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Savage talk from O'Grady
7:00am Saturday 10th November 2012 in AdXtra
As comedian and presenter Paul O'Grady brings out the third volume of his autobiography, Still Standing, which recalls the emergence of Lily Savage, the dives he played, the hecklers he tackled and the scourge of Aids which took so many of his friends, he talks about bringing the 'Blonde Bombsite' back for one last outing at Christmas, his hopes of bringing his chat show back and his fears of having another heart attack.
By Hannah Stephenson
Paul O'Grady describes himself as 'good twin, bad twin'. One side compassionate and caring, the other ready to spit vitriol at anyone who gets on his nerves.
Angry tirades about the coalition government, the Church, Jimmy Savile, the demise of the health service and his dislike of reality TV seem totally at odds with his roles as doting grandfather, animal lover and carer of the infirm.
Meeting him to talk about the latest volume of his memoirs, O'Grady is instantly likeable - funny, forthright and sharp as a knife. But often it's his anger that fuels his rapier wit.
Still Standing charts the Lily Savage years to the present day, and O'Grady writes just as he speaks, with comedic barbs coursing through the pages as he describes all the dossholes he had to drag his sequin-encrusted frocks and oversized wigs to before his female alter ego made it to the telly.
His career has trodden an unusual path, from vitriolic drag queen to chat show host and presenter of animal programmes, although the acerbic wit is the common thread in all his pursuits.
"The good twin does nice things on the telly with kids and dogs, then the bad twin, who's me or Lily on their high horse, kicks off," he says of his split personality theory, "I'm capable of switching on a sixpence."
He's still as angry today as he was 30 years ago when Lily was batting away drunken hecklers with her vicious put-downs.
"There's lots of things I won't tolerate," he says. "We don't look after the elderly in this country and neither do we support carers. This government does nothing for the working man any more. If I went into politics there'd be a reign of terror. I'd put an instant 95% tax on polo mallets, polo ponies, polo shoes..."
Fittingly, he's currently filming a documentary on the working classes for the BBC.
"The working class people of today are portrayed as chavs, the people who go on Jeremy Kyle," he says. "So I'm going around to see if there's still the old working class with the old values that I was brought up with. I'm finding there's a bedrock in this country of decent, hard-working, nice people."
Still Standing may be an autobiography, but the book omits one of the most traumatic events of Birkenhead-born O'Grady's life, the death of his partner of 25 years, Brendan Murphy, in 2005.
"When I got to the end, I thought, 'I've dealt with so many deaths here, I can't go through another one'. Basically, nearly everyone in the book is dead."
Revisiting the events now, he says: "Murphy had brain cancer. It was blind panic. It took a while for a doctor to say it wasn't operable.
"I was doing the teatime show (on ITV) at the time. Work helped me and I knew he was watching it at home, so I was doing it for him. Then I'd jump on my motorbike and go back to Kent to nurse him, then back in to work the next day. It was tough.
"When he died, my sister came down and looked at me and said, 'My God, what state are you in?' My hair was falling out."
But it wasn't until later that Murphy's death really hit him. "Grief doesn't happen immediately, it hits you after a while, because you've got all the funeral and the fuss, then when that dies down you find yourself on your own, with time to contemplate what's happened. I thought, 'I'm on my own, what do I do now?'"
He filled his Georgian farmhouse in the Kent countryside with animals (he currently has four dogs, goats, pigs and other livestock) and has another long-term partner, former ballet dancer Andre Portasio, but they don't live together.
He says: "He was a friend of Murphy's and helped me look after him. He was brilliant. And it's fate. I'm a great believer in fate and destiny. But he wouldn't want to live with me. Nobody'd want to live with me."
Many of the deaths he deals with in the book stem from the scourge of Aids in the Eighties, when so many of his friends died.
"It hit us like a tsunami," he recalls. "Friends would be diagnosed HIV positive and within months they'd be ill and then probably dead.
"And there was no sympathy from anybody. Basically we looked out for each other."
O'Grady was HIV tested when he had his wisdom teeth out, he recalls. "This doctor was vile. He said, 'You'll have to have the test before we touch you'. That wouldn't be allowed now. The test came back negative."
When you read about the pain he's seen in others and endured himself over the years, you understand why he didn't want to go to court when police told him he'd been phone-hacked by the News Of The World.
"I felt disappointed, because I've always been honest with the press.
"But at the same time I couldn't go to court and stand up with parents (of Milly Dowler) who'd lost their daughter. I was just eavesdropped. So you've got Cilla Black saying 'Are yer out tonight, Paul?'"
O'Grady's hoping to bring back his chat show next year and says there are plans for another series of For The Love Of Dogs.
He's had two heart attacks but says he doesn't worry about his health. "The worst thing you can do is to sit and fret. I take tablets and have check-ups every eight months when they put me on the treadmill. I say to them, 'Heart attack or not, I'm hopeless on treadmills!'"
He has a daughter, Sharyn, from a brief relationship he had when he was 17, and two grandchildren, Abel, five and two-year-old Halo, on whom he dotes, and this is where his 'good twin' side really shines.
"They call me 'Gangan'," he beams. "They live in Liverpool but if they lived nearby I'd have them all the time. They're good fun. I take Abel out in my convertible and Halo is just edible.
"My daughter and I get on like a house on fire. She's always raising her eyebrows at me and saying, 'Why have I got a father like you?'"
He's dusting off the heels to bring Lily Savage back in panto this Christmas, as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the O2, but says this will be the last time.
"I'm 57, I feel I'm 207. I look in the mirror and I think, 'That's not a wrinkle, it's a gutter across my face!' Lily Savage will never do telly again. Not with HD," he says.
Other future plans include writing a book about the country, learning more about herbology, and baking - but he frowns at the notion that rural life has calmed him down.
"God, I don't know what would make me mellow," he scowls, dismissing the suggestion with a flick of his hand.
:: Still Standing, The Savage Years, by Paul O'Grady, is published by Bantam, priced £20. Available now.
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