Andreas Whittam Smith: Television is not how to witness the passing of a life

My unease starts from the fact that for most of the audience this will be the first time they have been in the presence of death. For death has been institutionalised

Related Topics

In a straw poll I took this week, I discovered that few of us have ever seen somebody die. I wanted to find out how acquainted we were with death because I was thinking about the BBC One programme due to be screened this evening at 9pm entitled Inside the Human Body. It shows the death of an elderly man from natural causes. This is not quite a first. Sky showed an assisted suicide in a film called Right to Die? in 2008. In 1998 Robert Winston's BBC documentary, The Human Body, dealt with the final moments of an elderly German called Herbie. A documentary on Alzheimer's made by Terry Pratchett and due to be screened in the summer also shows an assisted suicide, this time at a clinic in Switzerland.

As for my experience, my father died when I was still at school. I was at his bedside in the last stages of his illness. I wasn't present, however, during the final moments. My mother died many years later in hospital. Members of the family took turns to be with her and, to my lasting regret, she passed away when I was absent.

Having had a preview of Inside the Human Body, I am left with the feeling that I would rather not have witnessed the death of 84-year-old Gerald. I thought it was a very good documentary. My unease starts from the fact that for most of the audience this will be the first time they have been in the presence of death. For death has been institutionalised. Most people die in hospitals, or in hospices – as Gerald does in the programme.

What was once experienced in our homes, and all could gather round, has gradually been taken from our midst. An obvious reason is the desire to benefit from medical advances that are best delivered in a hospital setting or from the palliative care that hospices provide. In which case we may be living in a very strange world in which medical advances remove the death of family members from our bedrooms while, at the same time, television brings back death into our living rooms – only what we see on screen are the final moments of people we don't even know.

But there may also have been something else going on. Did the two great killings of the 20th-century, World War One and the Holocaust, have such a devastating impact upon our grandparents' or our great grandparents' minds that they wished to push death out of sight? That may be part of the story.

As a former film regulator, I found myself watching Inside the Human Body with a censor's eyes. So I first considered the notion of harm. Had this been an assisted suicide, for instance, then I would have been concerned whether the documentary showed any imitable techniques. Could you learn how to commit suicide with a minimum of pain by watching it? Given the occasional outbreaks of teenage suicides, this would have been an important consideration.

However, in this case, as we are dealing with a natural death, the notion of harm refers only to making an assessment of the programme's likely impact on young viewers. The problem is that they might see it, perhaps when they are on their own, even though it is screened in the second half of the evening just after the so-called watershed. Here I do have a sliver of concern that some young minds might find it difficult to process what they had seen.

The next consideration is the context provided by the film itself. Whether a problematic passage truly is a cause for concern depends upon its setting. Censors raise eyebrows at episodes of extreme violence or vivid sexual explicitness, for instance, when considering younger viewers, if they appear to be, so to speak, optional extras rather than intrinsic to the story being told. On the other hand, passages that may appear extremely strong on their own can often be accepted because of the essential role they may play in the narrative.

This is the question I asked myself about the filming of Gerald's death. Here I don't think there can be any queries. It is an important element in a narrative of what happens to your body from your first breath to your last. The documentary tells this story.

It starts with a water birth shot in slow motion. It then describes some of the countless small miracles that keep us alive. It shows how, for example, in the case of firefighters, it is copious sweating as well as protective clothing that enables them to bear intense heat. But the story naturally finishes with the progressive failure of important functions. Gerald has ended up with diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and anaemia. His death is the inevitable final chapter.

Closely related to context is the assessment of tone. Here again Inside the Human Body scores highly. It is a lyrical celebration of the body's ingenuity. It is pervaded by a sense of wonder and punctuated by startling facts. It is also helped by Gerald's cheerful disposition. He says he is grateful for each day that comes and admits to a blind trust that he "won't" completely disappear.

So whence comes my disquiet? My problem is that Gerald's death is presented as an almost imperceptible event. He slips in and out of consciousness and then he is gone. All movement has stopped. In the documentary the episode is portrayed as unremarkable as if it were a bus going along the street outside. Gerald has passed by and gone. And yet those who have witnessed death will tell you that it is not like that at all. A nurse said that when somebody died on her ward, it is always an event, not just an incident needing to be logged. The emotions generated by the moment of death are powerful. One person told me that she had felt it was a privilege to be present at her grandmother's death, to have been there when she "slipped away".

Inside the Human Body conveys none of this. The narrator, Michael Mosley, tries to make up for the banality of the occasion by telling viewers about his own father's death and what he felt and how he remembers him every day. But that doesn't really fill the gap. The documentary is all science in explaining how the body's moving parts work. But that approach cannot capture the nature of the final moment when a human being, often much loved, disappears.It is a sacred event.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders