Cornish director films battle with Parkinson’s, from age 37

A Cornish film director has filmed his own ongoing battle with young onset Parkinson’s disease after noticing a tremor in his left hand.

Brett Harvey, who is renowned for his two Cornwall-based feature films Weekend Retreat and Brown Willy, said he was both “terrified and excited” to release his short film, Hand, this week. The film reveals to the world that at just 37 he was diagnosed with the brain disorder.

After noticing a slight tremor, he started filming his hand in 2017, the year before he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s, which affects an estimated 7,500 people in the UK aged under 50.

The film, which focuses on Brett’s hand over eight affecting (and, at times, amusing) minutes, starkly demonstrates how much worse the tremor has got since he was told he had the disease. He talks openly about what the future holds and how the symptoms are already affecting his life, including his ability to use a handheld camera while shooting his films.

Brett, who lives in Carnon Downs and was brought up in Truro, said: “The tremor was so small to start with – almost imperceptible. Initially, I shrugged it off – I wasn’t that worried by it. I certainly didn’t think it needed investigating. I thought it would somehow sort itself out eventually.”

You can stay up to date on the top news and events near you with CornwallLive’s FREE newsletters – enter your email address at the top of the page.

It was while editing footage that he realised the tremor might be something more serious.

“I kept hearing this weird rattling sound but it continued when the footage wasn’t playing. I thought it was weird that the sound was in the room with me,” said Brett. ”I realised it was my hand on the keyboard tremoring.”

After receiving a number of tests and scans, Brett was told that his right side might start tremoring eventually too.

Brett added: “I’ve been told you get around ten good years after a diagnosis until it gets ‘difficult’. The tremor affects everything in life but I’m adapting. There are a multitude of symptoms, some of which you’ll get and some of which you won’t – everyone is different. I liken it to being in a really crap lottery.”

The progressive neurological condition affects the nerve cells in the brain responsible for producing dopamine. The three main symptoms are tremors, slow movement and muscle rigidity.

Brett has found he suffers from bouts of really low energy and has trouble sleeping. Another symptom is becoming more emotional, which he definitely thought wasn’t him. But then came the Jackie Chan incident.

He was showing film students a scene from the martial arts star’s film Police Story, saying how incredible it was that Jackie was willing to risk his life to entertain his audience when he burst into tears … in front of 100 confused students.

“So, yeah, I definitely cry more easily at things,” said Brett.

Brett Harvey has made a powerful film about his diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease
Brett Harvey has made a powerful film about his diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease

The writer and director has recently finished his latest feature film, Long Way Back, starring Tristan Sturrock (Poldark), Chloe Endean (Bait) and Susan Penhaligon (Cornish acting royalty). He was plagued with chronic insomnia when making the film but few people on the set knew about his condition.

Brett, who is now 39, said: “The film actually helped take my mind off the condition and I was well supported. I’m fortunate that I have a really good support network of my partner Emily, friends, family and my dog.”

There is a moving scene in Brett’s short film where his dog’s paw can be seen resting on his tremoring hand.

He’s honest about the impact the diagnosis has had.

“I feel sad sometimes and anxious at other times, but thankfully these spells pass. I told my GP that some days I want to sit around feeling sorry for myself and other days I want to get out there and get on with it,” he said. “I was confused about what to do – he smiled and said, ‘maybe do a bit of both’.”

Video Loading

Brett deliberately released Hand this week to coincide with Parkinson’s Awareness Week.

“The thought of releasing the film into the world was utterly terrifying and exciting at the same time,” he said. “My finger was hovering over the tweet button … but the reaction has been genuinely overwhelming. I’m trying not to spend all day staring at Twitter going ‘oh my God!'”

He added: “I was asked recently if Parkinson’s disease had ruined my life. Honestly, I have never thought about it in those terms. It hasn’t ruined my life, it’s just changed it a bit. I still feel like the same person and for now I’ll take that as a win.”

Long Way Back is due to have its film festival premiere later this year and Brett is hoping to also have a local premiere at The Plaza cinema in Truro.

Cornwall Live