BOX CLEVER: Lily's in the pink
Saturday 22 November 1997
There's a Lily Savage in every family. According to her alter ego, Paul O'Grady. "Everyone says to me, `I've got an auntie just like Lily'. There's always a Lily getting drunk at weddings and funerals."
She may be a drunken, loud-mouthed embarrassment, but that doesn't appear to put viewers off - in fact, quite the opposite. ITV's An Evening with Lily Savage netted 12 million viewers and won the Best Entertainment Programme gong at this year's National Television Awards. Now, she has made a big- money transfer to BBC1, where she is fronting his own primetime series, called, er, The Lily Savage Show. Meanwhile, the rudest bits and those sections where "I might have hit the floor-manager with a chair-leg" have been scooped up off the cutting-room floor and gathered together into a video entitled, The Untransmittable Lily Savage Show.
As if that wasn't enough, Savage has been chosen to fill the substantial shoes of Les Dawson as the new host of the revived kitsch game-show, Blankety Blank, to be broadcast next year. "After I lost the job of hostessing on University Challenge to someone called Jeremy Paxman, the BBC promised to make it up to me," she reveals. "Blankety Blank is an intelligent, intellectual show, similar to University Challenge, except instead of scruffy students you've got top celebs."
Never afraid of whom she might offend, Savage speaks her mind - and that's something O'Grady envies. "I'd love to be more like her," he sighs. "She's always on at authority. She's always asking `why can't I smoke at Heathrow?' and sending food back in restaurants. I'd love to be able to do that."
All the same, there is no mythical blurring of creator and created. The boundaries between O'Grady and Savage are clearly demarcated. O'Grady is an engaging 6ft 2in man with greying temples; denuded of the wig and slap, you wouldn't look twice at him in the street. "When I want to stop being Lily, I take the wig off," he asserts. "Barry Humphries once said to me, `Dame Edna's in Moonee Ponds, where's Lily?' I replied, `in a bag in the garage.' I'm the boss. I can separate the two quite easily. I know exactly what is Paul O'Grady's territory and what is Lily Savage's territory," he asserts, before adding with a grin: "Having said that, I have signed credit cards as Lily Savage."
O'Grady does not have a conventional showbiz background. He spent 10 years working for Camden Social Services as a peripatetic care officer. "It was bloody good training," he reckons. "You can relate to the weirdos in the audience. And the great patience you need when a 70-year-old woman is chewing your ear off helps you to deal with people at the stage-door.
"I also learnt that some people have hideous lives and don't complain about them, so I don't moan about the hotel suite on tour."
During this period, O'Grady was also working evenings as a barman in gay pubs. Unimpressed by many of the acts performing there, he started appearing on stage as Lily Savage (his mother's maiden name). "There are great wits on the gay scene," he observes, "but they don't suffer fools. They eat their young live. When people ask me, `how do you deal with hecklers?' I say, `please. I don't bother with them, they're not fair game'."
When Savage first made it big, critics didn't know where to put themselves. "The press couldn't pigeon-hole me," O'Grady recalls. "Lee Evans was the new Norman Wisdom and Harry Hill was the new Harry Worth, but I was not the new Dame Edna or Danny La Rue [with whom Savage had a famous spat]".
Soon, however, she found an unlikely fan-base - dolled-up, divorced middle-aged mothers, whom O'Grady dubs: "Lily Savage mums." "Women love her because she says all the things they want to say but daren't," he surmises. "Men, on the other hand, find it more uncomfortable - especially when I talk about men in bed."
Over the years, Savage has developed from marginal to mainstream. "She has quietened down," he admits. "I've given her a different slant. She's now more approachable and sophisticated. After all, she's had dinner with Cher. I hate it when comedians say, `I was in the launderette this morning,' when you know they've got a fleet of staff. You've got to have truth in comedy. So I've moved Lily to a mansion in Hampstead, but it's very tasteless - like Spend, Spend, Spend."
Like his creation, the 42-year-old O'Grady has achieved a remarkably speedy transformation from nobody to notable. Touchingly, he can barely take it in. "Five years ago I was doing pubs. Now I'm on primetime BBC1 with Cher as my next-door neighbour," he says, with something approaching wonder.
"What more could you ask for? I keep thinking `I'm getting paid for this.' It's like having a fabulous doll you can dress and play house with."
`The Lily Savage Show' is on BBC1 tomorrow night at 10pm. `The Untransmittable Lily Savage Show' is out on video on Monday
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