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 ’80s. 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, including one on world sex and another on drugs, Lily could say things Richard Whiteley wouldn’t dare.

Paul, 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 the music chart show, Top Of The Pops and it wasn’t too long after all these guest spots and a regular stint on The Big Breakfast 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 musical 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 featured as the star of the famous LWT “An Audience with..” production which saw Lily mix with a celebrity audience.

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 the 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 version 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 too. He moved into documentary programming for the network with 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 become a personality in his own right, something that hasn’t always been forthcoming with ‘drag stars’.

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 with little success.

However, in 2006, the network lost their ratings goldmine when they failed to renew the presenter’s contract and Channel 4 were quick to snap him up. Paul O’Grady defected to the forth network where he was once again a viewing figure’s hit. ITV tried to find another successful chat-show format for the 5pm slot and to rival O’Grady but they had little success.

Paul is popular because he says what most of the general public thinks – 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.

Michael Keohan is a radio presenter with Lite FM in the Cambs area.

He also writes a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.

ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.

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