The rights and wrongs of ‘the right to die’

To mark the release of the controversial big-screen comedy Three And Out, spiked is hosting a debate in London on euthanasia.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

If the late 1980s matricidal laugh-fest, Throw Momma from the Train, wasn’t demeaning enough for train drivers, the release this Friday of British suicide comedy, Three and Out, seems set to push them over the edge. Well, that is the stance of ASLEF, the British train drivers’ union, which this week carried out its first-ever picket against a movie premiere. Never mind that Three and Out is actually warm-hearted, dead funny and about as degrading to the UK’s locomotive pilots as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was to veterinarians. People should chill out about Three And Out.

ASLEF’s indignation is a response to the premise of Three and Out. After two fatal accidents in quick succession, a Tube train driver, hearing of a rule that sees train drivers paid off if they suffer a third death under their wheels within the same month, sets out to find someone suicidal enough to help him activate the clause. This, ASLEF argues, mocks not just train death victims but their unwitting accomplices, too: train drivers. ‘Once a fortnight someone falls under a London Underground train. It’s tragic for the family of the dead person – but it’s also a horrible and traumatic experience for the driver. Some have to give up their jobs’, says ASLEF (1).

This all seems a little over-cooked. Comedies, even those more grey than black, have always treated serious matters lightly. Mel Brooks’ The Producers made a musical of the Holocaust; M*A*S*H made a mockery of the Korean War. Stand-ups make jokes about 9/11. It is in the nature of comedy that nothing should be taboo.

But the really curious thing about the official outcry from ASLEF, and the less attention-grabbing complaints from the Samaritans, is that it gives an entirely false impression of the film itself. Those turning up expecting to see Transport for London’s attempt at ‘gorno’ will be as disappointed as UK audiences no doubt were by US swing dance classic, Shag.

Admittedly, Three and Out’s actual plot does involve a Tube driver, the tellingly named Paul Callow (Mackenzie Crook), who suffers the misfortune of killing two people who fall in front of his train. And it does then see Paul seek to find someone who will help free him from what feels like his dead-end existence – and, of course, in the process free them from their own depressed lives. But it’s so much more than that, too. It is the relationship between Paul and the person who is willing to sacrifice himself for the payout – a cantankerous, boozy, sweary Irish man called Tommy Callaghan (Colm Meaney) – that really impels the narrative. Determined to see his estranged wife and child one last time, Tommy’s trek up to Liverpool and then on to the Lake District, with Paul accompanying him, gives rise to a life-affirming story. And with plenty of laughs along the way.

Tommy, despite his current bedraggled state, embodies a life lived – he is vital and spirited where Paul, a frustrated writer with only his novel’s title completed, is deathly and dispirited. Mackenzie Crook’s grim-reaped face is brilliant for the role.

Three and Out raises some important issues here: Tube driver Paul is a product of a social world in which opting out of life can seem more attractive than sticking with it. For if Tommy is actually suicidal, Paul’s dream of life in a remote Scottish cottage is metaphorically suicidal. Its counterpoint is London, a hellish urban existence, in which barred windows rattle with the passing traffic, neighbours’ parties bang through the walls into the early hours, and strangers are routinely rude. Not that Paul’s work gives any more reason to persevere. He experiences his job as a drudge in which people are always searching for the best way to skive, or as his workmates call it, playing ‘the big game’ – seeking time off for stress. As one tells Paul after the second accident: ‘The more psychological effect, the better.’ In other words, the more counselling necessary, the more compensation and paid leave. The film cleverly captures today’s cultures of victimhood and escapism.

As their relationship develops, what Tommy gives Paul is not so much a reason to live, at least not directly, but something far more useful: a kick up the backside. Looking around Paul’s dingy flat, its shelves heaving under the weight of Dostoevsky and Kafka, and its spare surfaces concealed by piles of Dickens and Richardson, he remarks, ‘live alone do you?’. Towards the end, Tommy is forced to tell Paul: ‘You want to start leading a life rather than following one around.’

Centrally, Three And Out raises, in a sensitive fashion, the issue of voluntary euthanasia. Is it right for society to encourage people to seek a way out of life if they are suffering from pain or a terminal illness, as Tommy is? In one scene, Paul heads to an old people’s home in hope of finding a viable candidate to leap under his train. Here, the film draws upon the widespread and fairly mainstream assumption today that old people’s lives are somehow worth less than the rest of ours, that the rising number of old people are a drain on resources, a ‘ticking ageing timebomb’. One old man’s outraged response to Paul’s proposal – we see him beating Paul with a walking stick – is an eye-catching challenge to this view of ‘too many old people’ clogging up the planet. But shouldn’t we also challenge the idea that terminally ill people’s lives are negotiable, too? As Tommy’s rekindled relationship with his estranged wife and daughter show, everyone, no matter how ill, old or bedraggled, has something to live for.

These questions hang over the film – indeed, they give its comedy a thought-provoking quality. Is Tommy’s desire to have Paul run him down – ‘I’m a coward Paul, I can’t do it myself’ – almost approving death as a rational life-choice? Indeed, given what we learn of Tommy’s life, in certain circumstances is assisted suicide justified? To mark the release of Three And Out, and to try to answer some of these questions, spiked is hosting a debate on ‘The rights and wrongs of “the right to die”’ at BAFTA in Piccadilly, London on the evening of Monday 28 April. It’s a free debate: for more information and to book a place, click here.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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