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29 March 2023

How Paul O’Grady brought sharp wit and political bite to daytime TV

The comedian, presenter, activist and drag queen brought lacerating yet down-to-earth humour to light entertainment.

By Scott Bryan

Paul O’Grady was one of us. The comedian and TV presenter, who has died at the age of 67, had such charm, honesty and warmth, that watching him on TV felt catching up with him personally – as if the screen between you melted away. It was a rare quality that radiated throughout his decades-long career.

O’Grady began his career in the London gay scene of the 1980s, and became a household name first as the daring Lily Savage. She was not the first drag queen to be embraced on mainstream TV, but she was certainly one of the most outspoken, and adored. As O’Grady later described her to Michael Parkinson, “She had a tattoo and a love bite, her heels were scuffed and had holes in her tights.” With her towering blonde wig and lacerating humour, the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed Savage was a trailblazer, leading the way for both the next wave of comedians, and a younger queer generation watching television at home. For them, Lily Savage showed that you did not need to change a single thing about yourself to gain acceptance.

And gosh, that wit. An oft-repeated anecdote about Savage was the time that, whilst performing as a regular at the legendary South London gay pub The Royal Vauxhall Tavern during the height of the AIDS crisis, the pub was raided by the police. “I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all of them wearing rubber gloves,” O’Grady reminisced on Instagram. “I remember saying something like ‘Well, well, looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.”

Though he was associated with daytime TV and light entertainment throughout his career – from Blankety Blank to Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs – O’Grady was fearlessly political. A tireless campaigner, he promoted LGBTQ+ equality in an era of anti-gay laws and rampant homophobia, and to advocate for animal rights. And he never stopped. O’Grady was set to be part of a new campaign in a matter of weeks, demanding the police apologise for their decades long harassment of the queer community. “He wanted that apology not just for himself, but for everybody,” the campaigner Peter Tatchell said on Good Morning Britain. “It was shocking and he was very angry.”

Born to a working-class Irish migrant family in Birkenhead, O’Grady believed you needed to bring up others with you. A colleague on The Paul O’Grady Show said that roles on the show were put in the local Job Centre. “He wanted anyone and everyone to be able to apply so they could get a break like he had.” 

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After retiring Lily in 2004, he became a tour de force on British daytime. A sign of his popularity was that at one time The Paul O’Grady Show was on two different channels at the same time, with ITV continuing to air repeats of the show when it moved to Channel 4. With a broad audience to maintain, O’Grady nevertheless remained defiantly outspoken. Discussing the austerity cuts celebrated by braying Conservatives MPs in 2010 he said, bluntly: “Bastards. I bet when they were children they laughed at Bambi, when his mother got shot!”

A social worker for Camden council in the 1970s, O’Grady was a man who knew all too well how regressive government policies impacted the individual. “It should’ve got better, but it’s got worse, much worse,” he said in an interview with The Observer in 2017. “We don’t respect the elderly and we don’t look after the disabled. We pretend to. Carers are the neglected souls. We leave them alone.”

O’Grady’s inimitable combination of biting wit and down-to-earth charm can be summed up by another clip from The Paul O’Grady Show from 2010. Railing against austerity cuts, he shouted over horns blaring the French national anthem. “We should take to the streets! We should be vocal in our fight against oppression!” He was so full of passion that he inadvertently smacked a glass of water on his desk, which flew across the stage. “Oh shit!” he remarked, raising his hands in shock. The audience screamed with laughter as O’Grady rose from his seat. “Vive la Birkenhead! Vive la revolution!

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