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Comedy writer Paul Mayhew-Archer: ‘Laughter is one of the things that keeps you going’



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Comedy writer and performer Paul Mayhew-Archer, a graduate of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and someone with first-hand knowledge of Parkinson’s, will be returning to the city this month to present Incurable Optimist.

Paul Mayhew-Archer. Picture: James Deacon
Paul Mayhew-Archer. Picture: James Deacon

A one-man show, it will mark the 40th anniversary of the Cambridge branch of Parkinson’s UK. But Paul is keen to stress the show isn’t just for people living with the condition, “it’s for everyone who loves a good laugh”.

Best known for co-writing popular BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley with Richard Curtis, in another life Paul had a brief career as a teacher (“I organised a school trip and got left behind”) before landing a job as a BBC radio comedy producer.

His career snowballed from there and, after many successful years working as a comedy writer, script editor, producer and commissioning editor, 11 years ago at the age of 58 he was told he had Parkinson’s and his life changed completely – “for the better,” he says.

Paul now does charity performances around the country to raise laughs, awareness and money for local Parkinson’s UK groups or Cure Parkinson’s or Maggie’s, the cancer support charity. Last year, he received an MBE for services to people with Parkinson’s and cancer.

He is especially happy to be returning to Cambridge, a city he loves: “I live near Oxford now, and Oxford, I’m sorry to say, is not nearly as lovely as Cambridge.” He will be appearing at Fitzwilliam College Auditorium on Tuesday, August 23, presenting a show which has been to the Edinburgh Fringe and all over the country.

Paul notes that the show he is bringing to Cambridge is the same as the others in the first half and then, in the second half, he will take questions from the audience.

“Basically, the first half is a show I started doing a year before lockdown,” he explains, “and then the second half is bringing it up to date. I take questions about my career in comedy and also questions about Parkinson’s and the things I got up to as a result.”

Paul continues: “The first time I did some jokes about the condition was at a Parkinson’s UK concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Then I took part in some charity shows at the Comedy Store in London – and that led to me doing my one-man show in a basement in Edinburgh. So you can see my trajectory.

“Since then it’s become a whole evening – and I’ve found I absolutely love performing. It was the one thing I hadn’t done since I left Cambridge.”

Paul, who is an ambassador for Maggie’s, notes that while at Cambridge he “never quite had the confidence to join the Footlights”, becoming part of the Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society instead.

“I think it’s still going,” he says. “It takes shows to hospitals, prisons, psychiatric units – anywhere where the audience can’t get away. And that’s where I met and wrote and performed with [fellow comedy writer] Andy Hamilton. I was there [at Cambridge] at the time when Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson were in the Footlights.”

As well as appearing in productions in hospitals, prisons and the like, Paul and co also put on shows at the ADC and up at Edinburgh. He is a firm believer in using humour to deal with adversity.

“I feel very strongly about this,” he states, “I think it’s absolutely crucial to make jokes about these things because laughter is one of the things that keeps you going. I’ve found that at the end of a show we all seem to feel better, not just those of us who’ve got Parkinson’s but also those who care for us.

“If you’re looking after someone with Parkinson’s, it can be very debilitating and time-consuming and difficult, so to have an opportunity to laugh at it is good. Last year I did a show and before it started, a woman came up to me, pushing her husband in a wheelchair.

“He clearly had Parkinson’s and she said: ‘You won’t get a laugh out of my husband – he hasn’t laughed since David Cameron was Prime Minister’.

“Then, at the end of the show, she pushed him back and she said: ‘I want to give you a hug because tonight I’ve seen the whites of his molars’, and I could see the whites of his molars because he was grinning. It was just such a touching moment and such a funny thing to say.”

Paul is keen to point out that the show isn’t just about Parkinson’s. It’s also full of stories about his comedy career. He wrote a radio sitcom called An Actor’s Life for Me, which did so well on radio that it transferred to BBC One.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get enough viewers on television and was axed after one series. Fortunately, however, it got one very important viewer. Richard Curtis saw it and liked it enough to invite Paul to co-write The Vicar of Dibley with him.

Asked if he has a favourite episode of the much-loved series, Paul replies: “My favourite episode was the wedding of Alice and Hugo. Partly because it started off with the most terrifying phone call I ever received...

“Richard Curtis and I never used to write together, we would each write the first draft of an episode and then swap. So the Alice and Hugo episode started as a phone call where Richard said: ‘Just write all of the jokes I didn’t write in Four Weddings and a Funeral!’ I put the phone down and my wife said helpfully: ‘But he wrote all the wedding jokes, Paul, there were four weddings!’

“Luckily, after pacing up and down for days, I managed to come up with some.”

As one of his Parkinson’s symptoms is excessive dribbling, Paul did consider calling his one-man show From Dibley to Dribbly, but his wife vetoed that idea, leading to the title of Incurable Optimist.

Tickets for the show are £20 and are available from bit.ly/3OHEHQa. There will be a reception with a complimentary drink from 6pm, with the show starting at 7pm on August 23.



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