He was pithy Lily Savage, the risqué pub drag act who blazed a trail on mainstream TV. He’s been the hilarious host of family favourites such as Blankety Blank and Blind Date, and the passionate presenter of animal documentaries that have seen him rolling in muck with pigs and crawling on his knees in dog kennels.
Now Paul O’Grady’s reinvented himself again – this time as a children’s author – and the combination of Lily’s wicked sense of mischief and his own love of animals has helped make the transition a seamless one, even if it did take him 60 drafts to finish his colourful debut novel.
Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang: The Amsterdam Adventure is the first in a trilogy centred on ten-year-old Eddie, a somewhat unhappy and quirky outsider who can talk to animals, including his pet dog Butch, his hamster and his two goldfish who claim they were once pirates.
With his own affinity for all creatures great and small Paul seems to have that gift too, along with Eddie’s knack for becoming the focus of attention. ‘Eddie is me as a kid,’ says Paul.
Paul O’Grady, who lives in Kent, with husband Andre Portasio, revealed how his own childhood inspired his first children’s novel. Pictured: Paul at his Kent farm
‘I wasn’t particularly bad at school, but trouble followed me around. If a window got broken, everybody would scatter and I’d be left standing there.
‘Eddie’s a sweet boy, and I love the way he gains courage. Me and Eddie both like animals, and Eddie’s jackawawa Butch is based on my own dog.
‘Then there’s the headmaster in the book, Mr Pickard, who’s similar to a teacher we were all terrified of at school because he could turn on a sixpence, and these were the days when they threw wooden dusters. Imagine that now!’
In the book Eddie is sent to stay with his eccentric aunt in Amsterdam, where he discovers that she too has his gift.
And so begins a breathless cosmopolitan comic crime adventure, as Eddie, Aunt Budge, his new friend Flo and a gang of amazing animals take on Vera, the most dastardly villain since Cruella de Vil, in a race to save one of their own.
‘When I was imagining Aunt Budge, in the back of my mind I kept visualising and hearing Miriam Margolyes as well as Miss Schmitt, a tall, very proper, ramrod-straight German lady I met when I was on holiday in Bavaria,’ says Paul.
And what about Vera, did anyone inspire her?
‘No one in particular, but she’s everything I loathe in people. She lives her life through social media, she wears the most dreadful clothes she thinks are fashionable and she’s just hideous. She craves celebrity.’
Paul (pictured), who was the youngest child in a Merseyside working-class family, found fame after his Lily Savage character broke through at the Edinburgh Festival
Unlike Paul, it seems. ‘I don’t like it, seriously, that’s not false modesty,’ he says.
‘I like my own company and space. I’ll go into our local post office and they’ll say, “You’re in so-and-so magazine today,” and the first thing I say is, “Uh-oh, what have I done now?” That feeling’s still there from when I was a schoolboy.’
Eddie is something of an anti-hero, a bit like Paul, who was never expected to become the TV national treasure he is today because he was the antithesis of orthodox. The youngest child in a Merseyside working-class family, he left school at 16 and had a daughter, Sharyn, a year later following a brief romance.
THE BOY WHO TALKS TO ANIMALS
Enjoy this delightful extract from Paul’s first Eddie Albert novel…
Highly improbable as it sounds, Eddie Albert could converse with mammals, birds, fish and even snails (although snails do tend to have a limited vocabulary that involves a lot of slurping and hissing) just as well as with humans. It was an incredible gift, but Eddie didn’t see it that way.
He was the kind of boy who didn’t like to draw attention to himself, preferring to get on with his work rather than mess about, which made him a frequent target for bullies.
Eddie was determined to keep his special talent firmly under wraps. He was scared that if it was discovered he’d be seen as an oddity, a freak. He’d be ridiculed by the tabloid newspapers and people would point at him in the street.
In Paul’s book (pictured), Eddie Albert can converse with mammals, birds, fish and even snails
He’d be all over social media and made to go on daytime television and have to prove his talents weren’t just a trick. He’d be world famous, unable to go anywhere without people wanting selfies and demanding that he speak to their dogs.
No, no, no! That wasn’t going to happen. A bit of fun with Mr Ali’s cat could be taken for a young boy play-acting, but apart from that he kept his amazing capabilities to himself and only used them when no one was around.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, I was telling you about a mouse, the one that caused all the trouble. It appeared from underneath the radiator in Eddie’s classroom during a maths lesson one afternoon and, for something so small, it caused a lot of problems.
From the way the mouse was just sitting there, staring round the classroom, Eddie could see it was lost. He bent down as if he were looking for something in his bag so he could talk to it. ‘Psssst!’ he hissed. ‘What are you doing here? Go home.’
‘You couldn’t tell me how to get to the boiler room, could you?’ the mouse asked politely, giving his whiskers a quick wipe with his paws.
‘I seem to have taken a wrong turn.’ ‘Why don’t you go back the way you came? Only head downwards as the boiler room is in the basement,’ Eddie whispered. Unfortunately, he was overheard…
After working at a home for troubled children he moved to London, working as a peripatetic care officer by day and taking to the stage in drag at night.
After decades on the London pub circuit, his Lily Savage character finally broke through at the Edinburgh Festival. That led to TV roles, notably with the late-night Channel 4 comedy show Viva Cabaret! and hosting The Big Breakfast.
Paul retired Lily in 2004 and he’s come a very long way since. He got his mainstream break as the host of Blankety Blank in 1998 and in 2004 he was given his own chat show, The Paul O’Grady Show, which ended in 2015.
It was a huge hit, but the joy was tarnished when his manager and partner Brendan Murphy was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2005 within days of Paul receiving a BAFTA. He died six weeks later.
Paul had his own health issues too, suffering a near-fatal heart attack a year later, his second in four years. The condition is congenital as his grandparents, parents and cousin all died of heart disease.
‘My cousin Maureen died earlier this year, she was only four years older than me. She went to bed with indigestion and when her partner brought her a cup of tea she was dead.
‘The postmortem said it was as quick as a light switch going off,’ he says. ‘I’ve learnt not to worry about petty things that I used to lose sleep over now. I don’t let myself get stressed out any more about daft things.’
Paul has latterly established himself as the avuncular host of a number of documentaries about animals such as For The Love Of Dogs, which is filmed at Battersea Dogs Home, and Paul O’Grady’s Animal Orphans which has seen him make numerous expeditions to the African bush to meet assorted baby elephants, hippos and orangutans.
He lives at the farm in Kent he shares with his husband Andre Portasio, a ballet dancer and teacher, and their rescue dogs, chickens, ducks, Kunekune pigs, barn owls (one was rescued from a wardrobe in Birmingham), goats and sheep.
‘Nothing of mine ever goes to the abattoir,’ he says.
‘I’ve got a sheep who’s 18, Bo Peep. She was my very first lamb and she’s still going. I get orphaned lambs and hand-rear them. It’s quite heavy at first, you have to feed them every two hours and they sleep in a basket with one of our dogs.
‘When I met three baby orangutans for Animal Orphans, Orangutan Appeal UK’s founder and chairwoman Sue Sheward said the little baby at the back wasn’t very fond of strangers.
‘Well, he came straight out and clung to me, and she couldn’t believe it. I had him sitting on my knee and I’d curl his hair at the top and say, “Aren’t you pretty?” and he’d literally blush.
‘Then when I was filming in Zambia they had a baby elephant called Nkala and we bonded. I slept with him. I gave him his bottle. We went for long walks together. He used to try and sit on my knee when I sat down. I couldn’t believe it.’
He says it’s been a joy for him to indulge his love of animals while regressing into a child’s world for the book, and it’s been all the more poignant because he missed out on his own daughter’s childhood.
‘I’d just turned 18 when she was born but I was going on five. I just wasn’t equipped for anything like that. But I was always in and out of her life. She was about ten or 12 when I met her properly and then she started to get to know me.
‘She wanted to know everything about me. She’s in her 40s now and we’re very close, although we do fight. We argue because I recognise bits of her in me. I don’t like it. Like me, she’s got a mouth on her!’
He also adores his grandchildren Abel and Halo. ‘They came down last week for ten days,’ he says.
‘I hadn’t seen them for nearly two years because of Covid, then this big strapping 14-year-old boy comes in with a voice down there, followed by a slinky 11-year-old. You think, “Who are these huge monsters?” I do feel very close to them, and I get very badly behaved with them – so much so that the adults tell me off.
I wasn’t bad at school, but trouble followed me
‘I’m called Gan-Gan, same as the Queen, but it’s a terrible name. It sounds like a disease.’
Or a goose? ‘Yes, Gan-Gan the goose – there’s a children’s book for you. I had geese once. They were so evil. We called them the Geestapo.
‘They were hideous, the male was called The Fuhrer and his female was Eva Braun. They’d attack every chance they got, and then they had goslings. They became the Hitler Youth and they were even worse.’
Paul (pictured) admits that he thought his new six-part series Saturday Night Line Up wouldn’t be commissioned
But then Paul does love a bit of wicked. And there’s plenty of that in his new show Saturday Night Line Up, which starts this month and pits celebrities against each other to find out what the public really thinks of them.
The six-part series will have four celebrities every week who need to line up in order of best to worst in response to questions and scenarios presented to them by Paul.
Who’s the richest? Who’s most likely to have a midlife crisis? These questions have also been put to the public, and the joy of the show is seeing if the stars place themselves in the same order.
‘In the pilot two years ago everyone let their hair down,’ laughs Paul.
‘The place was rocking. I said, “It’ll never be commissioned, even Channel 4 wouldn’t put it on at 3am,” and of course it was commissioned.
‘I couldn’t believe it. Robert Rinder was wonderful. So was Boy George, and Joan Collins is brilliant in the Christmas episode. Bill Bailey’s a revelation. He’s so clever it’s scary. Rupert Everett’s an old friend and was such fun.’
Meanwhile, it’s back to the books. ‘I’ve got two more to do, so I’m thinking, “Oh dear, what am I going to do?” My great friend Julian Clary seems to be able to knock his novels out so easily.
‘Anyway, one’s going to be set in Kent and the other in India with an evil elephant keeper. So it’s all mixed experiences with the amazing animals and places I’ve been to.
‘I enjoyed writing the first ten drafts of this first one, but when it got to draft 60 I was a bit frazzled!’
Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang: The Amsterdam Adventure is published on 16 September in hardback (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £12.99).
Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up starts later this month on ITV.