In the 25-plus years since he first burst onto our TV screens as Lily Savage, the national treasure shares some insightful nuggets on love, loss and his soft spot for animals
Paul O’Grady sounds bewildered as he discusses a career that’s propelled him from pub drag act to national treasure.
In the 25-plus years since he first burst onto our TV screens as Lily Savage—the acid-tongued Scouser with a wig the size of the Liver Building—Paul has metamorphosed from flamboyant variety act to animal ambassador and elder statesman of light entertainment.
He’s recently returned to the shiny floor genre on ITV’s Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line-Up, a chat-cum-quiz show, and he’s about to film a tenth series of the programme in which he dispenses love to unwanted canines, For the Love of Dogs.
It’s in the wee small hours at this farmhouse in Kent that Paul takes time to reflect on his journey. “It’s never ceased to amaze me, how I got here,” he says down the phone, in his nasal Birkenhead twang.
“Sometimes when you sit and have a think, as I do about three in the morning when I’m writing, I might make a cup of tea and I think, How weird: me arriving at Victoria Coach Station with hardly any money, to this. How did I get here?”
“I feel like I’ve stepped through the looking glass, I really do. I never take it for granted.”
For someone who’s shinnied seemingly effortlessly up the showbusiness pole, TV personality Paul claims he’s largely devoid of ambition. “You know those people who get up each day and they’re like, ‘Right!’ And they do all their emails and they’re on the phone to their other agents,” he says.
“I couldn’t be bothered. I’ve never had a plan. I had more ambition when I was starting out as Lily, but I think it was more enthusiasm than ambition.”
O'Grady as alter-ego Lily Savage
Of course, the whole not-having-a-plan approach can work out well when, like O’Grady, you’re the funniest person in the room, you can hold an audience in the palm of your hand, and you exude a warmth that makes everyone (and every pooch) in your radius feel good.
In the last decade O’Grady has become synonymous with Battersea Dogs Home thanks to the low-fi documentary series in which he checks in to the charity HQ and communes with the unwanted animals.
With O’Grady at the helm, it’s proved a huge ratings hit for ITV, but Paul confesses, because of his love of dogs, he was ambivalent about doing the show when it was offered in 2012. “It was one in a series of treatments I’d been sent,” he said. “And I just looked at it. I’d never gone into Battersea, because I know what I’m like [he’s ended up taking home several dogs while making the series].”
"It’s well known that Paul’s devotion to animals is not just confined to the small screen. He’s a Doctor Dolittle for the 21st century"
“But the six hours I was booked to do turned into six months. Because of the budget, we’d all get involved, including the crew. We realised that we were making something that is quite special. Ten years later, here I am.”
It’s well known that Paul’s devotion to animals is not just confined to the small screen. He’s a Doctor Dolittle for the 21st century. The smallholding in Kent he shares with husband Andre Portasio, a retired ballet dancer he started dating in 2006 (they married in 2017), is overrun with farm animals and pets: eight sheep, six chickens, five New Zealand pigs, four barn owls, three goats and four dogs: Eddie, Arfur, Conchita and Nancy, all adopted from Battersea.
Paul O'Grady with rescue dog Charlie, a Staffordshire bull terrier at Battersea Dogs Home
He spends his days minding this menagerie. When it’s lambing season, he’s been up to his elbows, Herriot style, delivering them. When lambs are orphaned, he moves them into the house for hands-on parenting and bottle-feeding.
One wonders what his husband makes of the zoo-like conditions at home. “He used to be terrified of the animals at first,” guffaws O’Grady. “The sheep scared the life out of him, but now you want to see him down the track, in the field. He’s embraced the countryside completely.”
“We’re talking about getting alpacas next. I did a series about alpacas last year [in Paul O’Grady’s Great British Escape] and went to an alpaca farm. I fell in love with two of them. I can’t help myself.”
"One wonders what his husband makes of the zoo-like conditions at home"
Now Paul has parlayed this animal madness into his first novel, for children, after four well-received memoirs. Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang centres on a boy who can talk to animals. “That’s his talent, but it’s a talent that he is not proud of,” explains Paul.
“Because like a lot of children, he doesn’t want to stand out and be seen as the oddball. So he keeps it very much to himself, he’s quite embarrassed about it.” Eddie is sent to Amsterdam to live for a few months with his eccentric Aunt Budge and learns to embrace his special gift.
It’s a charming and well-written novel for ten-year-olds, although O’Grady says he wrote it largely for his own amusement during lockdown—he hadn’t necessarily planned to get it published.
“It sort of started about four years ago,” he says. “I thought, I’m going to write a kids’ book. Anyway, this thing was 95,000 words and convoluted, so I had a word with a few publishers, who liked the characters but said it was way too long.”
“So I abandoned ship, to tell you the truth. And then in lockdown, I picked up the characters again and wrote a completely different story about them. I gave a draft to my manager and he loved it.” Two more Eddie Albert books are planned: one set in the nearby Romney Marshes and another in India.
O'Grady and his friend Cilla Black
His main character, Eddie, lives with his widowed father; his mother has died. Loss is a theme with which O’Grady is painfully familiar: he lost family members young, followed by numerous friends from AIDS in the Eighties.
His former boyfriend and manager, Brendan Murphy, died of a brain tumour in 2005, and more recently his close friends Jackie Collins (in September 2015) and Cilla Black the month before that. He was “destroyed”, he said, by Black’s sudden death from a stroke.
“I’ve had loads of loss,” he says, turning the subject into a joke. “My producer at Radio 2 calls me The Grim Reaper. When he was in hospital he said, ‘If Paul O’Grady turns up, please don’t let him in!’ Yeah, my father died when I was 17 and a cousin died in a terrible road crash when I was about seven. And that was on Bonfire Night, so we never celebrated.”
He explains that a US drama he’s been watching, Pose—about the LGBT drag scene in New York in the AIDS era—is bringing back to him the emotional tsunami he endured in London around that same time, when he was doing drag as Lily Savage.
“Watching it kills me,” he says of Pose, serious again. “I don’t know why I put myself through it because I was there. In the Eighties. I lost so many friends. If I wasn’t at a hospital, I was at a funeral, or clearing a flat and trying to explain [what happened] to parents who didn’t even know their son was gay, let alone a drag queen. I watch it and it kills me.”
He’s nostalgic for the drag scene of 40 years ago, though. “I sort of miss all that banter and buying the wigs from Hairaisers, feathers from Miss Rule, Mini Diamond in Berwick Street with all the jewellery,” he says fondly.
“The drag scene now, it’s different. The whole attitude, it’s quite American now. English drag had a whiff of musical hall and variety. We had really great drag comics and all that in our time and now they’re gone.”
"We ease off politics, for no other reason than it’s probably not healthy to get O’Grady’s blood boiling"
He says there’s no chance he’d revive Lily Savage, whom he retired in 2005. “She’d be livid at the way things are going,” he says, going into a mini-rant about child poverty in the UK juxtaposed by the recent news that Boris Johnson spent £100,000 on two paintings for the Downing Street flat.
“How much more can you rub our faces in it? Lily is simmering inside me, desperate to get out with her opinions,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “She could say things I never could, really.”
We ease off politics, for no other reason than it’s probably not healthy to get O’Grady’s blood boiling. It feels little short of miraculous that he’s still here, having defied the angel of death after suffering heart attacks in 2002, 2006 and 2014. Claiming “dodgy tickers” run in his family, he’s fatalistic about his prospects.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he says. “But I’d rather live my life to the full than sitting at home. My cardiologist is amazed I’m still standing.”
Paul admits he was thrilled after a recent heart check-up gave him a clean bill of health, allowing him to continue working at a decent lick. “There was talk of getting me a pacemaker,” he explains.
“My cardiologist thought I should have one, so he sent me to the specialist. I had the ECG and all that business, but the specialist said, ‘You don’t need the pacemaker. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ I was delighted, absolutely delighted. I don’t feel ready to retire.”
Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang: The Amsterdam Adventure is published on September 16, 2021 in hardback (Harper Collins, £12.99)
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