“WHAT is happening to me..?”
Anne Turner (Julie Walters) lies on the floor of her hallway, having fallen backwards down the stairs.
What follows is the story of one remarkable woman’s extraordinary journey.
Manchester-trained actress Julie plays Anne in BBC1 drama A Short Stay In Switzerland.
Filmed over just 22 days and broadcast next Sunday at 9pm, it’s inspired by the true story of Dr Turner.
She developed the degenerative brain disease progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), having seen her husband suffer and die from a similar condtion.
PSP involves the progressive death of neurons in the brain. It affects balance, mobility, vision, speech and the ability to swallow, leaving many sufferers eventually unable to walk, feed themselves or communicate effectively with the world around them.
You can read an interview with Julie in today’s MEN TV feature here.
And last Friday’s initial MEN news story is here.
It’s a haunting drama with “BAFTA-award-winning” written all over it.
Including a brilliant performance by former nurse Julie, all the more powerful due to her status as a national treasure.
Superb support from Stephen Campbell Moore, Liz White and Manchester’s Lyndsey Marshal as Anne’s three grown up children.
And the knowing eye of director Simon Curtis
I first spoke to Julie about the 90-minute drama at a day of embargoed interviews in November and then again last Thursday night at a press screening in London.
Also talking to writer Frank McGuinness, producer Liz Trubridge, director Simon and executive producer Ruth Caleb.
That first press day came just three days after Anne’s children had seen the film for the first time.
They were also at last week’s screening and are campaigning for a change in the law.
Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK, which forced Anne to travel to a foreign country to end her life in an anonymous apartment room.
Cutting that life short sooner rather than later, before she became too ill to travel abroad.
For obvious reasons, it’s not an easy film to watch.
Including the moment when Anne says a final goodbye to her children – the scene mother-of-one Julie found the most challenging to film.
She recalls: “I read that part of the script only once and put it down. I couldn’t read it again. I just could not imagine having to do it.”
Along with a re-enactment on screen of what happened when Anne took her own life, via the bitter poison of a lethal dose of barbiturates.
Plus an earlier desperate botched attempt at home.
But it’s not as grim a drama as you might imagine, with Anne’s humour shining through.
In what is, as Frank pointed out, really a film about courage, love and loyalty.
Anne and her family were interviewed by BBC TV News, with the footage screened after her death.
This subsequent drama raises important issues.
So, for those who are interested, I thought it was worth adding some of the extra material here that couldn’t be squeezed into the main feature.
Firstly, more words from Julie:
Your initial reaction to being offered the role?
“It immediately grabbed me because it’s a brilliant script. It’s so textured and detailed and real. I did think, ‘It’s a really sad script, so I had to think about that. Have I got the heart to get through it? The character of Anne, the thing that redeems it from that thing of, ‘Oh, how painful this is going to be,’ is that she has got a great sense of humour. She punctuates a huge amount of it with funny, dry and very real statements. She’s very realistic.
“And I was also interested in it because I’d seen it on the news when Anne Turner actually went to Switzerland.”
Having made the film, has your personal view on assisted suicide changed?
“The big thing that came out of it for me is that it needs to be debated properly. I saw a debate on Panorama which seemed to be terribly ill-informed and very emotional. People saying, ‘I don’t want a doctor being able to say whether I live or die.’ And I thought, ‘That’s not what this is anyway.’ So I think it needs to be debated.
Your research for the role?
“I spoke to a nurse who works with people suffering from PSP, who was hugely helpful.
“But what was most helpful is she showed us films of people who were suffering it. And one of them was Nigel Dempster. And what was most useful about that is that I knew what he was like when he was healthy. Whereas I saw Anne’s film and then I saw it again when we were going to do this, and, of course, you only ever see her in the film at the end of her life.
“So the Nigel Dempster film was very interesting because you saw how he disintegrated, because I knew what he looked like and how he functioned before.
“It has such strange symptoms, the disease. Just suddenly keeling over backwards. And no control, really, over emotions. What was extraordinary in this instance is that Anne was supremely in control of things. She’s very organised, very stiff upper lip and you get on with life, sort of person.
“So for her to have to have to deal with suddenly laughing uncontrollably and then crying and then being full of rage. She said herself she had always been an impatient person but this was uncontrolled.
“And then Frank McGuinness, who wrote it, had spent months with the children. Really I read the scripts and I thought, ‘I know this woman.’
“Then, of course, we met the children and spent a few hours with them talking through stuff and they were always there at our disposal if we needed them. They were hugely supportive and helpful.
“They came to rehearsals and we just sat round and talked. They didn’t come to the read through. I couldn’t have done it in front of them and I did say, ‘Please don’t invite them to the set while we do it.’ Because most of the scenes were hugely emotive. You can imagine it’s really intense stuff. So to play their mother in front of them, I couldn’t have done that.
“I’d seen them on the film and I have to say they came over – I’m not just saying this because they are the children of Anne Turner and I’ve just played her – I just thought what lovely people they seem to be on the film.
“And I wasn’t disappointed when I met them. They are lovely, genuine, honest, warm, intelligent people. So to be around them was great and for them to support it, you couldn’t do something like this without the support of the family anyway. So they’d been in on it all through.”
On Anne’s desperate initial attempt at suicide.
“There’s something about suicide that has a kind of destructive element to it. This wasn’t an act of destruction in that sense. She wasn’t depressed. Suicide has a thing of being depressed and giving up. That wasn’t what she was doing and I think she wanted to properly do it in a clinic or through a doctor.”
Is it harder playing a real person on screen?
“There’s more responsibility involved in it. Their family are going to look at this. Imagine my mother being portrayed by someone. Especially in these circumstances. So there’s a responsibility towards her, being such an extraordinary person, but towards anyone that you play. But on the other hand you’ve got a rich seam of truth or of information through the family. So you can work with that.”
Obviously a positive reaction to the film from Anne’s children was very important to her?
“I wouldn’t have wanted to watch it with them. That would have been dreadful. But that’s really important. For them to be pained by it in the wrong way would have been just awful, because they’ve already been through enough. So you want to represent it in the right way, truthfully, but also responsibly.
“What you get from the film is her amazing strength, her amazing determination not to be a victim and to take the reins of this, against everybody saying, ‘No, you can’t do that. How can you? How selfish?’”
Would you have the same courage in that situation?
“I did have to place myself in that situation by being her. But I don’t know what I would do. I could never tell you that. I think what it took for her, just to make the decision, was massive courage. And the children said that when she actually did take the barbiturate, they could just see this enormous courage, nothing else.”
Could you support a loved one if they made that decision?
“I would support people, yes, if I thought they were making the right decision. God forbid, I never want to be in that position and my heart goes out to people that are. All I did was act it, but you have to go there in order to do that, imagine it. So you do constantly think of that.
“But it is a tribute to love and family, how they supported her. They didn’t want her to go. With the two deaths side by side, the one that they say was bearable was their mother’s. Not the other one. To watch their father, this amazing, like her, strong, fantastic doctor gradually degenerate into this person who sits there, who’s completely helpless and inside is compos mentis. It was a living death – it wasn’t an extended life.”
Did you have reservations about taking the part on?
“Yeah, because I’m weedy and I haven’t got a lot of energy and those sort of parts are really draining. You know if you’ve had a row with somebody and you’ve cried or you’ve been upset by somebody’s death or anything and you have cried, afterwards it’s exhausting.
“So to do it for four weeks is really tiring. But we did manage to have a good laugh when we weren’t doing anything, in order to keep our spirits up. Otherwise you’re in that place all the time.”
But also keen to take on such a different role after Mamma Mia!?
“It couldn’t be more different, let’s face it. Mamma Mia was tiring in a different way. It was all the Dancing Queen. But it’s a wonderful contrast as well, it’s completely different. Mamma Mia was sandwiched into Mary Whitehouse and Anne Turner.”
Why should viewers watch A Short Stay In Switzerland?
“Because it’s a fascinating human dilemma – how many times as a nurse did I hear people say, ‘Why can’t I just go?’ People dying of cancer and things. Not everybody, but so many people. And so many people have said, ‘If I was an animal…’ That sort of thing.
“It’s an amazing story of a family’s love for one another and support. It’s an extraordinary story. She was an extraordinary woman and a very caring doctor. It is moving, there’s no doubt about that – but it’s an important issue and it is definitely really well told.”
Did it help Julie confront her own fears?
“Yes. Looking at someone else’s fears, yes. Such huge courage, and it certainly knocked my fears into a cocked hat, I can tell you.”
Writer Frank McGuinness was asked if some viewers might feel his film was an endorsement of assisted suicide:
He replied: “I think this is a very specific story about a very specific family, undergoing an extraordinary and terrible ordeal. I don’t believe it is an endorsement and only an endorsement of the clinic’s procedures.
“This absolutely honest woman who had this astonishing courage to face death as part of her life, this is what she chose – and we have to respect that choice – but I certainly don’t think it’s a pure endorsement of one political line on this subject.”
Producer Liz Trubridge answered the same question:
“That’s not what we set out to do. If you’re telling a story of any strong, controversial subject, it doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it, you’re just discussing it. Because this was a very personal story, Frank set out – he said, ‘I want to write a love story.’ And, for me, that’s what it was. A love story of that family who had to make a terrible choice.”
Liz on her conversations with the family:
“The thing that stuck with me as being one of the most moving things was, they said that once their mother had made this decision and they had all united behind her, eventually, what they did was just plan a lot of little trips with treats.
“And they’d all been on this week-long holiday and they knew that it was getting close to the point where she was going to go to Switzerland. They’d done lots of nice things like go to the Botanical Gardens, which she loved. And on the way home on the last day, one of them looked round and saw tears coming down her cheeks. They immediately asked, of course, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘It’s just, I’ve nothing more to look forward to.’
“I remember that…because my feeling was, ‘Well, then please don’t go to Zurich. Let’s do it again and again.’ To understand that, I asked the family, ‘Why do you think she then went, she didn’t have to?’ And they said, ‘You have to understand the real desperation she felt. Her symptoms were worsening, she knew what would happen and she knew there was going to come a point where there really was nothing for her to look forward to.’ It’s much bigger than I had taken it – it was, ‘There’s nothing more to look forward to, because my body is breaking down.’ That gave me such an insight into what they all had to deal with.”
Director Simon Curtis said one of his aims was to spark debate through drama:
“It’s a subject that people all over the world and in this country are talking about. – I do think this film is a love letter to a family, to the value of families. That was very much in my mind.
“I find it very hard to say goodbye at the best of times. So taking your mother to Switzerland, where basically you’re buying three return tickets and one single – the idea of what that would be like…
“If people watch this film and think, ‘My God, I better ring my mother and talk to her or I better tell my kids I love them,’ when you can…
“Even the happiest families don’t know what’s round the corner. If anything, it’s a campaign to make you treasure and cherish what you have, whilst you have it.”
Audio Files (mp3):
Julie Walters: On assisted suicide
Julie Walters: The film and Anne Turner
Julie Walters: On her time as a nurse
Julie Walters: A Final Toast
Star Calls For Assisted Suicide Debate
BBC News: Clinic assists doctor’s suicide
BBC News Fergus Walsh interview with Anne Turner (video link)
Progressive Supranuclear Palsy