November 6, 2010 is a date forever ingrained on Chris Larner’s memory.
Early that morning he and his ex-wife boarded a plane at Leeds-Bradford bound for Amsterdam. From there, they were to make their way to Switzerland and more specifically the Dignitas clinic where three days later Allyson would end her life.
The 60-year-old had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 25 years earlier while pregnant with the couple’s only child. In the early years Allyson managed the condition and while forced to give up the acting career she loved, had spent 12 years teaching drama at Thomas Danby College in Leeds.
Gradually, however, the disease destroyed her quality of life. Confined to a wheelchair she rarely left her flat in Otley and having decided to contact the assisted dying group Dignitas, she needed help. While Allyson and Chris had divorced after three year of marriage, they had always remained close, but nothing had prepared him for the phone call he received asking for the ultimate favour.
“Allyson said quite calmly that she had decided to end her life,” says Chris, who met his first wife when they both worked for the same touring theatre company. “She wasn’t ready to go then, but asked me when the time came would I help her? It wasn’t something we’d ever talked about. There might have been the odd joke, along the lines of, ‘if I ever get like that, promise me you’ll put me out of my misery’, but until that day there had never been any serious discussion about assisted suicide.
“Allyson had always refused to let herself be defined by MS and while the last five years of her life were very hard, she remained strong willed and determined to the end.
“I know some people see her decision to go to Dignitas as sign she had given up, but that’s so far from the truth. Doing what she did took enormous courage and she did it with grim Yorkshire determination.”
When Chris agreed to Allyson’s request, he had no idea what honouring his promise would entail.
Two years after that initial phone call, following a particularly harsh winter, Allyson’s health had deteriorated further and at the start of 2010 she asked Chris to begin pulling together the necessary medical and legal documentation required by Dignitas.
The secrecy with which the journey had to be planned took its toll on the family and when a third party found out about their plans and reported them to Leeds’s social services department, Allyson, who was already mentally and physically exhausted, feared she may be prevented from travelling.
“Allyson got a call from a social worker,” says Chris. “They were just doing their job and of course they have to act on that kind of information, it would be perverse to think otherwise, but she thought there would be police waiting at the airport. I knew they couldn’t arrest us for simply boarding a plane, but after everything she had gone through and all the preparations she had made, the idea that someone might stop her right at the last minute was too awful to bear.” Despite her fears, they passed through the airport’s check-in without incident and when they arrived in Switzerland, the picture postcard surroundings seemed at odds with their intentions.
“Allyson hadn’t really left her flat for two years, so getting into a taxi, then on to a plane at Leeds- Bradford Airport, then changing plane at Amsterdam was almost impossible. By the time we got to Switzerland, it felt like she had really earned her right to die. Dignitas is in a town called Pfänikon, where the mountains are spectacularly reflected in a deep tranquil lake. I’m not sure how I expected to feel when we got there, but it was surreal.
“Allyson had gone there to die, but it felt like a mini-break.”
In the days that followed, Allyson was guided through the procedure which would end her life. She was told that after taking an anti-emetic to prevent vomiting she would have half an hour in which to phone her son, who had chosen to remain in England, but when the moment came she must swallow the 25ml bitter-tasting sodium pentobarbital in one. As the minutes ticked by, Chris admits he did wobble.
“It was incredibly emotional and when you are tired, those emotions become even more heightened,” he says. “A million thoughts rushed through my mind. I did feel there was an incredibly arrogance about taking a life and I agonised about whether it was right or ethical, but Allyson was so very clear. She never wavered. I was grateful for that, but the truth was she had asked for my help to go to Dignitas not my permission. She had never asked for anyone’s permission, it was always her decision.”
Chris, still best known for his role as Clingfilm in London’s Burning, spent hours pacing the corridors of Dignitas and was by Allyson’s bedside when she slipped into unconsciousness. Returning home alone, Chris struggled to make sense of what had just happened and in an effort to gain some clarity began to put pen to paper.
“I guess I wanted to be able to remind myself what we had gone through. It had been such an intense few days,” he says. “In the lead up to going to Switzerland, there had been so many practicalities that I hadn’t really had time to stop and think, but as the weeks went by I did and still do feel angry about what Allyson had to go through and the fact the same thing is happening to people up and down the country.”
Over the next few weeks and months, those initial thoughts turned into An Instinct for Kindness, a one-man show about Allyson’s life and death.
“When I first thought, ‘this should be a play’ I was immediately repulsed by the idea, but the thought wouldn’t go away,” he says. “I never wanted it to be a campaigning rant, I wanted it to be about Allyson and if people go away having got to love a little bit of her then I’ve done my job. I previewed it first at Thomas Danby College in front of her old colleagues and students, because I wanted their approval. I wanted to make sure that I’d done her life justice before I started flaunting it in front to the public.”
The show, which is now on tour, played to critical acclaim at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, but one person who hasn’t seen it yet is Chris and Allyson’s son, George.
“I asked if wanted to just read the text, but he’s said that he wants to remember his mum in his own way,” says Chris. “He and Allyson talked very openly about what she was planning to do, but I completely understand why he doesn’t want to see the show.
“Others who were close to Allyson have said, ‘I’ve heard it’s brilliant, but I won’t be coming to see it’. I get that, but no one who knew her has said I shouldn’t be doing it. I know the idea won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but she was all about the theatre and it seems an appropriate way to honour her memory.”
While Chris stripped much of the politics from an early draft, he still hopes it adds to the current debate about assisted suicide.
“When Terry Pratchett’s documentary on assisted suicide was screened, of the 1,000 complaints received by the BBC, 70 per cent of them were lodged before the programme had been aired,” he says. “That speaks volumes. The opposite of debate is silence. It is impossible to romanticise what Allyson went through, but I hope that by telling it like it is, it makes people think.
“An extraordinary amount of people are members of Dignitas, but almost three-quarters never make that final appointment. That might well be because they have second thoughts or their circumstances change, but I know that for some the simple logistics of fulfilling their final wish are just too great and that is incredibly sad.
“Allyson would have much preferred to have died in her own home with family and friends by her bedside rather than in a futuristic looking hotel room hundreds of miles away from Yorkshire, but it was her only option
“Allyson deserved to have a long life of perfect health. She didn’t get that, but finally she did get the right to choose her own moment of dying and I’m quite proud to have been able to have played a small part in that.”
An Instinct for Kindness, Hull Truck Theatre, February 3 & 4; Square Chapel, Halifax, March 2.