Discover more from Conquest of the Useless
The media tributes to Paul O'Grady (and his alter-ego Lily Savage) strip him of his politics and smooth away the sharp edges that enhanced his greatness.
With promises of public punishments and pre-crime powers for landlords, Sunak and Starmer are both cheered by a press that delights in cruelty.
Do you know what my big fright was when Margaret Thatcher was in power? [It] Was being in a coach crash or some disaster, and coming to and finding Margaret Thacher leaning over the counterpane with her handbag, saying, “How arrreee youuu?” You’d die and think you’d gone to hell, wouldn’t you? If John Major did it, you’d think he was a porter: ‘Get us a cup of tea, would you love?’ … the Tories? I’ve got no time for them; they’ve crippled us: National Health Service is gone. Pensioners are treated like rubbish. It’s shocking what’s going on. [An Irish man in the audience interjects to say that Thatcher was "the best leader Britain ever had".] No, sorry, she crippled the country. Look at the state of the National Health Service after Maggie had been in. Look at it! You can't get a bed now if you had a heart attack in Woolworths. You'd have to hang on for three hours. … You didn't have to live there. It's alright for you, sitting there saying that. We had to suffer her.
— Lily Savage on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne, 31 March 1995.
It takes twenty-four paragraphs covering topics including his TV career, his relationships, his daughter, and his opinions on the intellectual merits of Blankety Blank (which he presented between 1997 and 2002) before The Daily Telegraph’s obituary mentions Paul O’Grady’s politics. It dedicates a whole two paragraphs to the topic:
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.
‘National treasure’ is a status bestowed upon people when the time has come to file down their teeth and water down their beliefs. In death, someone with that unwanted status can have their sharp edges smoothed away. O’Grady, equally astute and acidic in drag as Lily Savage as he was in what passed for civvies, is diminished to only the soft-hearted lover of dogs and doer of good works in establishment obits.
Since quitting Lily, and picking up a Bafta and an MBE, O’Grady has become something of a national treasure. He wrinkles his nose: “Oh, what a terrible phrase. That wasn’t planned. One day I thought: I can’t do this any more. I hated putting make-up on. Lipstick disgusts me. But mainly I hated that I could never say exactly what I thought. It always had to be warped through Lily. So I was like a boil ready to burst. Writing became an obsession. Telly or radio on full belt, I write at night when the dogs are asleep. Though two of them are epileptic, so I might have to stop for a fit.”
This morning on Times Radio, Stig Abell — while interviewing the actors Nigel Havers and Lisa Maxwell about their memories of O’Grady — said:
… the Vauxhall Tavern and that world that she was such a star in, Lily Savage (Paul O’Grady), had its edgier moments didn’t it? But Paul O’Grady managed to be there and also be mainstream, and bring the two together and make two different parts of British culture talk together.
Earlier in the morning, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with a line used repeatedly on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
… a drag artist who started work in gay clubs and went on to be a national treasure…
In both instances there was an air of sniffiness, of mild derision at performing in gay clubs and becoming a star from gay culture; as if gay culture, like black culture (which are obviously by no means mutually exclusive), hasn’t been the source of countless ‘mainstream’ pop culture moments and trends.
As I was writing this edition, Evan Davis trailed an item about O’Grady on Radio 4’s PM programme:
We look at his role as one of the country’s biggest champions of dogs.
Of course, dogs are important — they’re all good dogs — but it feels so small to boil down O’Grady’s position in British popular culture to his canine connections, and to the award-winning ITV show, Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs, which he created and fronted for the last 12 years of his life.
Many people are making selective claims to O’Grady (and by extension Lily Savage) following his death. The campaigner Julie Bindel — one of many who tried to make this distinction today — tweeted:
One of the things I loved about Paul O’Grady’s Lily Savage was how she was based on a woman he loved, not one he constructed from sexism or misogyny.
Promoting the fourth instalment of his memoir, Open the Cage, Murphy, in 2015, O’Grady described Lily to The Guardian:
She was a prostitute, a single mother, a shoplifter, she openly took drugs…
A lot of the stuff I used to say as Lily stemmed from [my childhood]. They were all funny. I didn’t realise at the time. My Auntie Chrissie was a clippy on the buses. She was very glamorous, a big blonde and she’d come in and say, "I’m that hungry, I could eat a nun’s arse through the convent railings." You’d never laugh because it was a manner of speaking. They were all very resilient, that was the other thing. Auntie Chrissie left the buses and got a job as a manageress of an off-licence. Two fellas came in: “This is a stick up.” She said, “I’ll just open the safe for you love,” went out the back, got a brush and battered them. This is who they were.
In a 2014 Spectator response to/review of the film I Am Divine, Bindel writes:
… the drag shows and performances were supposedly a parody, but I tired of seeing this privileged male using his considerable talent to perpetuate the cheap myth that what women really want is to be debased and humiliated for laughs.
Divine and Lily Savage were very different characters but the latter was not soft, nor kind; she was almost all sharp edges. The notion that many other drag acts have not created characters based on women they love is an assumption that suits Bindel’s arguments on other issues (especially trans rights).
Last year, Bindel wrote a Twitter thread about drag. It is being selectively thrown back at her following her tweet about O’Grady, using a screenshot of the first message in the chain. However, the whole thread was messier: a partial and grimly caveated rebuttal of the ‘groomer’ slur, but one which again concluded that the problem is trans people:
Thread: Drag Queens and the ‘groomer’ accusation. 1. I’ve never been a fan of drag queens, finding many of their performances deeply misogynistic, at best, reliant on harmful sexist stereotypes of working-class/ sexually active/ older women. 2. I can, however, appreciate that for some men, building a performance around a particular female character, such as old-school working-class women that they have loved and known, can be heartwarming and funny. 3. Obviously, bearing in mind the world that I do, I’m not going to endorse or excuse any sexualised or woman-hating performance in the vicinity of children OR adults. This should be named for what it is — grotesque sexism. 4. But I have become deeply uncomfortable when hearing about baying mobs of adults shouting in front of children during some performances, [with] allegations of “LGBT people are grooming our kids”. 5. First of all, where this is actually happening (as opposed to clowning around in daft outfits for entertainment, with no sexual content) it has nothing to do with lesbians, or the generic “same-sex attracted” individuals. This is to do with trans-activism. So when I hear… 6. the LGBT acronym trotted out, I wonder if it is laziness, or if some of the anti-drag queen protestors are actually anti-lesbian/gay. As I say, I am not a fan of drag, and I REALLY hate the sexualised version, but have a think about what you’re saying and how you are saying it.
I’ve known so many… I know so many trans people. It’s no big deal. It absolutely never has been. Working on the gay scene, there were loads of trans men and women… I’m so familiar with it. Fair play to them. Live your life, that’s what I say. … There’s a lot of fuss about toilets and changing rooms. And what I always say about trans people is… if you’re serious about it you go through the most appalling operation, a lot of pain… they’re very brave trans people. Trans people are extremely brave because once they’ve made that transition they’ve then got to slot into what you would call ‘normal society’. But I’m afraid society isn’t very normal; it never has been and it never will be. I think it’s about time we accepted people.
[He] emphasises that being Lily is, for him, a professional prop, and nothing to do with transvestism. “Transvestism is a sexual urge. People say to me, do you get sexual pleasure out of dressing up as a woman? No, I don’t. It’s absolute agony! I’ve got a whalebone corset on, and there’s the heels, and the wig which weighs a bloody ton, and three inches of make-up. I could never see myself having sex with anyone looking like that! He is obviously irritated by the fact that because he is gay, he is often assumed to be a transvestite. “Barry Humphries is straight, so he never gets called a drag queen or a transvestite. But because I’m gay, I do — I’m seen as a pervert, basically. I’ve had journalists saying to me, “We’ve got pictures of you working as a gay transvestite prostitute.” The more I tried to explain to them that it’s nonsense, the more annoyed I got. Now I just wind them up and say, “Have you got the photos of me in a brothel in Manila — they’re the ones you want to get hold of!”
One of the common arguments in the wake of O’Grady’s death is that Savage debuting on TV now would be impossible in the midst of the ongoing confected and poisonous culture war. It’s true but the climate in the early-90s was hardly easy for O’Grady or his alter-ego.
A 1993 Evening Standard review of Channel 4’s It’s a Queer World — a show about gay programming from across the globe — written by the scabrous (and also recently deceased) Victor Lewis-Smith, provides a pungent example:
Sitting in a vulgar boudoir so garish that the red guns on my TV haven’t been right since, she introduced us to Damien, her ‘nephews’ (which I assume is gay parlance for rough trade). Damien had recently come out of the closet, and also out of Strangeways where he had built a satellite dish that received only lesbian and gay programmes from around the world, mostly from public access channels. In short, this was the Manhattan Cable format, only with less Pike and more Dyke.
Still, Lewis-Smith’s take was better than the paper’s 1992 review of Savage’s Christmas show, by Michael Arditti, in which he insisted on referring to the character as “he” throughout, or the 1993 Daily Post profile by Philip Key, which labours the point that ‘Lily’ isn’t a lady after all:
… you see, [she’s] not what she seems. She’s a chap, one Paul O’Grady from Birkenhead. … I saw her judging the Alternative Miss World Contest in Liverpool where all the contestants were blokes in frocks. I was not impressed so informed her. … Paul (his real name, remember?) went to Dublin to play what he describes as “a hard-bitten character who is a bit of a psycho.”
O’Grady gave Lily her first outing in 1978 when the compere at a pub cabaret evening failed to turn up. Lily stepped in and O’Grady later took her on tour as part of a drag duo called the Playgirls. By the early 1980s, he was working solo and spent eight years performing as Lily at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a popular gay club in south London.
Like the Telegraph, it confines its references to O’Grady’s politics to two paragraphs
Shortly afterwards, Lily was hired by Newham council to launch its policy on gay rights and O’Grady remained a forthright and eloquent advocate on LGBT issues, sometimes campaigning alongside his friend Peter Tatchell. His enjoyment of shocking the self-appointed guardians of morality never left him and his suggestion that he wanted to see the heads of David Cameron and George Osborne “on spikes on Tower Bridge” provoked predictable tabloid outrage. Nor was he amused when one national newspaper suggested he had matured into a “national treasure”.
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.”
… but falls into the same rhythm as many of the other tributes: Acting as though O’Grady’s politics softened once he became a TV star.
It was far from the case. In 2010, he delivered an excoriating monologue castigating the coalition government’s imposition of austerity:
Talking of nits – George Osborne, what do we think?I'd sooner have Ozzy Osbourne as chancellor. At least with Ozzy the only cuts would be the f-ing and blinding from his speech. Do you know what got my back up? Those Tories hooping and hollering when they heard about the cuts. 'Gonna scrap the pensions – yeah! – no more wheelchairs – yeah!' Bastards. I do apologise for the language, that just fell out. I bet when they were children they laughed in Bambi when his mother got shot.
At the time, The Guardian published a handwringing post from Mark Lawson:
O'Grady ranted at the Conservatives (whom he distinguished from the coalition) for being "bastards" who took pleasure in cutting welfare benefits. Parts of the speech were rehearsed – because a music cue was ready to roll – but the most eye-popping sections were clearly off-piste: O'Grady broke off to apologise for swearing, presumably on a producer's orders, and harangued the floor manager, off-screen, who was apparently holding up cards telling him to move on. … The host's memoirs offer clues to what made him so cranky. He grew up in a poor part of Birkenhead and later worked in a care home. The constriction of state spending by Old Etonians seems to have provoked a socialist fury – he tried to lead a studio audience in a rendition of the music hall song containing the lyrics, "It's the poor wot gets the blame" – for which he realised he had a national public platform.
O’Grady was not “cranky”; he was livid. And, of course, a centrist pundit in The Guardian concluded by suggesting that Ofcom should tell him to “make some balancing cracks about Labour”.
While longer obituaries to come might give more space to O’Grady’s AIDS activism, protests in defence of LGBT rights, left-wing politics, and advocacy for the working class, there’s a section of his memoir Still Standing: The Savage Years that’s unlikely to be touched by the Murdoch, Mirror, or Mail titles:
“Are you doing anything about the hacking?” she asked, referring to my discovery that my mobile had been hacked. "Or are you still going to let it go?” When Scotland Yard had rung to advise me to make an appointment with the officers in charge of Operation Weeting and take a solicitor with me, my initial reaction was to panic and ask, “Why? What have I done?” There was evidence that Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective working for The News of the World who had been arrested and imprisoned for hacking, had been a busy boy, as my name and mobile number as well as those of some of my friends and relatives had been found among this notes. There was also evidence that someone had been hacking into my phone. I certainly didn’t feel ‘violated’ by this intrusion. Violation is a word best applied to the suffering of a victim of a sexual assault. I felt disappointed. … I was usually happy to give interviews when asked, so I really felt cheated to think that someone wasn’t satisfied with this and was taking the liberty of listening to my voicemails in the vain hope that he’d discover some salacious news worthy of his mistress, the Witch of Wapping, and the rag that was the News of the Screws.
I hope Rebekah Brooks’ ears are still burning.
Earlier in the same book, O’Grady writes about the persecution of gay celebrities by the tabloids in the 80s, especially by The Sun and the “fat ignorant oaf” Kelvin MacKenzie. He recalls feeling…
… that attitudes to gay men and women were taking a nasty turn that was demonstrated by the frequent witch-hunts orchestrated by our police force [and] the tabloids were quick to jump on the bandwagon of paranoia…
From the stage at the Vauxhall Tavern, Lily Savage told the crowd “we should riot”. Years later, Paul O’Grady told the ITV audience that they should take to the streets to fight austerity.
Telling jokes, being kind to dogs, and ensuring job opportunities are open to the widest possible range of people (especially working-class people) are all good ways of honouring O’Grady but the best one of all is to speak up and resist. No matter what the papers might tell you today, tomorrow, and across the rest of this week, Paul and Lily were not comfy characters; they were fighters.
Thank you for reading. If you valued this edition, please consider sharing it…
… and upgrading to a paid subscription which helps me keep writing (and gives you access to bonus material):