ATV Icon: Paul O’Grady

Paul O’Grady is probably best known for his comedy drag act, Lilly Savage, and for his tea-time chat-show on ITV before defecting to Channel Four. We take a look at the man behind the make-up and the sofa.

Paul O’Grady was born in Birkenhead, after leaving school he worked as a clerk in a magistrate’s court where he had a brief affair, which resulted in the birth of his daughter Sharyn in 1974. He felt at the time he was too young to be a father and went travelling around Europe. Thankfully he came back to England in the 80’s. He toured gay bars with his drag act, Lily Savage, she became an instant hit. Through the hard times, and hard work Lily became noticed and ended up getting guest spots on Channel 4 shows.

These guest appearances lead to Lily working on more and more Channel 4 programmes in the early 1990s. Lily became a rising star of the late night output on the station. From presenting and doing turns on entertainment series Viva Cabaret, to presenting topical and taboo documentaries, all as Lily Savage. Paul also, as Lily, was one of the announcers on the strand ‘Late Licence’ which was the weekend late night continuity on Channel 4 – broadcast from a set that was designed to look like a trendy cocktail bar – however whenever Lily presented, it was anything but classy or trendy, with comments about programmes being “rubbish” frequenting the line-up whenever Lily didn’t like a certain show.

In 1994 Lily was a guest presenter on music chart show, Top Of The Pops and it wasn’t too long after all these guest spots that she was given her own show “Live from the Lilydrome” in 1995. Lily became a theatre star when she was banged up in the Prisoner: Cell Block H stage show of 1996, this gave her a wider audience through the fans of the Australian soap. Paul’s character of Lily went from strength to strength appearing in sell-out tours all over the UK and various talk shows. He also made one of the famous LWT “An Audience with..” shows, which brings popular performers to a celebrity-filled audience, these specials were well loved for picking only the best in entertainment for the series, including the likes of Ken Dodd, Dame Edna and Kenneth Williams.

In 1997 the BBC, on the back of the LWT special, gave Lily her own series, The Lily Savage Show. It led to Lily following in the footsteps of Les Dawson and Terry Wogan as host of cheap game show, Blankety Blank. In 2000 Blankety Blank switched from the BBC to ITV. This move included the launch of a new show, Lily Live. It was screened later in the evening than her BBC show, and gave Lily the chance to be more rude and abrupt, just like her Channel 4 days. It was ITV that gave Paul a chance to present as himself. He made two documentary series for the network. Paul O’Grady’s America and Paul O’Grady’s Orient. The shows were met with high acclaim, making Paul a star in his own right. After this, Lily seemed to be “retired” though occasionally she makes an appearance. Paul was fortunate enough to have such a personality that behind the makeup is a talented man and he has taken the world by storm with his own shows.

In 2002 his world was rocked when he had a heart attack, but Paul being Paul he bounced back. He starred in BBC sitcom, Eyes Down which ran for two series; however, it came to an end when he struck gold in 2004 with The Paul O’Grady Show for ITV. The talk show became an instant success, bringing ratings to the 5pm slot that ITV hadn’t seen for years. ITV had previously tried to find a successful show for the 5pm slot ever since that had lost Home & Away to Five in 2001. The network initially tried launching two soaps in the 5pm slot, Night And Day and Crossroads. However, both failed to make the impact on the ratings that ITV wished for and both ended in 2003. Following both soaps cancellations ITV launched a series of new programmes in the 5pm but also failed to take over and all rated lower than the two soaps. In 2004 the network finally found rating success at 5pm with Paul O’Grady.

However, in 2006 the network lost their ratings goldmine when they failed to renew the presenter’s contract and Channel Four were quick to snap him up. Paul O’Grady defected to Channel Four where he shared the 5pm slot with husband and wife team Richard and Judy whose chat-show he had only soon recently been up against. The viewers moved over from ITV with Paul O’Grady and his chat-show on Channel Four was a ratings success. ITV tried to find another successful chat-show format for the 5pm slot and to rival O’Grady but they had little success.

Their first attempt at rivalling O’Grady saw X-Factor judge Sharon Osbourne given her own chat-show at 5pm but ratings were not impressive and the critics were not impressed. Although ITV claimed it would re-commission Osbourne for a second season no such thing ever happened. After Sharon Osbourne flopped at 5pm the Network gave Coronation Street actor Anthony Cotton his own chat-show – it was another ratings-disaster for the Network. Paul is popular because he says what most of the general public think – and views which are very rarely heard on television. It isn’t often you find a presenter on ITV brave enough to slate the channel – live on air – on that channel. Paul did. And the audience loved it.

The term ‘national treasure’ is used far too much these days for people who don’t deserve it, Paul does deserve the term because he’s incredibly rare on television today, his outright views, his humour, his ideas of what makes a great show – appealing to the viewers and not the bosses or the revenue department make Paul O’Grady a true star.

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