Paxman: Putting Up With Parkinson’s review – I am already dreading his absence | Television

Jeremy Paxman says he has “always been a troublemaker”, but, in aiming his curious eye and famously combative manner towards his own illness, rather than students or politicians, his troublemaking tendencies are just as effective. In Paxman: Putting Up With Parkinson’s (ITV) – it was going to be called Living With Parkinson’s, but Paxman scoffs and suggests that he is merely putting up with it – the presenter allows cameras to follow him from the period just after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, in April 2021, until the present, as he films his final series of University Challenge.

He is a wonderfully unsentimental documentarian, insisting that he is not participating in the film to elicit sympathy and refusing to be cajoled into “blubbing” on camera. His worst fear is that he will come across as suffering from “poor little me syndrome”. He has a journalistic interest in finding out more about practically everything, and so it stands to reason that he would try to find out all that he can about his own diagnosis. It makes for fascinating, grownup, unsparing television.

Even the story of the diagnosis is a good one. Paxman explains that he kept falling over, and put it down to the fact that he was getting older. But a neurologist who saw him said that he thought he might have Parkinson’s. The doctor had been watching University Challenge, and noticed that the presenter was not as expressive as usual. Paxman explains the “Parkinson’s mask”, a stiffness of facial muscles that make it harder to smile, for example, or to raise your eyebrows. His physio tells him he must practise smiling. The sight is certainly amusing for viewers, if not for Paxman himself.

The film pays its dues to Paxman’s legend. There is a brief moment in which he gets to sit down again with Michael Howard, the recipient of his most famous grilling, to show what a bulldog he could be in his prime as a political interviewer. His old Spitting Image puppet is wheeled out at the pub, and the brief archive clips serve as a reminder of a past he is now leaving behind. Still, it’s evident that everyone Paxman meets here feels as if they already know him, even if they have never met before. He has been a TV mainstay for such a long time. Though he does not film his final episodes of University Challenge until this month, I am already dreading his absence.

Paxman meets Sharon Osbourne, to talk about her husband Ozzy’s Parkinson’s diagnosis and how it affects her, as his partner. She recommends CBD oil and when she sees Paxman out, she sends him off by calling him “a miserable old sod” – with the utmost affection, of course. He spends time with Paul Sinha, the former doctor turned standup comic, most famous as The Sinnerman on The Chase. Sinha was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2019, and uses it as material in his comedy sets. His perspective has the added benefit of a medical background, and he, like Paxman, is keen to make it clear that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than many people realise. It’s not just “the shaking palsy”, as the surgeon James Parkinson, after whom it is named, called it in 1817. There are more than 40 potential symptoms. Paxman meets a woman named Joy who can smell Parkinson’s, and her story, and her abilities, are quite amazing.

Though it is billed as a personal film, Paxman is too professional to give much away. Ever the interviewer, he only reluctantly tells Osbourne that he has a partner, and not much more than that. We are in the realm of other people’s stories and of science. I have never seen a brain dissected on screen before, and as much as it is astonishing to see, it is also an oddly moving spectacle.

As the film nears its ending, Paxman meets other Parkinson’s patients. One man wittily compares his attempts to put a key into a lock to Olympic fencing. Others sing the praises of group therapy and exercise. Paxman is mildly sceptical about physiotherapy, saying that he’s never going to get better. But others point out that it might stop it getting worse. That seems to be the tension at the heart of this very good film. It explores complex, honest territory about what it means to live with – or put up with – the disease, and its consequences. It does so with the clinical precision that you would expect and with a solid sense of humour that comes as more of a surprise.