“I don’t want to be involved in the production of a film that is in any way encouraging of the ‘poor little me’ syndrome,” said Jeremy Paxman in ITV's Paxman: Putting Up With Parkinson’s. No chance of that. The presenter approached this documentary with exactly the same suffer-no-fools attitude he has displayed throughout his broadcasting career.
Paxman was diagnosed in April 2021, after falling in the street while walking his dog, Derek. He claimed to think little of this: “I’m 71 years old, for heaven’s sake. And when you get old, that’s what happens – you fall over.” But a doctor in A&E came in and told Paxman that he had observed him on University Challenge, and thought his face was showing signs of the “mask” common to those with Parkinson’s. Further tests proved this to be correct.
The “Parkinson’s mask” translates as a loss of facial expression, making it difficult for the person to appear animated. This was most evident when Paxman took part in a dance session with English National Ballet. “Jeremy has never before taken a ballet class,” said the narrator, which I think we could have safely assumed. At the end of the session, Paxman’s face registered mild disdain. Yet it turned out he had thoroughly enjoyed himself, albeit saying cheerfully: “I thought it would be very embarrassing, and it was.”
Paxman retains his wry sense of humour (on going to the pub with two friends who have the Parkinson’s tremor: “Never let them get you a drink from the bar, it comes back and the glass is empty”) and his love of being rude. Someone suggested that he channel Brian Blessed while doing a set of exercises. Paxman: “Brian Blessed? But he’s such a w----r!”
As is usual with documentaries of this type, Paxman travelled around meeting people who are conducting research into the condition or offering ways to deal with the symptoms. At Imperial College, a professor of neuropathology cut up a brain. It was laid out in slices, looking disconcertingly like biscuits on a baking tray. “It is quite something to think this was a human being,” said Paxman, who will also donate his brain to medical science. He discussed symptoms, such as vivid dreams which can seem like frightening hallucinations, and met others who shared his diagnosis, including the comedian and star of The Chase, Paul Sinha.
The point of difference here was that Paxman didn’t attempt to put a positive spin on his situation. He can no longer continue with University Challenge, a job he clearly enjoyed, because the condition affects his speech and his movements and “it will become obvious that there’s something funny about me”. At one point, he told his physiotherapist: “You always try to tell me that it’s not all doom and gloom. But it is all doom and gloom.”
The physio told Paxman that the diagnosis was difficult for him because he had been “a high-flier… your life has been a little bit more extraordinary”. That may have been said for his benefit but did not seem fair to the 18,000 people who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the UK each year – is their experience a lesser one, just because they have not lived an “extraordinary” life of questioning people on Newsnight?
Paxman met Sharon Osbourne, whose husband, Ozzy, was diagnosed three years ago. Seeing how the disease has affected him is heartbreaking, she said: “Sometimes when he doesn’t know I’m looking at him, I’m crying.”
And there was also time for a reunion with Michael Howard, victim of that infamous Newsnight interview. “It’s a bit of a thing to have on your tombstone – ‘Man who asked the same question 18 times dies,’” ruminated Paxman. He’ll be remembered for rather more than that.