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Looking back at Paul O'Grady's 'blessed' life and Lily Savage's legacy

Entertainer Paul O'Grady who has died aged 67 spoke to The Big Issue last year about Lily Savage inspirations and his love of animals

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 spoke to The Big Issue about his love of dogs and mixed feelings on Lily Savage Photo: Kirsty Mattsson

Paul O’Grady, the entertainer, author and popular culture icon who rose to fame as Lily Savage, and became one of the UK’s most loved faces on TV, has died at the age of 67.

In a statement, his husband Andre Portasio said O’Grady died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on March 28.

The statement continued: “He will be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, animals and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion.”

Paul O’Grady had been a mainstay on TV, radio and stage for decades, as himself or in the guise of Lily Savage. Clawing her way up through the club circuit, Lily Savage presented shows on TV like Blankety Blank before O’Grady launched a series of successful chat shows (helped by his faithful dog Buster).

Until August last year, he helmed a popular BBC Radio 2 but left after changes to his Sunday afternoon slot. Earlier this month he was performing in the touring production of Annie as Miss Hannigan. Later in April he was due to return to the role in Southampton.

In September 2022, the month after leaving BBC Radio 2, O’Grady gave an interview to The Big Issue, from his home in Devon surrounded by animals. He reflected on the wild ride of his life.

Paul O’Grady’s early years

Paul O’Grady was born and grew up in Tranmere on Merseyside, the third child in a working class Irish family.

He told The Big Issue: “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.

“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.”

The influences behind Lily Savage

O’Grady recalled that he was a well behaved alter boy until a film came along that forever changed his life.

He said: “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.”

Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage
1996: Paul O’Grady on set at The Big Breakfast as alter-ego Lily Savage Photo: Glenn Copus/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

The comedy that he made a career of also came from his 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.

Paul O’Grady’s early roles

As a teenager, O’Grady said he “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.”

How comedy has changed

It was while working for Camden Social Services, that Paul O’Grady 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.

O’Grady told The Big Issue how he thinks comedy has changed over the years and that he wouldn’t have been able to play Lily Savage today.

“Comedy has changed so much,” he said. “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.”

Feeling like an old ghost

Not long before his interview with The Big Issue, O’Grady had returned from a trip to Denmark to visit his old stomping ground.

“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.”

O’Grady then went on to talk about friends lost over the decades.

“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.”

Paul O’Grady’s love of animals

Paul O’Grady achieved a lifelong ambition by living in a place in the countryside surrounded by animals. In recent years he was most frequently seen on our screens presenting Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs. But it wasn’t just dogs he loved.

The first thing he said to The Big Issue when he answered the phone was: “The alpacas have all given birth now, thank god, so I can relax.”

He added, “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’ve been very lucky and I count my blessings,” he added. “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?

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Where Lily Savage is now

Although Paul O’Grady told us that he could no longer perform as Lily Savage, he did exclusively reveal what she’s getting up to these days.

“She’s living and working in Amsterdam in the hospitality industry,” O’Grady said. “She’d like me to tell you, it’s in a strictly managerial role.”

And although Paul O’Grady may longer be with us, I like to think Lily Savage is still living out a wild existence somewhere out there.

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