The most striking thing about Parkinson’s disease, as we learn from Jeremy Paxman Paxman: Endure Parkinson’s (ITV), is the way it just sneaks up and ambushes people. In this rather touching and very candid account of his life since he was officially diagnosed 18 months ago, Paxman explains that he only knew he had the disease after being rushed to the hospital when he slipped on ice and some suffered cuts on his face.
“I was in a real mess in the ER and the doctor said, ‘I think you have Parkinson’s.’ And it turns out he was watching University Challenge and he had noticed that my face had got what is called the “Parkinson’s mask”. I wasn’t as ebullient and effusive as I used to be. I had no idea.”
And so the tests were conducted, and at the age of 72, Paxman’s life was changed forever. But as Paxman puts it, “I don’t live with it, I put up with it” — hence the documentary’s title. It’s part of how this powerful, brilliant, lovely man balances what he calls the “shame of Parkinson’s” — the embarrassment at the shaking and stumbling that drives too many into isolation. He refuses to succumb to “poor little me syndrome”. As you would expect.
The way Paxman endures his slow physical decline is inspirational in its own grumpy way. The puffy hair is now white; face fuller but also slower to react, just like the Doc noticed. He walks cautiously, with the help of a cane, and he takes some antidepressants, which work well and leave him in a semi-permanent state of “dry merriment.”
Still, Paxman is mostly his quirky old self. He refuses to meet friends for drinks; he walks his pet spaniel as usual, although now it’s more of a hassle to bend down to scoop the poop; and he’s just giving up his radio. A writer and journalist of rare caliber, he can’t help but be curious about this still-mysterious disease and is keen to embark on this somewhat uncertain voyage of discovery. Just like when he was in the news night He asks the right questions of chairmen – although he is less aggressive towards doctors and medical researchers than he is famously towards the likes of Michael Howard.
In this one-off 60-minute special, Paxman sets out to meet some remarkable people. A lady in Scotland can ‘smell’ Parkinson’s on someone even before it’s diagnosed – Paxman moderately stinks at her Parkinson’s smell festival. When scientists tested Joy Milne’s unlikely gift, they found that she “failed” to detect the disease in only one person who was found to have it but had not yet been diagnosed. They’re now trying to convert their olfactory talent into a standardized test so they don’t have to sniff out the entire population.
Paxo also has a lot of fun learning bowling in a group for ‘affected’ – if that’s the right word – and taking a therapy dance class with the English National Ballet, which really helps alleviate the physical symptoms. He meets experts at the forefront of research, including some dopamine and surgery specialists, and watches a brain being cut open, almost like a butcher’s shop, to better understand what happened to his basal ganglia — which sounds like it like the answer to a University Challenge Question.
There is a touching scene with Jane Asher, President of Parkinson’s UK, when Jeremy overwrites his own brain for use in medical research after his death. He presents it to her metaphorically by signing a standard disclaimer, and she accepts Paxo’s gray matter with glee, like a cake baked from one of her own recipes for the bring-and-buy sale for charity. The great man’s impressive organ is now being examined, inlaid and dissected, much like one of his political victims. It’s a fun old world.
Paxman’s point is that Parkinson’s is certainly cruel and often misunderstood, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel bullied or pitied. There is no cure, but treatments exist and knowledge is increasing. It is now believed to be a disease of aging and changes in metabolism and has no neurological cause. There’s hope, though Paxman doesn’t seem ready to use the word.
Two prominent broadcasters and Paxman colleagues have recently come out with the disease – former BBC journalists Mark Mardell and Rory Cellan-Jones – and many of our national treasures have had Parkinson’s: John Betjeman, Terry-Thomas, Billy Connolly and Ozzy Osbourne. Paxman catches up with Osbourne’s wife Sharon to discuss it – we don’t get to see the Black Sabbath star and, as honest as she can be, she says “life just stops”.
Parkinson’s is uncommon – around one in 37 people in the UK will develop it – but it is not uncommon and we should all understand that it does not ‘wipe out’ a person. In a few weeks, Paxman will be recording its final issue of University Challenge, which he’s sad about, but shouldn’t be allowed to disappear from our screens. He just puts up with it, and if he can, the rest of us can too.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/paxman-putting-up-with-parkinsons-itv-university-challenge-b2191586.html Paxman: Enduring Parkinson’s Flashback: The way he’s dealing with his slow physical decline is inspirational in its own grumpy way