TO herald the arrival of volume three of Paul O’Grady’s memoirs – Still Standing: The Savage Years – I make my traditional pilgrimage to O’Grady’s London flat for a natter about his old times.
As usual, one anecdote leads to another – I’m sure the red wine’s blameless – and we cover everything from the redoubtable Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage, to his much-publicised desire to see David Cameron’s head on a spike over the Tower of London.
This is the book that O’Grady, 57, dreaded writing. Bringing the story up to date entailed revisiting not only his mother Molly’s death, but the loss of most of his friends, one after another, as Aids cut a swathe through the gay community. And in 2005, Brendan Murphy, his partner of 25 years, died of brain cancer.
In the end he leaps from 1988 to 2012, writing: “Whoa! I hear you say. What happened to the years between then and now? Well, as I explained at the top of the show, there simply isn’t enough space in one book to jot it all down and do it justice.” But ask away, he encourages me. Nothing’s off limits.
After his mum died, O’Grady sunk into depression. “I went about like a zombie. People thought I was functioning as normal but it was a complete shut-down. Grief switched everything off. And then everyone else dies – and not nicely, either. I thought, no, this has to be a separate book.”
Finding time to write new instalments could be tricky, for as usual, he’s over-extended. He’s reprising his Widow Twankey – well, Lily’s – for the O2 arena’s Christmas panto, Aladdin, has written and performed in a short film for Sky Arts, and made a series about class for the BBC. And then there’s the Battersea Dogs Home.
For the Love of Dogs was the surprise hit of ITV’s autumn schedule, drawing viewers like a super-magnet at the sight of O’Grady in his element – he jokes that it was like sending an addict into a crack house. A six-day booking turned into six months, and now he’s an official Battersea ambassador, busy filming a lavish Christmas special. “I’m never away from the place. I absolutely love it. I think I’ll end up in one of those Channel 4 documentaries with a chicken on me head and about 19 dogs around me, a couple of pigs and a few sheep!”
Meanwhile, the BBC has him touring the country to discover whether the working-class values he grew up with still exist. “Things like keeping your house spotless and having respect for people in authority. Not tugging your forelock, but just having respect. I think the media really mocks the working classes. They see them as n’er do well chavs sat on the couch drinking lager. I want to get the point across about community spirit.”
Even now, with money in the bank and two homes – both in Britain, he stresses – O’Grady considers himself staunchly working class. “It’s a state of mind. It’s where you come from. It’s an awful fear of debt. I have all sorts of policies that I keep in a chocolate box, like my mother did, in the bottom of the wardrobe, including a burial policy.
“My grandad used to walk ten miles a day to work, to save on bus fare. I never really thought about him until I did this series. It was always about my grandmother because my mother painted this dramatic tale: she died in childbirth; her dying breath: ‘Look after your dad.’ Crack of lightning and the midwife sobbing.”
His delivery is so dramatic I can’t help laughing, suggesting Molly confused it with David Lean’s Oliver Twist. “That is my mother! But here was a man who lost his young wife in childbirth and a week later he lost his infant son. He can’t look after his three daughters so they’re farmed out, and he works like a Trojan to support them. No life of his own, no partner, nothing. It was dire poverty. There was no welfare state. He was a stoic, brave, elegant gentleman, who you never heard swearing on the street, who dressed well, conducted himself properly and was an honest man.”
O’Grady has had a very public love/hate relationship with his alter ego, and made a big deal of sending her into retirement. Does he resent the public’s love for Lily? “Not at all. I sat in the Winnebago getting made up for this Sky Arts [film], and they were over the moon, saying, ‘We can’t believe we’ve got Lily. I can’t believe I’m seeing her!’ I said, ‘It’s just me with a wig on!’ And one of the crew said, ‘No, it ain’t you with a wig on. You can’t hold a candle to her!’
Still Standing charts Lily’s stop-start genesis, taking us into so many grubby pub dressing rooms, so minutely described, that we can practically smell the chemical toilet block. Time and again O’Grady hangs up his wig, returning to work as a peripatetic carer, or on a market stall with his old girlfriend Diane, mother of his daughter Sharon. He moves back and forth between London, Yorkshire, and the house he grew up in, 23 Holly Grove, Birkenhead. It was an insecure life, but he loved the recklessness, the travel, and the crazy adventures, such as being mistaken for the Yorkshire Ripper by neighbours suspicious about the bin liners ferried in and out of their block of flats in Slaithwaite. Rather than body parts, they contained enough wigs and frocks to outfit an army of drag queens.
I ask again: When did Lily go mainstream? “You know? I haven’t got a clue,” he finally admits. There was a successful Mayfest, at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library in 1988, after which he and Murphy played tourist on Skye, but most likely it was the 1991 Fringe.
“The festival opened doors for me. When I was nominated for the Perrier, I had no idea. Nica Burns rang me up at seven in the morning – we had just fallen in from the pub, and I said, ‘Somebody wants to give me some mineral water,’ and put the phone down and went to bed. The Scottish crowds were wonderful because they hugely rooted for me. It was a very exciting time and it deserves more than a chapter. I met so many people and did so many things in the space of three weeks that I’d never done before. Christ, I was never off the telly. They filmed me all over Edinburgh. I used to dress up as an usherette and flog ice-cream in the Assembly Rooms. You’d get tourists who wouldn’t quite twig at first, and I’d go, ‘They’re not for sale! This is a front. What do you want now, heroin, crack cocaine? Black Lebanese? We’ve got a lovely bit of brown just off the boat this morning.’”
But he worried. “What happens to drag queens when tastes change, and all of a sudden I’m this relic, tottering around, mumbling? But that’s not the case with Lily, and it makes me look at it in a different light. Whereas we were old enemies, we’re not now. I know I’m talking about myself as two different people. I got tired of getting called Lil when I was dressed in a suit, when builders go, ‘All right, Lil?’ and talk to you like a tart. It wasn’t jealousy but I felt I’d lost my identity.”
Molly O’Grady knew nothing about Lily. “I lied all the way through. To my mother, unless you had a hammer in your hand and were covered in grease, you weren’t a man. I realise how protective I was by lying to her. I’d upset her too many times. I was happy to leave her in the dark. But I told her when she’d died, and was silent for once and couldn’t answer back.”
On the other hand, Murphy adored Lily and her back story, including her unspeakable grandmother Erica Von Savage, who hobnobbed with Nazis. Lily was born on the steps of the Legs of Man public house, in Lime Street, Liverpool. Her mother “had no such luxuries as gas and air, or an ‘epidermis’ to relieve the pain of labour; she just bit down on the policeman’s torch.” After convent school she “took on a variety of occupations ranging from working on the line in Cadbury’s packing fudge to whoring”. She went to remand, made porn flicks, and even did a spread for Angler’s Weekly, “wearing nothing but two winkles and a scallop shell”.
And it was Murphy, as O’Grady’s manager, who encouraged him to expand his horizons. “Lily was a tidy earner. You used to be paid a decent wage if you were popular and brought the punters in, but I’d be going around for 30 quid. He’d say, ‘Hang on, you’ve packed a club with 750 people. Listen, Savage, you might as well [charge more].’ I thought, bloody hell, I could pay my rent. I could have a holiday.”
He didn’t buy his first house until he was in his late forties, and he’s 57 now. “I remember looking at central heating like it was black magic. It remained off for a year because I didn’t trust it. I’m not tight, just the opposite, but at the same time, I appreciate the worth of a book, and as far as I’m concerned the wolf is always around the bloody corner. You never know what’s going to happen. I’ve had such an unpredictable life, and I’ve had no game plan. But I must have had ambition, or I wouldn’t have carried on. I like the work. I love the process of making it, and I love being on stage.”
All our digressions this evening seem to concern death, so I ask if he suffers from survivor’s guilt? Not quite, he explains. “I remember there was a lovely nurse called Jean, and we were up at four in the morning, demented, because I knew everyone on the hospital ward, all dying. I said, ‘Why am I still here? She said, ‘It’s like in the war: you had nurses in the trenches who survived bullets and gangrene and rat bites and dysentery, you name it. You’re put here as carers, to look after them. And you’re working in social services – put two and two together.’ I thought, oh please, don’t tell me this is what I’ve been condemned to, to be a carer, because it’s such a solitary, lonely, dangerous place to be.”
His relationship with Murphy was intense to the point of explosiveness. “We were two dogs fighting for the position of top dog. I gave him a bad time 24 hours a day and he gave me,” he laughs, “an even worse time. I could go up like a rocket, and Murphy would remain cool. Occasionally it would come to fisticuffs. I’d lash out at him and it terrified people. We were competitive. And yet we were totally devoted.”
O’Grady can’t stand the language of cancer and talk of battles lost. No one’s fighting, he says, just trying to cope. “I believe in being totally positive, right up to the bloody wire. But that makes it worse when they die. It was the same with Murphy. The doctor said, ‘This is terminal, there’s no going back. You can have chemo, and it will prolong your life for maybe two months, but the treatments will be atrocious.’ I said, ‘Did you get that Murphy?’ And he nods. ‘So what you wanna do?’ And he said, clear as a bell, ‘I’ll have the treatment.’
“But he didn’t need it anyway – he was gone within a week. I’d thought it’s no good me saying you don’t need the chemo, because the fight for survival is so strong. People will deal with anything. That’s what I’ve found with all these endless deaths – the bravery of these poor souls. This is why I stopped writing. It just got unbearable. I was sick over it. I can’t even watch a documentary about Aids. I’ve been there, seen it. You think, ‘All my friends are dead. I’ve had two heart attacks, I’ve survived the roughest pubs, been in car crashes, why am I still here? What’s it going to take?’”
Laughing, he tells me, “I’m the burnt wreck of a once-glorious disco.”
Paul O’Grady, Still Standing, is out now from Bantam Press, priced £20. Lily Savage stars in Aladdin, A Wish Come True at the O2 arena, until 5 January. Tickets £19.50-£49.50. Box office tel: 0844 856 0202, or visit www.theo2.co.uk