our conversations he always said he knew how fast things were changing. It was everyone else, including me, who was shocked.”
He had been diagnosed in January and had resolved “in the car on my way home that day” that he would end his life early rather than endure the latter stages of the disease, a decision to which his wife Debbie was firmly opposed until shortly before his death.
Deacon filmed with the Binners for one day every week. Simon had selected 2 November, his 58th birthday, as the date he wanted to die. Friends and family are seen regularly asking him what if he changes his mind, with one friend theorising Simon was “grandstanding”.
Was Barr concerned the film might play a supporting role in that grandstanding? “Simon absolutely did not make any decision for grandstanding purposes on the basis that a camera was present. He would have laughed at the suggestion that the camera could influence him. He just wasn’t that kind of character.”
In early October, Simon confirmed on camera that he was reconsidering his choice, but then on Monday 12 October he tried to hang himself. It erased Debbie’s previous uncertainty that Simon truly wished to die. “We were meant to be filming that day, and arrived shortly after what happened,” says Deacon. “I was shocked that he’d attempted suicide. It was the pivotal moment for them.”
The date for his death was set for just a week later. Debbie invited friends and family to their Surrey home for a “gentle and low-key” farewell lunch. She wrote on her invite, “We have had one hell of a week and in light of recent developments Switzerland seems the kindest and best option. Simon has made it very clear that he has had enough.”
Film-maker Deacon says they did discuss whether to film the death. “We asked Debbie to tell us what those boundaries were. We strongly did not feel the film was ever dependent upon that footage.”
As it was, Simon died with Debbie, his sister and three friends present. Before triggering the infusion, he plays a heart-rending message to his wife recorded on his phone. “I have loved you very, very much, Debbie. We have had such a fun, laughter-filled marriage. The one blessing of a slow decline is that we have had time to speak about things over ten long months. We have really said everything that needs to be said.” The message ends: “I love you very much, Debbie. Goodbye.”
Two weeks later, Debbie was still torn.
“It was the right time for him, but I feel guilty that somehow I couldn’t make his life nice enough. If I had worked harder, made it easier, hadn’t snapped at him, maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to go. I don’t think any of that is logical but it leaves you with those kinds of feelings. Did I do enough..?”
The programme concludes not with death, but with life: cameraphone footage shows Simon – the “daft bugger”, as friends called him – boogieing with abandon to a song on the radio. He’s doing as we all should do – dance while we can.
How to Die: Simon’s Choice airs Wednesday at 09:00 p.m. on BBC2