‘I’m Lily Savage, the blonde bombsite’ – the genius of Paul O’Grady, by Suzy Eddie Izzard, Russell T Davies and more
A boundary-busting standup, a radio sensation, a knockout on TV, a champion for LGBTQ rights, and a pet-lover extraordinaire … stars and writers pay tribute to the many lives of Paul O’Grady
‘Granada wanted me to write his sitcom. But I wasn’t needed’
Russell T Davies, writer
In the mid-90s, I was a writer-for-hire at Granada TV, bashing out soaps, sitcoms, quizzes, anything. One day, they said: “Paul O’Grady, d’you know him? He’s Lily Savage. We want you to meet him. He wants to do a sitcom as Lily. And he needs a writer. I mean, he’s funny, OK. But he doesn’t know story or structure or characters or backstories. If he’s going to write proper scripts, we think he needs a writer.”
So off I went. A drab office in the ITV Tower. Paul walked in. Unexpectedly handsome. He sat down. He stared at me like the scan of a 3D printer. And then he began. “I think, scene one, I’m walking down the street, and there’s a Big Issue seller, and he says to me, ‘Big Issue?’, and I say, ‘It might be to you, but it’s not to me.’”
It never stopped. A glorious monologue, a mad, magical attack of words, conjuring whole worlds into existence, with jokes like daggers. Story? There were gorgeous, furious, heartfelt tales of love and loss, fags and booze, feuds and affairs, long-held grudges ending in spectacular punchlines. Structure? Everything came with an arc, a punch, a trick, a gasp. Characters? Oh, the characters! Lily’s sister, her neighbour, her enemies, her one-night-stands and long-lost loves. Backstories? These tales echoed back to the war, with secrets and debts and back-alley shags in the Liverpool of the Blitz. Stories that hooted and ached and raged and hoped for a better world.
I went back to Granada and said: “I don’t think he needs a writer.”
‘I was struck by his ability to make anything comedic’
Suzy Eddie Izzard, standup
Paul and I were both nominated for the Edinburgh festival’s Perrier award in 1991. It was a great year for comedy: Jack Dee, Frank Skinner and a brilliant guy called Avner the Eccentric were also nominated. Frank won but Paul was also really great and came from such an unusual direction: being a drag queen and a standup was quite unusual. Still is.
Lily Savage was a mouthy housewife and sex worker but you could imagine her talking to anyone, at any point, and getting on with them. That is what Paul brought to the table. We all watched each other’s acts as fellow nominees and I was struck by his ability to make anything comedic. He could just talk about whatever was in his head and get laughs.
I was probably still in boy mode that year. I had already told my parents [Izzard is transgender] but I knew I had to tell the press because that would mean I was no longer hiding in this lie. Coming out in the TV world back in 1991 was more likely to be a shot in the foot than anything, but I did it anyway, and I’m sure it helped that Paul was already out there, being very relaxed. That was it, above all else: he was relaxed in his skin, while also being funny and acerbic. It was a combination that really worked. And I think seeing what he did helped LGBT people out there, either in their personal lives or perhaps as performers being able to be more honest about their sexuality onstage.
Appearing on The Paul O’Grady Show was always fun. He was a lovely, decent guy who cared about people. You could see that in the way he interacted with them. Obviously we shared an interest in politics. His positions might not be exactly my positions, although ripping into the Tories like he did – absolutely. But he did things his way and with aplomb. I can’t imagine he’d ever want to stand to be an MP like I did, because that would have been too hampering.
People should always keep growing and challenging themselves. I got the feeling that, with his programmes about animals, he had to really push to make them happen. This change of direction in later life sat well with him. He’s left a good, positive mark on the history of our country. It would have been nice if he could have stuck around for longer.
‘He talked about class and lipstick and death’
Eva Wiseman, Observer columnist
You never know what you’re going to get when you’re marched into a hotel room to interview a celebrity, but it’s rarely this. Over tea, and I think some wine, O’Grady told me stories from his many lives, some furious, many devastating, all punctured with a pursed little punchline, occasionally popping over to the window for a fag, voice like broken biscuits, smelled lovely. He talked about class and lipstick and death.
He had lived so much. That was what I came away thinking. And with both hands. Now his job was to make sense of all the things he’d seen, from his time as a care officer for Camden council, and as a drag queen in the Aids years (he bumped into a fan dancer in hospital who told him fans weren’t fashionable any more. “And I said, ‘What is?’ And he said, ‘Dying.’”) Then as an award-winning comedian, and teller of stories, and lover, emerging finally as, sort of, everything: radical anarchic working-class performer and Radio 2 presenter everybody’s auntie adored.
And what he landed on often, was fury – at the “criminals” in government. At their lack of care, or respect, at the violent effect of cuts. He spat out Tory politicians’ names as though they were sour on his tongue. He looked away, out towards the traffic, when talking about people he’d lost. An audience with O’Grady felt like being shaken awake. I loved it. The only time he disagreed with me was when I called him a national treasure. He wrinkled his nose and said: “I’m just the burnt-out wreck of a once glorious disco.”
‘Deaths of beloved family pets made great radio’
Alexis Petridis, Guardian pop critic
It is not meant as a criticism when I say that Paul O’Grady’s Radio 2 show, which ran for 14 years on a Sunday afternoon until he quit in 2022, wasn’t really about the music. He clearly had a love for northern soul, devoting a segment to it every week, but it largely dealt in old-fashioned Radio 2 fare: the Corrs next to Barry Manilow, and music from the 50s.
No, the show was about O’Grady himself. He was both acerbically funny – Lily without the wig – and incredibly warm, the kind of warmth you can’t fake without sounding oily. And O’Grady never sounded oily: he sounded engaged and completely himself when reading out listeners’ requests or commiserating with them over the deaths of beloved pets (incredibly, another regular feature).
The fact that a lot of people who wrote in seemed to be of advanced years – the requests were often to thank helpful younger family members or carers – said a great deal about the breadth of his appeal. Pensioners seemed to adore him. The fact that O’Grady resigned after being asked to share his slot with comedian Rob Beckett – in his 30s, more given to playing Blur and Dua Lipa, less inclined to discuss dead pets or thank a granddaughter – tells you rather more about Radio 2’s ageism-with-impunity, its desire to skew its audience younger, than the departure of Ken Bruce. Frankly, it was their loss.
‘If he’d had enough space, he’d have taken all our dogs!’
Shaun Opperman, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home
It’s hard to overstate the positive influence he’s had as an ambassador, not just for us but for the animal rescue sector as a whole. To make his TV show, Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, he was virtually on site for half the year. He’d be meeting dogs that had had a very shaky start, and he just cared about them so much. He worried about them when they were poorly and shared the joy when we found them loving homes. He’d always joke about how we were trying to foist the dogs on to him, but he did take an awful lot. If he’d had enough space, he’d have taken the lot!
What I remember above all was the laughter, though. We used to spend so much time cracking up that what we were filming ended up unbroadcastable. He was a real one-off.
‘A glimpse of gay culture going mainstream’
Brian Logan, Guardian comedy critic
What’s the difference between drag and cross-dressing? Before Lily Savage, men dressing as women was – in the mainstream, at least – the broad and unthreatening preserve of acts like The Two Ronnies and Les Dawson. Dame Edna, O’Grady once observed, “never got called a drag act because he’s a heterosexual male. But I’m called one because I’m a gay man.”
Lily Savage complicated these distinctions. Like Dawson, Stanley Baxter and co, the act had its roots in working-class, music-hall culture, its reference points stubbornly old-school. Of her leopard-print handbag, Lily said: “That cost me seven and nine in Bolton market.” But, in both her filth and her fabulousness, she was also a glimpse of gay culture going mainstream and of the Drag Race future.
O’Grady developed the act (“a creature,” he said, “that was more cartoon than human”) in the gay clubs of London’s Camden Town – specifically, the Black Cap. Lily then headlined her own show for eight years at “the Palladium of drag”, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a far more contested space then than now. From Vauxhall, O’Grady took the act to the Edinburgh fringe, in 1991 being nominated for the prestigious Perrier award. Although Frank Skinner won, Lily was propelled to TV stardom.
You can see why TV bosses knew they’d hit paydirt. With “the blond bombsite”, they got an act with abundant popular appeal, all Bet Lynch brass and end-of-the-pier humour (holidays in Rhyl, jokes about Gracie Fields). But they also got a boundary-pusher, someone who brought an edgier audience onboard and expanded the space within the mainstream for queer(ish) comedy. It helped that O’Grady was a performer right to the outer limits of Lily’s absurdly bouffant beehive – “hair like a Māori’s hut,” as his character had it. Quick-witted, expressive, adroit in treading the line between too far and just far enough, Lily – named after O’Grady’s mum, channelling the traits of Birkenhead relatives and soap stars of yore – is a masterclass in direct, demotic, no-frills (despite the frills) comedy.
O’Grady retired the character in 2004 and, today, many will grieve the warm and witty broadcaster that emerged, rather than his tart alter ego. But the volume of tributes from the drag kings and queens of today (of whom there are head-spinningly more than 80s-era O’Grady could ever anticipated) testify to his influence, just as the cull of queer performance venues over the last decade suggests his success, and that of his inheritors, should never be taken for granted.
“How I loved [how] gloriously loose & effortless his shows were,” reads one tweet today from Joe Lycett, a comedian – queer, political, proudly provincial – with palpable O’Grady affinities. “How he proved you could be political in a light ent[ertainment] space and that you could do all this & be really, really funny.” He did – and for that, his memory will be cherished.
‘The police raiders wore rubber gloves because of Aids’
Peter Tatchell, activist
I first met Paul in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in the mid-80s, when he was regularly performing as Lily Savage. Recently, when we were working on a campaign to get an apology from the police for their past persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, he told me a story that stuck in my mind.
He was backstage at the Tavern in 1987, preparing for his performance and adjusting his wig, when suddenly the police burst into his dressing room. At first, he thought they were strippers and part of the show. When Paul came out on stage, they were manhandling customers and staff. There was pandemonium as officers marauded through the pub. People were scared. This was at the height of the Aids panic and the police were all wearing rubber gloves – because they thought you could get HIV by touching a gay person. Paul took one look at the gloves and quipped to the officers: “Oh good, have you come to do the washing up?”
He wanted a police apology but never got one. He was angry that they’d never said sorry – despite thousands of gay and bisexual men being arrested for consenting, victimless behaviour in malicious, vindictive police raids. So, in his final months, he was preparing to stand up, accuse them of homophobia and demand they finally take responsibility and apologise. That was the sort of person Paul was: a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate who sought justice, as well as an all-round kind-hearted and compassionate human being. He will be missed by me and millions of others.