Comedian, broadcaster and chat-show host who shot to widespread fame in the 1990s as his alter ego Lily Savage
In 2010, Paul O’Grady broke his nose after losing his footing at his friend Cilla Black’s house in Barbados. “My nose was out to here and I had a black eye, but I said: ‘I’m not ruining my holiday,’” he recalled. “So we went out every night and were the talk of the island.” The story was typical of O’Grady, who loved to dramatise his indomitability and had an unquenchable desire to be in the public eye.
The comedian and chat show host, who has died aged 67, was once called “the Edith Piaf of day-time television” and, given its connotations of a drama-filled life, he loved the epithet.
His defiant unshakeability and desire to perform came together in his first stage persona, the foul-mouthed Lily Savage, who sported a platinum blond beehive wig, vast quantities ofakeup, white stilettos, a leopardskin miniskirt and a matching fake-fur coat. Born in the 1980s in the gay pubs of south London, as a sideline to O’Grady’s day job as a care worker, Savage thrived on insulting audiences and made no effort to conceal a streak of hard-headed lawlessness (“You need two things in a riot – flat shoes and a pram”).
She also hinted at a lurid past as a down-at-heel sex worker and made the work of previous British female impersonators, such as Danny La Rue and Dick Emery, seem tame.
Savage was inspired, in part, by O’Grady’s Aunt Chrissie, a bus conductor. “She had a hard life, but she used to suck her cheeks in and fancy herself as Marlene Dietrich,” he said.
Lily Savage presented the BBC’s celebrity game show Blankety Blank in the late 1990s. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock
His alter ego acted as a kind of avenging angel, giving voice to the anger O’Grady was otherwise unable to express.
Savage eventually became a phenomenon, appearing on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. She presented the BBC celebrity game show Blankety Blank (1997–99) and the ITV comedy show Lily Live! (2000-01). She even returned in triumph to her native Merseyside, and became a regular on This Morning with Richard and Judy.
But O’Grady killed off Savage in 2005, claiming Lily had “seen the light, taken the veil and packed herself off to a convent in France”. Thereafter he took centre stage as himself. As the host of the Paul O’Grady Show and Paul O’Grady Live he could be just as caustic as Savage.
In 2010 he provoked complaints to Ofcom for attacking the new coalition government during Paul O’Grady Live. “Do you know what got my back up?” he told his ITV audience. “Those Tories hooping and hollering when they heard about the cuts. Gonna scrap the pensions – yeah! – no more wheelchairs – yeah! ... I bet when they were children they laughed at Bambi when the mother got shot.”
O’Grady was born in Birkenhead to Catholic parents, an Irish father, Paddy, and English mother, Molly (nee Savage). “I was born late – what my mother calls the last kick of a dying horse,” he said in his 2009 autobiography At My Mother’s Knee … And Other Low Joints.
“There’s three of us children, but I’m 13 or 14 years younger than my brother and sister.
When I look back on my childhood I have no bad memories. Our family was loving and full of affection. I never knew what divorce was until I moved to London. I was an indulged child and completely protected from anything bad.” Not quite true: he was sent by his parents to a school run by the Christian Brothers. “They were wicked, wicked,” he told an interviewer.
Paul O’Grady was a great animal lover. Photograph: Joe Murphy/RSPCA/PA
O’Grady left school at 16 to work for the DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security) in Liverpool, and then went on to a string of jobs – hotel skivvy, office worker at an abattoir, and clerk at a magistrates court.
In the 70s he worked for Camden council in north London as a peripatetic carer. “If a single mother had to go to hospital, I’d move in and look after her kids so they didn’t have to go into care,” he once explained. “Often there’d be a drunken father turning up at 2am, wanting to know who I was, and I’d say, mincing slightly: ‘I’m from Camden council!’ and he’d smack me. So I’d be going around with a black eye and nits from the kids.” He cited this period of his life as part inspiration, along with his Birkenhead female relations, for the Lily Savage character.
In the 80s, Savage had a solo residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London that ran for eight years. Each night his waspish patter spared no one, not even the boys in blue. One night in 1987, his performance was rudely interrupted by a police raid, one that many of the gay club’s punters took to be a homophobic attempt to intimidate them.
Thirty-five officers burst in wearing rubber gloves – this being the height of the Aids epidemic, they feared touching those they arrested. According to the veteran LGBTQ+ campaigner Peter Tatchell, O’Grady at first thought they were strippers and part of the show.
In 2021, O’Grady described what happened next: “I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all wearing rubber gloves. I remember saying something like, ‘Well well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.’” He was handcuffed and taken to the police station before being released without charge. “They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night.”
While working as a court clerk, he had an affair with a colleague, Diane Jansen, who became pregnant with their daughter, Sharyn. In 1977 he married Teresa Fernandes, a Portuguese woman, in order to prevent her deportation from the UK. The couple divorced in 2005.
O’Grady claimed there was always an unspoken understanding in his family that he was gay. “It was no big deal. I never stood up in the front room and said, ‘I have something to tell you!’ – but I wasn’t hiding anything.”
During the mid-80s he met Brendan Murphy, the manager of a sauna in south London. They were a couple until Murphy’s death from brain cancer in 2005.
By then O’Grady was a popular household name, and in 2008 he was appointed MBE. Three years later, the Museum of Liverpool staged an exhibition of his alter ego’s frocks. In 2011 he quit Paul O’Grady Live after becoming exasperated with his role as a chat- show host: “I felt part of the PR machine. They’d want this guest or that guest. Every question had to go through the lawyers. I was just another plug for someone’s book.”
He went on to make shows such as ITV’s For the Love of Dogs, Me and My Guide Dog, a documentary about the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, and a series for the BBC, Paul O’Grady’s Working Britain. A two-part eulogy to the British working class, broadcast in 2013, it prompted press scepticism – not least because O’Grady told viewers he still considered himself working class despite being a millionaire who owned a generous plot of land in Kent.
He lived there with 14 sheep, three dogs, two pigs, hundreds of rescued chickens, ducks, a goat and barn owls. After Murphy’s death he had a long-term relationship with the former ballet dancer Andre Portasio, whom he married in 2017.
Paul O’Grady as Roxanne in The Bill, 1989, with Tony Scannell as DS Roach. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock
Lily Savage returned from her French convent to perform as Widow Twankey in pantomime in Southampton in 2011 and London in 2012. In 2017, O’Grady hosted a Channel 5 reboot of Blind Date; and in 2021 the ITV celebrity game show Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up.
During lockdown, he wrote a children’s book, Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang (2021). Last year he made a special one-off episode of For the Love of Dogs to mark 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, for which he was an ambassador. In August 2022, he presented his last show on BBC Radio 2 after 14 years on the airwaves.
Tatchell said of O’Grady: “Paul wasn’t just a brilliant comedian and broadcast personality but a much admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights … Paul was planning to lead our forthcoming campaign for the police to apologise for their historic persecution of the LGBT+ community.” His fellow TV presenter Lorraine Kelly said that O’Grady was “the kindest, funniest man … Dogs are the best judge of character and they loved him.”
He is survived by Andre, Sharyn, and two grandchildren, Abel and Halo, and by his brother, Ben, and sister, Sheila.
Paul James O’Grady, comedian and chat-show host, born 14 June 1955; died 28 March 2023