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A Time to Live, BBC Two review - an exquisite legacy | reviews, news & interviews

A Time to Live, BBC Two review - an exquisite legacy

A Time to Live, BBC Two review - an exquisite legacy

Sue Bourne's remarkable documentary produces laughter as well as tears

Lisa had an unexpected answer to the question of how she was spending her remaining time

Imagine a doctor has just told you that you have only a year to live. What would you do? Learn to sky dive, spend every last penny you have, be brutally honest with anyone who has crossed you, or curl up in a ball and wait for the inevitable?

Producer and director Sue Bourne decided to talk to people who have indeed been told they have only a little time left, and A Time to Live on BBC Two is the remarkable result.

“This is a film about living,” her voiceover told us at the beginning of the hour-long documentary, and it turned out to be the case. One after another, the 12 participants – people in their 20s to 70s, who mostly had cancer diagnoses with projections of six weeks to a few years left – talked about filling what remained of their time. Some of them were a hoot – Lisa, who has breast cancer, when asked how she was using hers, joked: “Admiring my fantastic breasts made out of my tummy,” and Kevin said: “I wouldn't want to grow old and be a miserable old bugger. I don't have that problem now” – while Annabel immediately made a bucket list, top of which was leaving her husband of more than 20 years to go travelling.

Lest we think a terminal diagnosis is a barrel of laughs and we all go gentle into that good night, as the film progressed Bourne subtly introduced more notes of doubt, confusion and anger. Steve (pictured below), in his thirties, would be leaving two very young children behind, the cause of obvious pain and, distressingly to watch, enormous guilt for him.Steve, A Time to LiveWe also met people for whom a terminal diagnosis had given a deeper appreciation of life, or even helped them cope with the reality of their death. Nigel, meanwhile, had learned the real meaning of love after, in his words, making a mess of his life.

Bourne, who made The Age of Loneliness and Jig, played it straight. The characters talked directly to camera, with occasional off-camera questions from her, and while we saw some participants with family or friends, they did not contribute. There was much laughter, wry appreciation of life's ironies – “I'm probably much more healthy than I've ever been,” said Louise, who had become a teetotal vegan after her diagnosis – and a lot of simply-put newfound wisdom. “The gift of life is reinforced when you know it's finite,” said Kevin.

It struck me that all the participants were either comfortably off and/or living in beautiful surroundings – one acknowledged that she had “very good life insurance” to fund her unasked-for “early retirement” – and loving family and friends around them. I wonder if being terminally ill while living alone in poverty in a less supportive environment would make you more or less philosophical?

But maybe the participants were self-selecting; they really all did have something to add to the conversation and wanted to share it. There were tears (both participants' and most viewers', I would imagine) but this was an exquisite film that showed that even with death around the corner we can embrace life.

Bourne's last voiceover told us that she was deliberately not informing us which of the participants had died before the film was shown – the right decision, I believe. As she said, this was their legacy, and an affecting one too.

Bourne played it straight. The characters talked directly to camera, with occasional off-camera questions from her


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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To say I 'enjoyed' this film would of course be strange. Yet it was very fulfilling and somewhat life affirming in a strange way. However, like the reviewer I was struck how many, indeed most, of the participants were living such well healed lives. They therefore did not represent a cross section of the people who have to face such a life ending situation. We didn't see the woman I knew who after telling her employer she was dying received a day later a redundancy letter in the post whilst getting treatment. We didn't see the man who died alone in a bedsit and lay dead for 5 days. We didn't see the woman who tried unsuccessfully to end her life 3 times and then finally jumped from a motorway bridge. The people in Ms Bourne's film were honest and true and wondrous. Yet they present a false image of what an end of life experience is for the majority of people and this should have been made clearer in the movie. So now we have people sitting at home alone and dying and thinking they have failed somewhat as they don't have champagne parties at Ascot or bucket lists to travel the world or the funds to leave our partners or beautiful second homes in the Cotswolds. I would recommend everyone watches the film but I would also recommend Ms Bourne adds a prelude pointing out how privileged the participants are in the main.

'Well healed' is an ironic description in the circumstances. Perhaps well-heeled is what you meant.

DAAllen put my thoughts into words. I felt these people were hand picked and did not give a true perspective of the human spirit right across a social, physical and emotional board. Indeed I think it has probably given far reaching negative connotations for the majority of terminally I'll people who are not well off or have a loving family , any emotional support

Nearly all the participants had loving, supportive family and were living comfortable, often beautiful surroundings, even the buddhist who said her cottage was modest - modest perhaps but not something alot of people would have so it seemed. The producer wasn't always neutral either, almost berating one strong young woman for continuing to work and trying to "counsel" her rather intrusively I thought about her decision to be strong. The man at the end was very moving, perhaps because you felt out of all of the participants he was the one most surprised to die with love around him.

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