Obituary: Paul O’Grady, all-round entertainer who shot to fame as the brassy, chain-smoking, peroxide blonde Lily Savage
Paul O’Grady, who has died aged 67, found fame in the 1990s as his alter ego, Lily Savage, the foul-mouthed peroxide blonde with scuffed stilettos, leopard-skin accessories and a penchant for shoplifting.
Originally a south London drag act in gay pubs, O’Grady established Lily Savage as one of the most popular figures on mainstream television, hosting programmes such as Blankety Blank and The Lily Savage Show. In his mid-forties he abandoned the character and in the 2000s became the presenter of a range of television and radio shows.
O’Grady first appeared as Lily in 1985 when he was supplementing his income as a social worker by serving drinks at a gay pub in Vauxhall, south London. Unimpressed by the ragbag selection of drag acts he saw singing repetitive covers of Shirley Bassey songs, he created Lily Savage, the brassy, 6ft 2in, chain-smoking trollop who admitted to having dabbled in “the oldest profession”.
Growling through her act in a thick Scouse accent, Lily – full name Lilian Maeve Veronica – would regale her audience with her family history. The daughter of a woman wrestler, Hell Cat Savage from Birkenhead, and a passing sailor (Irish, apparently, from the sound of his accent when he asked “How much?”), Lily was a single mother with a son in Risley Remand Centre, a daughter with a baby of her own (Kylie Marie), a sister called Vera and a whippet called Queenie (both incontinent).
Audiences loved Lily’s brazen vulgarity and in 1993 she shared the bill with the comedienne Victoria Wood at the London Palladium. The following year, Lily Savage had her own show at the Palladium. By 1995 – after she was given a slot on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, where as “Queen of the Boudoir” she would interview celebrity guests – Lily Savage was appearing regularly in light entertainment television.
British audiences have always had a soft spot for drag artists, but O’Grady’s act differed from the more matronly Danny La Rue and Dame Edna; Lily Savage was wholeheartedly working-class, an “urban slapper” with laddered tights and PVC mini-skirts who would delight in giving intimate details of her sordid sex life, then describe a trip to Lourdes, where she went to get her verruca cured. As O’Grady liked to explain: “She’s a dirty old bag really.”
In 2001 he presented two travelogue programmes for ITV without his Lily costume, while continuing to regard Lily’s dark-rooted poodle perm and mouthy attitude as the perfect armour for his stage appearances. He admitted, however, that it could, on occasion, be trying to have Lily Savage as your “other half”. “I play second fiddle to her all the time,” he said. “I sometimes come into my flat, and there’s a leopard-skin handbag on the floor, and a pair of her shoes and an old coat – and it’s like living with a boozy old barmaid who’s trashed the place. I think ‘slag!’ ”
Seeking to diversify away from Savage, O’Grady starred in the BBC sitcom Eyes Down (2003-04) and in 2004 began presenting ITV’s daytime chat show The Paul O’Grady Show. He later moved to rival Channel 4, where the show was rebranded as The New Paul O’Grady Show and ran until 2015.
On stage, he appeared in several Royal Variety shows and became a regular on the provincial pantomime circuit. On television he fronted a popular series about dogs, and found a berth hosting a weekend show on Radio 2.
Paul James O’Grady was born into a working-class Irish family on June 14 1955 in Tranmere, Birkenhead, the youngest of three children. His father was a plant operator at an oil refinery and his mother worked in a factory. As a boy Paul made regular visits to his father’s family farm in Ireland which fostered a love of animals and the countryside in contrast to his urban origins in a devout Catholic household.
“My childhood,” he later recalled, “was all going to church, stations of the cross, novenas and Union of Catholic Mothers coach trips.” Although the family were not well off, Paul was sent to Redcourt St Anselm’s, a now-defunct private prep school in Birkenhead run by the Christian Brothers (“They were wicked, wicked!”), the stirrings of his homosexuality being confirmed when a married male psychiatric nurse at a local hospital propositioned him in the sluice room when he was 11.
Failing the 11-plus, Paul moved to Blessed Edmund Campion RC Secondary Modern and Corpus Christi High Schools, once falling foul of the police when he burgled a house with some friends, after which, between 1970 and 1973, he attended the local technical college, now Wirral Metropolitan.
O’Grady drew on his memories of growing up on Merseyside for much of Lily Savage’s character (his mother’s maiden name was Savage). “She’s a combination,” he would explain, “she’s mothers, aunties, slightly racy women who lived up the road.”
Family weddings were a particularly good source of “Lilies”. “The aunties would turn up at a wedding dressed to death, and there’d often be a fight. One cousin’s marriage ended up in the Birkenhead News with the headline: ‘Fracas at Wedding’.”
After technical college, O’Grady joined the Department of Social Security, then worked in a hotel in London. He returned to Liverpool, however, when the hotel summoned the police after he had “borrowed” a bottle of Campari to take to a party. He then worked in a variety of jobs – at an abattoir, as a waiter at a brothel in Manila, and as a trainee assistant clerk at Liverpool magistrates’ court, where among the sober-suited officials he appeared in a favourite red corduroy jacket and pink tie.
During this period he had a casual affair with a woman in the court collection office 10 years his senior which produced his daughter, Sharyn. He was scathing of the tabloid excitement when her existence was revealed. “Am I the first gay man to have a child?” he asked in 1995.
In the early 1980s he returned to London to work for Camden Council as a peripatetic social worker, often being sent to live with deprived families. “I met loads of Lilies,” he recalled, “London Lilies. They’d say, ‘I’m just going to the shops, Paul’ and then come back three days later. You couldn’t help liking them for it.”
In 1996, following his successful appearances on The Big Breakfast, O’Grady performed in front of a live “celebrity” audience for the television special An Evening with Lily Savage. Lily subsequently hosted several television series – Live from the Lilydrome; Life Swaps; The Lily Savage Show, and Lily Live.
Her status as an institution within the world of light entertainment was confirmed when in 1997 she took over as the presenter of Blankety Blank, which O’Grady once described as “an intelligent, intellectual show, similar to University Challenge, except instead of scruffy students you’ve got top celebs”.
O’Grady also took Lily on tour, and The Lily Savage Variety Show at Blackpool was a sell-out. Lily Savage has also appeared in the West End adaptation of Prisoner Cell Block H, as Miss Hannigan in Annie – he was in a touring production at the time of his death – and dancing alongside Cilla Black and Barbara Windsor at the Royal Variety Performance in 2001.
By then, O’Grady was working up to 20 hours a day, most of them in a heavy wig and corset, and in April 2002 he had a heart attack. He decided to cut back on his work; and also on his consumption of cigarettes (60 a day). The following month he told an audience at an awards ceremony that “Lambert & Butler have had to lay off 200 staff.”
After ditching his Lily Savage persona, he hosted a late night ITV show, Paul O’Grady Live (2010-11) as well as Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs centred on Battersea Dogs Home (from 2012) and a revival of Blind Date (2017-18) while also presenting BBC Radio 2’s Paul O’Grady on the Wireless.
In August 2022, O’Grady resigned from Radio 2, unhappy at having to share his slot with the comedian Rob Beckett.
Tall and thin, with grey hair, Paul O’Grady was much quieter than Lily Savage, although he admired her straight-talking attitude. “I’ve given my life away to Lily Savage,” he revealed. “I get called Lily in the street, and it’s like my identity went for Lily Savage. It’s good fun, though, dressing up as a hooker, it really is.”
Politically on the Left, he proclaimed a visceral hatred of Margaret Thatcher and successive Conservative governments. “I loathe Cameron; I loathe Osborne…” he railed. “I’d like to see their heads on spikes on Tower Bridge. Seriously.”
As well as his Labour affiliations, O’Grady was also an LGBT rights activist, campaigning against Russia’s introduction of a law under Vladimir Putin which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality to children.
His success as an entertainer bought him a six-bedroom farmhouse near the Kent coast which he shared with a menagerie of assorted dogs, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, barn owls and sheep.
In 2005, he was awarded an honorary fellowship for services to entertainment by Liverpool John Moores University and in 2010, he received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from De Montfort University, Leicester. In 2008 he was appointed MBE. He published four exhaustive volumes of autobiography.
“I do count my blessings,” he reflected. “I have had two heart attacks [in 2002 and 2006], and if I get to 60 that will be amazing. I don’t fear anything nowadays. There has to be an angel out there.”
Paul O’Grady married, in 1977, a Portuguese lesbian, Teresa Fernandes, in order to prevent her deportation; although they eventually lost contact, they only legally divorced in 2005.
His long-term partner and manager, Brendan Murphy, died from brain cancer in 2005. Paul O’Grady married, in 2017, a former Brazilian dancer with the English National Ballet, André Portasio, 25 years his junior, who survives him with his daughter.