Desperately sad news about the untimely death of Paul O’Grady at the age of just 67. Social media has predictably been full of tributes, with nobody having a bad word to say about him.
O’Grady, originally from Birkenhead, made his name performing as Lily Savage in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London in the 1980s. This was a time when gay men were routinely persecuted by authority, and on one occasion the pub was raided by police while Savage was on stage. This time marked the height of people’s ignorance about AIDS, and the police turned up wearing rubber gloves. Savage’s glorious riposte, “It looks like we’ve got help with the washing up,” got her arrested.
Savage was later recruited to conduct celebrity interviews on The Big Breakfast, gleefully sailing close to the line every morning, as this interview with Julian Clary shows. Later she moved to prime-time BBC One, and Blankety Blank was required viewing for me on Saturday teatimes. Unfortunately a lot of Savage’s humour had to be cut from the early evening broadcast, but luckily for us somebody saved the the outtakes, which are incredible.
Travel documentaries such as Paul O’Grady’s Orient allowed O’Grady to appear on TV as himself rather than Savage. More followed – a chat show on ITV, which moved to Channel 4, then back to ITV.
He became well-known for his love of animals, forming close ties with Battersea Dogs Home and running a farm in Kent. However, as his fame and wealth grew, he never forgot his working class roots. There was no better illustration of that than his fine rant about the Tories on live TV in 2010, which hopefully gave some ITV executives palpitations.
Whether it was as himself, or as Lily Savage, O’Grady’s presence was a massive step forward for LGBT representation on screen. Don’t underestimate the power of seeing a drag queen on mainstream television.
Channel 4 News on YouTube has a look-back over O’Grady’s life and a nice interview with his friend, the actor and Labour peer Michael Cashman.