There has been a line of celebrity parent-child “road trips” creeping on to our screens. Bradley Walsh occasionally takes some time off from The Chase in order to travel with his son on Breaking Dad. For five series, Jack Whitehall trotted his curmudgeonly father around the world to try to bond with him on Travels With My Father. Now Prue Leith and her son, the Conservative MP Danny Kruger, are taking up that mantle with Prue and Danny’s Death Road Trip (Channel 4). That sounds like a lovely tour of near-death experiences, doesn’t it? Will Kruger be taking his mother skydiving? Will Leith gamely attempt to lasso a bull at the rodeo? “This film is about assisted death and whether we should legalise it in Britain,” Leith explains. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the Bake Off tent any more.
This is a thoughtful and nuanced film about the assisted dying debate, and it finds a great way to tell the story and examine both sides, by way of a mother and son who have diametrically opposed opinions on the issue. Leith is in favour of legalising assisted dying in Britain and campaigns for it, having seen the slow and painful death of her older brother David. “I would rather die like most dogs die,” she says, calmly. Her son, meanwhile, chairs an all-party parliamentary group, Dying Well, which campaigns to oppose euthanasia, arguing that it is impossible to legalise assisted dying without opening up the process to coercion and abuse.
They decide, supposedly, to go on a road trip to countries or regions where assisted death is legal, to see if they can either change each other’s mind or prove each other wrong. I am not sure why it has been labelled a road trip, other than to mislead viewers into watching it by making them think it will be a mother-son caper. Kruger does not seem the capering type. There are occasional shots of them on roads, getting from A to B, but this is not about travelling, and I would like to call for an end to television shows being called road trips when they simply involve going somewhere. But this is very much not the point of the film.
They visit Seattle, to meet a woman whose terminally ill parents chose to die together. She recalls the experience movingly and frankly. Part of the beauty of this documentary is in the fact that it allows decent, adult, respectful face-to-face debate between people who do not necessarily agree with each other to begin with, and may not end up agreeing with each other afterwards. In some ways this feels old-fashioned. We live in an age of emotional politics, and subtlety is no longer a prevalent quality in the realm of public debate. Yet this is a subject that demands empathy and compassion, and here, it is treated appropriately.
For most of the hour, it appears that Leith is winning the argument. Certainly, surveys suggest that the British public agrees with her: 77% support legalising assisted dying for terminally ill people. Kruger’s objections, meanwhile, appear to centre around his belief that it is impossible to design a safe law. It is hard not to see his stance as coldly practical, particularly in light of the many stories the pair both hear and witness. In the end, his mother seems to understand his stance perhaps better than he does, suggesting that her son simply believes that euthanasia is wrong, as he believes in the sanctity of human life.
In Canada, where the medical assistance in dying (Maid) law came into existence in 2016, the waters are less clear. The laws there are complex and have changed even since they were introduced, in 2021 allowing assisted dying in cases where death does not have to be “reasonably foreseeable”, as it initially did. Leith and Kruger meet doctors and patients who tell them their stories, with great generosity. Again, they discuss their different beliefs. Again, this is conducted with respect, and offers deep insight into the nuances of what is far from straightforward. What should the criteria be? Who gets to decide, and why? Vast, important words such as “burden”, “dignity” and “joy” are thrown into the air and caught in careful hands.
Louis Theroux’s documentary Choosing Death, from 2018, explored similar territory. It was such a powerful film that I still think of it now. This has a lighter touch, which sounds odd given its subject matter, but seeing a mother and son disagree so profoundly is fascinating. Road trip framing aside, this is a captivating and sensitive film that places human lives at the centre of this vital debate.