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Laughter therapy

Don’t try telling Paul Mayhew-Archer that a serious illness is no laughing matter. As far as he’s concerned being diagnosed with Parkinson’s has made it all the more important to keep people laughing.

When Paul was challenged by Richard Curtis to “write all the wedding jokes I didn’t write in Four Weddings and a Funeral,” he could have been forgiven for putting down his pen in despair. After all, surely there couldn’t be anymore wedding jokes left to write? Instead he wrote a scene in Love and Marriage, a 1998 episode of Vicar of Dibley, that has become a classic of British comedy. One punch line, “…sorry, wrong church!” is still guaranteed to bring the house down today.

Thirteen years later, when Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he was determined to face this greater challenge with good humour – starting by ‘celebrating’ the diagnosis with a trip to Cadbury World with his wife Julie and son Simon.

“The trouble with serious illnesses is that we take them entirely seriously. We need to give ourselves permission to laugh!” insists Paul, before adding, “to laugh is to be human.”

Paul believes laughter is therapeutic. “I give talks about the funny side of Parkinson’s to people with serious illnesses and carers’ groups. It seems to cheer them up no end and hearing them laugh is fantastic therapy for me.”

Brookes is close to my heart because of the work it is doing developing new forms of therapy for people with Parkinson’s.

It has taken Parkinson’s to give Paul’s humour a real sense of purpose. “For the first time in my life I have something to say with my comedy. Mind you, not everyone has understood what I’m saying. I made a documentary called Parkinson’s: The Funny Side, and after it went out a man came up to me and said, ‘I saw you on telly. Well done. I learnt a lot.’ So I thanked him and he added, ‘I knew almost nothing about Alzheimer’s before I saw your programme.’”

Paul seizes every opportunity to raise awareness about his condition so he was thrilled and overwhelmed when, in 2016, Brookes awarded him an honorary doctorate. “It’s an extraordinary award. To me it means I’m being taken a bit more seriously and that comedy is being taken a bit more seriously. Brookes is close to my heart because of the work it is doing developing new forms of therapy for people with Parkinson’s.”

As an ex-teacher and former chair of school governors, Paul describes education as “phenomenally important”, noting the importance of free school meals in helping children to study well. Another, perhaps less serious, view is that the NHS should make chocolate available on prescription. There is a rationale for this – chocolate releases dopamine, an important chemical in the brain that is crucially important to people with Parkinson’s.

A cynic might argue that Paul’s own great love of chocolate may have some bearing on this plan, but give him some time with the relevant politicians and, who knows, perhaps prescription chocolate will appear in future manifestos. After all he is a persuasive – and professional – communicator. His professionalism means that when he has a job to do, he’ll do it properly even in farcical circumstances and decidedly unprofessional surroundings.

He recalls, “Radio Oxford asked me to do a live interview in Abingdon Town Square, as part of the Abingdon’s Got Talent event. I got there and thought, ‘I need a pee.’” Paul notes that, when someone with Parkinson’s uses public toilets, they need to allow plenty of time. Simple things like taking off their coat, getting in and out of the cubicle and sitting down on the toilet seat are all laborious, time-consuming actions.

Paul continues, “I’ve just sat down to pee when my phone rings, it’s Radio Oxford. So I conduct this interview and then there’s a knock on the door and this voice says, ‘We don’t allow couples in there, who’re you talking to?’ I’m live on air so I just had to carry on with the interview. I find that sort of thing really funny!”

Although research into Parkinson’s has led to improvements in treatment, Paul is not optimistic about a cure being found anytime soon. In fact he is quite happy to accept that he won’t be cured. By doing so he can get on with his life with Parkinson’s, plan for the future and make the most of it.

“Since I was diagnosed I’ve had the joy of working on Mrs Brown’s Boys and I co-wrote the screen version of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot with Richard Curtis so I got to spend six weeks filming with Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”

He continues to radiate optimism and we finish with him talking excitedly about a new film he has written.

“It’s a rom-com about two people with Parkinson’s who fall in love during ballet classes. I can’t say much about it except it definitely won’t end with a wedding. I never want to think about wedding jokes again.”

Photography by Paul Tait

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