The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2009
Nobody wants to see Julie Walters die. It would be preferable, in fact, for her not to pass away at all. The rambunctious Rita, the marvellous Mrs Overall and Harry Potter’s Molly Weasley (a role still awaiting affectionate alliteration), she has contributed too much to the national life for us to contemplate her being taken away. So actually to watch Julie Walters die – painfully, gruesomely, protractedly, over the course of 90 minutes on primetime television – is a thoroughly disquieting experience. And that, of course, was the point of A Short Stay in Switzerland (Sunday, BBC1).
Walters plays Dr Anne Turner, who watches her husband die of a degenerative illness, only to be diagnosed shortly afterwards with an even more rapacious condition herself. Faced with the prospect of enduring the same descent into incapacity, she decides to kill herself and, ultimately, is assisted in doing so in Geneva, where the practice is legal.
Director Simon Curtis strains to make his drama, which is based on a true story, as lifelike as possible: the real Turner was followed to Switzerland by the BBC and, in a moment of historical authenticity (or, perhaps, cross-promotion), the reporter Fergus Walsh plays himself here. Watch the news footage of Turner’s death and you will notice that the decor of the small apartment in which she dies has been meticulously recreated, while the colour scheme throughout is muted, the washed-out blues of Britain in winter. But it was in the dying that this drama aspired most to realism.
The central half hour of A Short Stay in Switzerland is one of the most harrowing I have seen on television for some time. It begins with Walters experiencing a mild palsy and continues downward without relenting, from falls to paralysis to choking fits, until we see her trying to kill herself, frenetically sucking the dregs of air from a plastic bag around her face, a pharmacological drool spilling from her lips.
This is enough to convince Turner’s three children that the right thing to do is to help their mother end her life. Played with variable degrees of effectiveness by Stephen Campbell Moore, Lyndsey Marshal and Liz White, each of the children is an archetype. White is the thrusting media worker who thinks only of herself, Marshal the fully-grown child, Campbell Moore the caring, sensitive homosexual, who intuits his mother’s needs from the start.
It’s through their conversion that we, too, are supposed to see the need for legalised euthanasia.
There is one exception to this conversion: Turner’s best friend Clare, played by Harriet Walter. Clare is of the mind that she is selfish for wishing to end it all, that she must think of her children and that, ultimately, life is sacred. So offended is Clare that she offers to pray for Turner, an offer that is accepted “if it makes you feel better”. The irrationality of Clare’s religious belief stops her from seeing the truth about her friend’s condition, her dogma so strict she even spurns Turner’s conciliatory suicide note with a lofty toss of her nose.
Ultimately, it’s this whiff of polemic that stops A Short Stay in Switzerland from being as powerful as its creators wish it to be; and it’s the performance from Walters that redeems it from being a simple diatribe. She provides the human nuance that is lacking, both in Frank McGuinness’s script and elsewhere. Her last-minute confession – “I have broken [my children’s] hearts by dying” – is invested with a multitude of emotions: regret, confusion and, ultimately and most powerfully, fear.
26 Jan 2009
In among the sniffles and crumpled Kleenex, a terrible, probably sackable thought occurred to me while watching Julie Walters playing a doctor careering towards a brutal, lonely death. The older Walters gets, and the more wincingly tragic roles she plays, the harder it is to forget her greatest role – as the dotty cleaner Mrs Overall on Acorn Antiques, the spoof soap opera from Victoria Wood’s 1980s sketch show.
This proved highly problematic during A Short Stay in Switzerland(BBC1), a true-life one-off drama that was precision-engineered to tug at every one of your heartstrings until it caused some kind of aortic putsch. Walters played Anne Turner, a strong-willed doctor from Bath. First, she watched her husband die of a rare, belligerent neurological condition, and then, even as she scattered his ashes, she discovered that she had the same illness, but a worse variant. As a GP she was all too aware of what was happening, as well as her powerlessness to do anything about it. She made up her mind almost immediately, gathering her devoted children to announce her decision: “suicide”.
Initially, though it made you feel dirty to think it, Walters’s redoubtable doctor, prone to sudden mood swings because of her illness, was a dead ringer for Overall. As her children fell apart in a very middle-class way, their mother never wavered in her determination to kill herself. But you did keep wondering when she might appear in a cross-neck pinny and wrinkly tights to offer everyone a coconut macaroon.
Such shameful giggling lasted only until the moment when the film jumped forward a year or two, to reveal the effects of the disease on Turner. All of the things that made her who she was – work, tennis, her body, her speech – had been relentlessly chiselled away. “I will soon be unable to physically say, ‘enough’,” read the last line in a letter she dictated begging for admission to a Swiss clinic, where they would allow her to make it stop.
Two scenes followed of the sort that demand inclusion in the long-term mental scrapbook. The first was loud, a slanging match with a best friend who thought her choice was pure cowardice. The second was silent, as she applied her make-up with her two daughters before going off to die. The first scene put the arguments for assisted suicide yea and nay. The other was a two-minute visual definition of human dignity, reminding us that though it takes courage to go on living, it also takes courage to die.
A little chastened, the evening’s viewing then went completely haywire in the form of Generation Kill (FX), a new Iraq War mini-series from the makers of the acclaimed US cop show The Wire. In it, we are effectively embedded with Bravo Company, First Recon Marines, as they lead the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brash, lewd, loud and lethal, if the Marines weren’t exactly ideal dinner party guests, we were encouraged to believe that they hadn’t been brought up for polite society: “We’re like America’s little pit bull,” said one. “They beat it, starve it, mistreat it, and once in a while they let it out to attack somebody.”
Just as they did with The Wire, Generation Kill’s creators have clearly decided to take whatever is the TV equivalent of Fowler’s English Usageand shred it. If you want clear characterisation, audible dialogue and music to signal when to laugh and when to cry, well, you picked the wrong unit.
The first episode consisted mainly of First Recon hanging about at a Kuwaiti base camp, waiting for the war to start (a moment signalled by the arrival of lorry loads of morale-boosting pizza). Once it did, the best description of events was a total “snafu” – one of the few military acronyms not in the script. If you don’t know it, look it up: it encapsulates what Generation Kill is all about.
Even as the Humvees rolled north, it still required a hastily-scribbled First Recon family tree to try to establish who all these people were. It didn’t help that they all had nicknames and one of them was called Person.
By the end of the episode, however, a useful rule-of-thumb had emerged – if they forgot to pass on crucial information, if they resolutely failed to learn from their mistakes and if they then blamed them on their men, they were probably in charge.
War is chaos, and so was Generation Kill. We have to trust that its creators know what they’re doing, and follow them in to battle, but the message from episode one seemed to be that if you don’t know what’s going on, don’t worry – neither did the Marines.
23 Jan 2009
Assisted suicide is one of the most divisive issues of our time. Last month the little-watched Sky Real Lives channel made front-page news by broadcasting footage of the assisted suicide of Craig Ewart, a terminally ill American, at the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas. In October it was reported that Daniel James, a 23-year-old English rugby player who had been paralysed in an on-field accident, had travelled to Switzerland to die the same way. His parents, who told the press he had a “right to die”, accompanied him to the clinic; no charges were brought against them.
So BBC1’s new one-off drama A Short Stay in Switzerland couldn’t be more timely. Based on a true story, it stars Julie Walters as Anne Turner, a retired English doctor who in 2006 decided to take her own life at Dignitas because she could no longer bear to live with supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease.
“I did wonder whether I should take the part, because I could see it was going to be really painful,” says Walters. “But then I thought, ‘No, this is a subject that ought to be debated, so I’ll give it a go.'”
Walters is keen to point out that the drama has its “lighter moments”: “Anne Turner had a great sense of humour, so she tended to punctuate painful stuff with jokes.” But she says playing the part was emotionally gruelling.
“There’s a scene at the end where she has to say goodbye to her children and she takes the barbiturate [to kill herself],” says Walters. “Once I’d read that in the script for the first time, I couldn’t read it again. I thought, ‘I’ll just have to learn the lines for the scene on the day.'”
For decades Walters used to suffer sleep problems, eased only a few years ago by acupuncture and hypnotherapy. While she was filming, the problems returned.
“Every night I slept badly,” she says. “And I couldn’t sleep for whole nights afterwards. I was prostrate for about three weeks.
I did get up to cook meals but I’d say to Grant [her husband], ‘I’m going to bed for the afternoon.'”
A Short Stay in Switzerland was difficult to act in and at times, it’s difficult to watch, too. But then, assisted suicide is a difficult subject for drama to tackle: the risk of the script sliding into some form of moralistic propaganda is high. But Walters insists that the film has no “political message”.
“It’s just telling her story and opening the debate,” she says. “You see both sides of it. Yes, Anne would have liked the law in this country changed, and she says that in no uncertain terms. But the other arguments are in there too. The main thing is to open up the debate, that’s what we’re aiming for. We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh yes, everybody, you should all enrol with Dignitas.'”
Her own views on the issue (whether assisted suicide can be morally justified, whether it sh2ould be legalised in this country) are complicated.
On the one hand, she “totally” believes, like Turner did, that people have a “right to die”. On the other hand, she doesn’t want a situation where the vulnerable could be coerced into an assisted suicide, and isn’t sure whether it could be legalised in this country without putting them at risk.
“The vulnerable need to be protected as well,” she says. “But I think [assisted suicide] was right for Anne. She was informed, independent and intelligent, she was in no way coerced.”
Preparing for the part, Walters talked at length to Turner’s children. Four years before their mother made her decision, they’d seen their father die, in misery and pain, from a similar illness to hers.
“All three said that, out of the two deaths, hers was the one they could cope with much better,” says Walters. “They felt that [by supporting her] they’d carried out her wishes.” The three have already seen the finished drama, she adds: “At the end they were all obviously crying. They were really lovely – they said I was their mother.”
A Short Stay in Switzerland is an overwhelmingly different proposition to the last thing many of us saw Walters in: the Abba musical Mamma Mia!. She’s always been acclaimed for her versatility. In her 35-year acting career she’s done sketch comedy (Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV), children’s blockbusters (the Harry Potter series), uplifting drama (Educating Rita) and biopic (she played Mary Whitehouse on BBC2 last year), among other genres.
But she plans to work less. Though only 58, she thinks about retiring: “Constantly. I’m tired. A Short Stay… was knackering. The way I relax is I think, ‘I haven’t got anything coming up.’ I like to know there are months ahead when I’ve got nothing.”
If she were to quit acting, millions would miss her. There’s even a petition on Facebook demanding that she be made a dame.
“In a pantomime?” she says, laughing. She was made a CBE last year, but wouldn’t like to guess whether the higher honour will come her way: “It’s not something that greatly troubles me, I have to say. I remember Alan Bennett saying, ‘I couldn’t be a Sir, it’d be like having to wear a suit every day of your life.’ I kind of know what he means.”