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  1. Last Wednesday morning (29th March), I was woken up by the radio news telling me that Paul O’Grady had suddenly and sadly died (1). It was a shock. Lying there, half asleep, I didn’t believe it, for a moment, but it was true. The tributes poured in for him, praising his work as a television presenter, chat show host and champion for Battersea Cats & Dogs Home (2). But I will always remember him as his alter ego, Lily Savage. When I moved to London, in the mid-eighties, Lily Savage was Queen of the gay scene, and her home was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. There were a lot of different drag acts on the gay scene, even then, but Lily Savage stood out from the pack. So many drag acts, then, were no more than a man in a wig and a dress. They didn’t try to create a female persona; they didn’t bother to hide that they were a man. Lily Savage had a fully formed character. She was a working-class mother, with a taste for booze and a good night out. But she also had a life off the stage as well. O’Grady had created a whole life for his character. Lily was a home-help, working for the council, and living in a rundown council flat. There was her feckless husband Jack, her frumpy and alcoholic sister Vera, her delinquent daughter Bunty and her uber-twink son Jason. Lily supplemented her poor standard of living with a lot of alternative-shopping (shoplifting). Lily was crude and often confrontational but so much of her humour came out of her working-class and low-quality life, and her very dysfunctional family (This was at a time when “family values” were used as a political weapon, and living in a nuclear family was the only acceptable lifestyle. Here was Lily’s humour, painting her family life as survival of the loudest). But her humour never mocked women, belittling women’s bodies (A friend of mine, during my training, was a very strong feminist but she always loved Lily’s humour. I sat next to her, at a Lily Savage show, as she laughed herself silly). I saw Lily perform, so many times in packed and rather tacky gay clubs, always without the benefit of air conditioning. She would stand on the tiny stage there and dominate the whole club, having the audience in the palm of her hand. I loved Lily’s humour, her sharp social and political commentary, and it was blisteringly funny. She took no prisoners when she saw something wrong, or faced with a drunk heckler. When policed raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, all wearing rubber gloves, Lily was on stage, and announced, “Oh good, have you come to do the washing up?” (3) Lily also did a lot of work for HIV, appearing at AIDS benefits and long before it was fashionable. In 1991, Lily was nominated for the Perrier Award (4). Though she didn’t win, this was Lily’s gateway into mainstream media. Suddenly, she was presenting her stage shows and appearing on all different TV shows, she even appeared on a kids’ TV program. The genius of O’Grady was that he tempered Lily’s language for TV but lost none of her edginess. Many people accused O’Grady of “selling out”, as if as a drag performer Lily should only stay on the gay scene, but to me, it was the bigger platform that Lily deserved. It meant I could also enjoy Lily’s performances on my television, and I did. In 2004, O’Grady announced that Lily had retired to “a convent in Brittany” (5). O’Grady moved on to presenting television programs, out of drag. He soon became very successful at it, everyone’s slightly badly behaved and outspoken uncle. But as an openly gay man, he became so established that he presented a tea-time chat show and had a celebrity cameo on Doctor Who. He had become so popular and established that his death was the second item on the 6 o'clock BBC news the next day. I enjoyed his TV presenting but I really missed Lily Savage, her sharp and irreverent humour. She was such a fully formed character, with her own catastrophic life and very jaundice humour. I missed her undeferential attitude to celebrity. (Only in the last few days did I learn why O’Grady retired Lily. In 2004, Brendan Murphy, O’Grady’s partner and manager of 25 years, died after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. O’Grady said the joy of performing as Lily “sort of died with him” (6)) Paul O’Grady 14 June 1955 – 28 March 2023
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