Paul O’Grady spoke to The Big Issue about his love of dogs and mixed feelings on Lily Savage
Photo: Kirsty Mattsson
Paul O’Grady has been a mainstay on TV, radio and stage for decades, as himself or in the guise of Lily Savage.
He was born and grew up in Tranmere on Merseyside before moving to London. While working for Camden Social Services, he created the character Lily Savage, becoming a fixture on the London gay scene and in comedy clubs, eventually crossing over onto TV, where he found fame in the Nineties.
Since then, O’Grady has been an in-demand comedian, broadcaster, actor and writer, with a CV that includes his own TV chat shows, Blind Date, Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs and until recently his long-running BBC Radio 2 show.
Along the way he’s also had to battle serious health problems, having suffered two major heart attacks, as well as the loss of many friends, including Cilla Black.
The national treasure is releasing his second children’s book this month, Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang: The Curse of the Smugglers’ Treasure.
From his home in Devon, where he keeps lots of animals, he delivers this Letter To My Younger Self, reflecting on an incredible life, the inspiration for his comedy and how his future includes looking after his alpacas.
The alpacas have all given birth now, thank god, so I can relax. My father’s family, they’re all farmers. I used to spend a lot of time in Ireland when I was little – we’d go for the summer holidays – so I could milk a cow by the time I was seven. At that age I was a bit of a wild child. I don’t mean wild naughty, I mean wild gone off on the back of a donkey. I suppose it planted a seed somewhere in my mind. I remember saying if I ever get a bit of land, I’m going to get a cow. Which I did, until she went feral.
I was the youngest. My mother was in her 40s when she had me. I was described as the last kick of a dying horse. My earliest memory is waking up Christmas Day to find Popeye peeping out of this sack. It was the same size as me. I was mad on Popeye. It was the only way they’d get me to eat, they used to have to put food in a can. You could say I was spoiled. I’ve still got this Popeye and it’s tiny, so I don’t know how old I’d have been. He’s covered in biro. Also Olive Oyl. She’s untouched, still a virgin Olive Oyl.
When I think back, I was lucky. I had a really nice childhood. It was a proper working-class attitude: you must do better than us. From the age of eight to 11 I was sent to a private school, which was a waste of time because it was Christian Brothers, all they did was talk about religion and batter us. I learned nothing.
I was an altar boy until I saw a film called Gypsy about Gypsy Rose Lee. All of a sudden, my whole style on the altar changed – you had this 12-year-old stripper. I used to lift my cassock to go down the steps – you know, show an ankle – and swing the thurible more enthusiastically than I should have.
What attracted me to Gypsy wasn’t the glamour, it was the backstage sleaze and crummy dressing rooms. I thought, that must be a wonderful life. It was not something I should have wished for. I ended up doing it for years. If you put me in one of them hovels now I’d freak. I’ve earned my stripes. I don’t want to go back to that.
Comedy comes from your early years. A lot of the stuff I used to say as Lily [Savage] stemmed from those days. They were all funny. I didn’t realise at the time. My Auntie Chrissie was a clippy [conductor] on the buses. She was very glamorous, a big blonde and she’d come in and say, “I’m that hungry, I could eat a nun’s arse through the convent railings.” You’d never laugh because it was a manner of speaking.
They were all very resilient, that was the other thing. Auntie Chrissie left the buses and got a job as a manageress of an off-licence. Two fellas came in: “This is a stick up.” She said, “I’ll just open the safe for you love,” went out the back, got a brush and battered them. This is who they were.
Comedy has changed so much. Some of it quite rightly so, it’s about time. But now everyone’s so touchy. I’d be terrified to say anything. I couldn’t come out as Lily now and say, “Oh I don’t feel well, I’ve just had me coil out.” I certainly wouldn’t do Lily now, that’s for sure. I’m 67 for Christ’s sake. I can’t be tottering round in thigh-length boots.
When I was a teenager, it was all about going clubbing. I didn’t think about the future. It was live for today. I’ve done OK for myself. But if I was sitting in the park drinking White Lightning I’d have regretted that I hadn’t got myself together.
I’d tell my younger self, don’t be such a trollop. All this was pre-Aids. There were two clubs in Liverpool. Don’t forget, it was a thriving port, so the place was crawling with sailors on shore leave looking for a good time. I was never looking for love or romance.
I’d also tell my younger self: no smoking, pack up the fags. Do a bit of exercise and eat properly and look after your teeth. But if I was to give advice to myself as a teenager I wouldn’t listen. I’d be wasting my breath. I had no idea as a teenager where I’d end up or what I wanted to do. I had no ambition, I floated from job to job to job. As a young kid, I had a paper round and used to go around the hospital selling newspapers and ciggies, would you believe – on maternity as well.
I was always quite self-sufficient. I worked in every single shipping office in Liverpool from Cunard Line to Elder Dempster. You name it, I did it. I was trainee magistrates clerk. I worked in the roughest pub in Liverpool, Yates’s Wine Lodge in Moorfields. Then I worked in a kids’ home for three years, I was a physio aide in London, a care worker. I’d do any old job me, as long as it paid enough money for me to go out, buy new clothes.
The fashion then was barathea blazers, parallel trousers, Como shoes. They were oxblood, god they were gorgeous, and a Ben Sherman shirt. Not quite skinhead but hair cut quite short. Then I went a bit hippie-ish, let my hair grow. I’d look like I just fell out of a skip. I’m still like that now. I can get in a cab in a suit, immaculate, and get out looking like I’ve been partying for 10 hours. Don’t ask me why. I’m a slob. Cilla [Black] had a flat in Barbados. She had a white sofa and white this, that and the other. When I used to go and stay with her she’d put towels down.
I’ve just got back from Denmark. I used to work in a club there 41 years ago called Madame Arthur’s, which everyone thought was a brothel but it wasn’t, it was just a gay club. They had acts and we’d do a month’s stint there. It was curious to see because the club’s gone. It’s a block of flats now with a chichi little wine bar underneath. I felt like an old ghost stood there. Because everyone who worked there, they’re all dead. Died of various things.
It seemed the fashion at one stage, writing a kids’ book. You know something, no wonder Enid Blyton was like she was because you go round the bend. Three o’clock in the morning working out a conversation between two pigeons and you just think, get me back to my wild days.
I wish when I was a teenager I’d asked more questions. I know nothing about my dad in the war except he was at Dunkirk and he lived in Holland for a year. That’s it. I remember finding a couple of medals in a drawer in the kitchen. Totally dismissed them. It was never mentioned. My mother had plenty to say about the Germans, as did her two sisters, as did all the neighbours. You’d get the usual: “You weren’t lying here with cockroaches crawling up the wallpaper and bombs going off with two little babies”. I thought it was funny but, of course, in retrospect it wasn’t. She was only 19. You wonder how the hell did they get through it.
When I was younger, politics didn’t interest me. But it has now. It’s scary what’s going on in this country. Brexit was a huge mistake, I don’t care what anybody says. Young people now have lost freedom of movement. The cost of living is disastrous. The energy crisis is going to kill people. I can’t bear it. You feel like you’re on the Titanic heading to the iceberg and there’s an apathy. With Covid and everything else, we’ve been beaten down. We should be out ranting and raving.
Our pensioners, god help them… I’m a pensioner myself, what am I saying? See, that hasn’t sunk in yet. That’s another bit of advice I’d give myself. Enjoy your youth. I think I did. You never worry about getting older because you don’t think you will. But the inevitable happens. I’ve still got mates I knew when I was 16. This is all we talk about, how did that happen to us? We know the alternative though.
I’ve planned nothing. I’ve had a few blows health-wise and lots of friends – most of my friends – dying in the Aids years. You think, why was I spared? As you get older you start thinking about the past… Good advice is remember the past but don’t live in it. Move on constantly. I’ve been very lucky and I count my blessings. Especially when I look at my three baby alpacas and think, who’d have thought it? One’s called Flo, one’s Sunny Day and the little lad’s Stud Muffin because I’m hoping that’s what he’s going to be when he grows up. Get a few bob pimping out alpacas, what next?
Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang: The Curse of the Smugglers’ Treasureby Paul O’Grady, illustrated by Sue Hellard, is out on September 15 (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £12.99)
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