Taking pains to produce a tranquil end

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It's all too easy to get blas about television's omniscient nosiness, its capacity to stare down almost any human experience, however painful or private. But every now and then a programme comes along that can still startle. We had already been alerted to Modern Times: "Death on Request" (BBC2), Maarten Nederhorst's film about a Dutch mercy killing. The scandalised speculation was all about the ultimate prurience of filming a mercy killing, television's shameful refusal to blink, but the actuality was both more plain and respectful, a film without hysteria or misplaced dread.

In truth, death itself isn't exactly a novelty on screen - four years ago, Everyman showed a moving film about the last weeks of Dutch girl dying of leukaemia, and last year you could sit at home and watch the final hours of a man dying of Aids. Both films looked death full in the face, figuratively and literally. But there was still something different and distinctive about the scenes you saw last night, a sense of awe at these matter-of-fact footsteps towards an abyss.

The film was at pains to explain the bureaucratic safeguards of the Dutch approach to euthanasia: Patient Cees satisfied the requirement that the patient be subject to incurable suffering - he had motor neurone disease and you could see the paralysis clamping round him with its awful promise of suffocation. He made repeated requests for assistance to die, as all patients must, and his condition and his desires were checked by a second doctor. Cees's will to retain some control over his fate was undeniable, but even so he couldn't be described as a man in a hurry to die. "The possibility of euthanasia is a comfort to me," he wrote in his diary. "It keeps me going - figuratively speaking - because literally that is impossible. It also helps me to postpone the end." Death, it seemed, was tranquillizing him against the fear of death, a paradox the doctor had already noted. "They live longer, because they know they can die."

None of these arguments, though, could ready you for the event itself. "Not yet, surely!" you thought, when Dr Van Oijen turned up for his last house call. "There must be more to it than that." Even if you had grasped the theory, that medical duty might involve shortening suffering instead of prolonging life, a little bubble of panic swelled at the thought of a cure so complete. "My feet were dragging a bit on the way here," the doctor said with a little smile, but he seemed almost eager to get it over with. "Just tell me when you're ready, Cees," he murmured a little awkwardly. "Let him finish his drink," said Cees's wife, as if all this was going too fast for her as well. Then Cees spelled out his agreement once more on the letter board he used for communication - "Let us postpone it no longer". He arched his eyebrows questioningly at his wife - a touching, almost joky gesture of conspiracy, as if he was saying, "Amazing, isn't it, what we've come to!" Then she helped him into bed as the doctor filled his syringe with a sedative, squeezing the plunger so that a tear welled up at the tip. As his wife stood over him, quietly soothing, Cees fell asleep and the doctor prepared the muscle relaxant that would finally stop his heart.

"Does this seem wrong now?" he said when her husband finally lay still. Bit late for that, you thought, but then he only asked because he was confident about the answer. "No," she replied, "I'd imagined this differently but this is beautiful." It was, too, in its own strange way. Earlier in the film the director had taken pains to show Dr Van Oijen treating his other patients, in particular a new-born baby. The implication was that the two extremes of his patients' lives were connected by the same duty of care. What you saw on screen wasn't so much a murder, more a home delivery.