WHAT does the man behind a string of hit comedies do when he’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

Well, there’s only one answer, says Paul Mayhew-Archer. Laugh, and keep on making others laugh.

The co-writer of The Vicar of Dibley and co-commissioner of Drop the Dead Donkey and Father Ted is more than sanguine about where he’s at – he’s positively happy.

“My career in comedy has helped me with my Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s has helped my career,” he said.

“I was diagnosed at the age of 58. A lot of people, when they’re diagnosed, think it’s the end of their world, but in my mind it’s given me a whole new lease of life.”

He was 58 and the commissioning editor for BBC Radio 4 Comedy when he noticed his handwriting was getting smaller and his arms weren’t moving normally when he walked.

Since then, the incurable condition has indeed taken him off the beaten track. There was the ballet class for Parkinson’s sufferers run by the English National Ballet, for starters.

Grist to his mill, that provided the basic ingredients for a film-short for the BBC’s Inside Out series which, in turn, expanded into a full-scale documentary, Parkinson’s: The Funny Side.

It earned him the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Presenter of the Year.

And then there’s the stand-up comedy tour, entitled Incurable Optimist, that’s taking him to 28 towns all over the country, including Hexham.

Yes, for one night only, on Friday May 31, he will be laughing at Parkinson’s with an audience in the Queen’s Hall.

He got the taste for stand-up when, after 40 odd years working in comedy – in his words, “giving people a giggle” – he finally took centre stage himself.

He’d been invited to take part in a fund-raiser at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of 3,500 people.

“I did 10 minutes and I loved it!” he said. “For the first time, I felt I had something of my own to say.”

A strapline on the PR blurb reads ‘Being in the same room as Paul will not give you Parkinson’s. Paul is not contagious. But he is worth catching.’ After our interview, I wondered if he’d written that himself.

What he has definitely had a hand in writing and/or script editing tastes like the essence of our times. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Spitting Image, Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys and the TV film Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot , starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench.

He’s produced hundreds of episodes of radio comedy, among them I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Weekending (starring David Jason), Delve Special (starring Stephen Fry) and two award-winning shows written and performed by Andy Hamilton – The Million Pound Radio Show and Old Harry’s Game.

He and Andy Hamilton, who wrote Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered, became friends at Cambridge University, where neither of them had the confidence to join the famed Footlights brigade.

Instead, they joined a spin-off troupe that performed in hospitals and prisons and the like – “places where the audience couldn’t get away”, he said. “I was very lucky in Andy, because I met a brilliant writer and learned so much from him.”

The other person he credits with honing and refining his writing is Richard Curtis. Paul, modest and self-effacing to the core, remembered when the idea for The Vicar of Dibley was first mooted.

“I’d written a series, An Actor’s Life for Me, which had done well on the radio and went onto TV, where it was axed after one series.

“But luckily Richard saw it and liked it. I was working at Channel 4, where I’d helped commission Drop and Dead Donkey and Father Ted, when I got a phone call from the company Richard was working with.

“He’d had an idea for this woman vicar in a village full of lunatics and he wanted to pick my brains for co-writers, so I drew up a list of 10 writers I thought he’d get on with.

“When I read them to him, he just looked a bit puzzled and said ‘oh, that’s very kind of you, but I was thinking of you’. I was gobsmacked.”

Paul admitted he was in awe of the man with the Midas touch. The producer, screenwriter and director behind such box office hits as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, Blackadder, Mr. Bean and War Horse “has a mind like a computer and a level of concentration that is 100 per cent”.

“He would say, during a lunch hour at rehearsals, when we’d decided to look at a bit of dialogue, ‘right, I’ve got 12 minutes’ and his attention would be absolute.

“Then he’d go make a phone call after getting a message to say Gordon Brown or Bill Clinton would appreciate a call back about Comic Relief or Third World debt.

“Whilst he was ringing them, I’d go ring my wife for someone to call, and she’d be out ...

“He missed one rehearsal for Dibley because he’d gone to South Africa to have a chat with Nelson Mandela.

“It was an amazing experience – exciting – being in his orbit, because he knows literally everybody.”

They never actually sat down together to write Dibley. Rather, after an initial discussion about a storyline, one of them would write the first draft and pass it on to the other.

“We had a rule that if writer A wrote a joke and writer B took it out, only B could put it back in again, because if A could it would never end.

“We never really disagreed at all, we certainly never rowed – it was just a delightful experience.”

Paul says it would be great if his next piece of work to hit the small (or big) screen was the romcom he’s written about a couple who both have Parkinson’s.

“They meet at a ballet class and fall in love,” he said. “I’m on draft 24 at the moment, but people tell me it’s good. Hopefully someone will actually make it.”

When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago, he was told he’d have five good years and then it would be downhill from there, but so far, so good.

Needless to say, the humour has helped, massively. “The only area I don’t have anything funny to say is about my mum and her illness. She had cancer all the time I was growing up and I’ve long realised that’s why comedy is so important.

“She died when I was 20, but she was ill pretty much all my life, so I suppose what I’m trying to do is encourage people to keep remembering the funny stuff.

“Let’s give ourselves permission to find funny moments. They will be the things that keep us going and provide the memories we leave behind.”