Vicar of Dibley writer finds the funny side of Parkinson's

Paul Mayhew-Archer
Paul Mayhew-Archer

After a lifetime of thinking about comedy, writing comedy and directing comedy, Paul Mayhew-Archer’s first instinct is always to find the funny side whatever happens.

And that’s precisely the approach he has taken to being diagnosed with an incurable disease, Parkinson’s – as he will discuss when he brings his show Incurable Optimist to Brighton’s Komedia on Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5 and to Hastings’ White Rock Theatre on Monday, May 6.

“When I got Parkinson’s, I just thought ‘Let’s treat this as another sitcom – the one where he gets Parkinson’s!’

Paul has been writing comedy all his life, from puppet shows for his friends at the age of ten to The Vicar of Dibley. Paul has also script-edited many TV series including Spitting Image, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Miranda, and he’s co-written episodes of My Hero, Mrs Brown’s Boys and the TV film Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench.

With the Parkinson’s diagnosis, those comedy instincts continued to prevail.

“I was diagnosed eight years ago, but I have had it longer. One of the things about Parkinson’s is that it is about the brain stopping producing dopamine, and dopamine is the chemical that sends a signal to the rest of the body to move. But what the brain does is that it finds other ways to carry on, and so for a long time you don’t realise that you have got a problem until your brain has lost quite a lot of dopamine. It finds other ways of doing things. You might be aware that you are slowing down or your hand-writing might be getting a bit slower. But your body masks its onset.In the end, a friend told me. He said ‘I don’t want to worry you, but I think you might have Parkinson’s’. I thought what would he have said if he had wanted to worry me! But in between him saying that and me getting an appointment with a neurologist, another friend noticed that one of my arms wasn’t swinging. When we walk, we swing both arms to keep balance. One of my arms was resting across in front of me.

“Another friend had a problem with an arm not swinging and it turned out that he had a brain tumour and he died. When I went to see the neurologist, I thought it was either Parkinson’s or a brain tumour, and I was going for the Parkinson’s! When he said it was Parkinson’s, there was a bit inside me thinking ‘Thank goodness for that!’ And from that moment onwards, I decided to try to find the funny side.”

The show also draws on his family experience of cancer. His mother died of cancer when Paul was 20: “But it was like this unspoken thing in the house and there was not much laughter going on.

So I decided to talk about Parkinson’s and find the funny side of Parkinson’s in order to create funny memories about the Parkinson’s.

“My mother had one form of cancer or another all my life, and this sounds very miserable, but it makes me want to find the funny side of life. Lots of people who have Parkinson’s come to see the show or have had cancer, and there is a sense of people feeling cheered up by the show. Some people find it inspiring. A woman came up to me after one show saying ‘Can I give you a hug?’ Her husband had just gone into a home with Parkinson’s and her son had died two years ago of cancer. And she saw the show and she felt better.

“I am just talking about my life and talking about comedy and talking about this illness in a hopefully light and honest way, and it does seem to help people. It seems the blacker the joke, the funnier it is. As I say in the show, we need to give ourselves permission to laugh at these things. We need to take serious illness less seriously. It is the spirit fighting back.”

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