Savage by name: Why is Paul O'Grady so angry?
The comedian and TV presenter is in no mood to forgive and forget – and, he tells Patrick Strudwick, his list of wrongdoers starts with Jimmy Savile
Paul O'Grady is fuming. With his cuddly, chat show host persona discarded like a sodden wig, the comedian, author and television presenter leans in, voice bellowing at a decibel normally employed by town criers, and starts raging. It barely lets up for an hour.
The Coalition, the church and the press all draw his contempt as he unleashes what he says propelled him to prime-time success: a "hotbed of simmering anger".
This ignites immediately when the subject of Jimmy Savile arises. As child abuse allegations about the former BBC star continue to swirl, O'Grady recalls his own experience.
"When I worked in a children's home in West Kirby in the 1970s, Jimmy Savile came to visit. One of the housemothers was told not to let him unsupervised on the girls unit. At the time we thought it was because he didn't want to be on his own with the kids – that he wanted a member of staff to talk to. We had no idea. We were so naïve. I wouldn't have even known what a paedophile was."
But some of the kids were already being abused. The Children's Convalescent Home and School, for whom O'Grady, now 57, worked as a housefather between the ages of 18 and 21, was mostly for disabled children. In Devil Rides Out, his second memoir, O'Grady documents sexual abuse charges by former pupils that arose 25 years later, in the late 1990s. Four male members of staff were jailed as a result. "Why didn't the children tell me? I felt I'd let them all down," he wrote.
Today, as we sit in a hotel meeting room opposite Broadcasting House, the presenter, who started working for the BBC in 2003, rails at some of the press reaction to the Savile scandal.
"It's being used as a stick to beat the BBC with. I never even heard a whisper of it at the Beeb. If I'd got a whiff, even then, that someone was in a dressing room with a girl of 14 I'd have reported it. I'd have confronted them."
O'Grady's readiness to step in can perhaps be explained by the horrors of his own childhood. In particular, the schooling he received from the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic organisation.
"There was physical abuse; they were brutal," he seethes. "And when we were doing PE they used to come up and pull your shorts open to look in, to make sure you hadn't left your underpants on. If you'd left your underpants on they got pulled down in front of everybody. I'd never let my kids near a Christian Brother."
That the Catholic Church is so vociferously opposed to gay marriage enrages the comedian, who is in a long-term relationship with former ballet dancer Andre Portasio. "Their rhetoric has increased homophobia," he says. "It's another axe to attack us with. The Catholic Church has no right to wag the finger at gay people. How can we respect a church that has encouraged paedophiles by moving them from one parish to another, free to carry on again? Homophobia is still rife in society. It's all, 'everything is lovely with being gay now,' but it's not. At all. Don't let them kid you."
One prominent Catholic for whom O'Grady reserves particular venom is erstwhile cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe, who recently spoke at the Conservative Party Conference fringe meeting for opponents of equal marriage. "What does she know about love or marriage?" O'Grady glares, with a glint of mischief. "She's an eternal virgin. She'll have on her tombstone, 'Return to sender, unopened.'"
Widdecombe's repositioning as a harmless eccentric on 2010's Strictly Come Dancing irked many. But for O'Grady, such revisionism of a woman (or "loathsome creature") who supported the policy of shackling pregnant prisoners when hospitalised, is reprehensible. "It's a shame Pol Pot's not alive, because he could have gone on Strictly and they could have called him Polly and made an affectionate jovial character out of him," he says.
But it is the current government that inspires the most detailed attack, with at least one long limb darting out with each proclamatory flourish. He's horrified at their plans for the NHS, and, most of all, their we're-all-in-this-together assurances.
"It's Sheriff-of-Nottingham times: 'What do the working classes eat? Pasties. Let's tax those. Where do they go on their holidays? In static caravans. We'll tax them.' I didn't notice a tax on polo mallets. I loathe Cameron; I loathe Osborne. We didn't vote them in and yet here they are deciding for us. I'd like to see their heads on spikes on Tower Bridge. Seriously. I'd sleep well.
For O'Grady, who is filming a BBC series about the working classes, the London riots also exposed social injustices. While looters got 18-month sentences for "nicking something", he says, bankers "who brought this country to a standstill" go unpunished.
"Why aren't the bankers in the dock? The working classes are suffering in this country. They're a joke in the media – they're portrayed as chavs and rioters."
And then we come to Kelvin MacKenzie. It is scarcely surprising that for someone from Merseyside the man deemed responsible for the demonisation of Liverpool football fans following the Hillsborough disaster would raise O'Grady's blood pressure. But his condemnation is blistering. MacKenzie, who last month blamed the West Yorkshire Police for his infamous story in The Sun accusing Liverpool fans of stealing from the dead and urinating on the police, is a "skid mark on the face of journalism."
"When you say sorry, you don't say, 'But it wasn't my fault'. It was his fault. He was the editor of the paper, the captain of the ship. Liverpool will never forgive him."
It was also The Sun's depiction of gay people during the 1980s Aids crisis for which O'Grady despises MacKenzie. In his latest memoir, Still Standing, O'Grady's accounts of looking after loved ones until they died in emaciated agony are devastating. He describes begging God to save a close friend as he hugged the once "beautiful boy now degenerated into the wizened, incontinent, senile old man I held in my arms".
He blames MacKenzie's newspaper for striking "terror into young gay people's hearts, who thought that being gay meant you instantly caught a killer disease."
"The Sun always talked about 'homosexual haunts' as if we were all slithering, diseased, around back alleys. I'd like to see him turn up in Liverpool during the gay and lesbian march, and say sorry. He hasn't got an ounce of remorse in his body."
Although largely loved by the press, O'Grady ridicules journalists' oft-used "openly gay" prefix: "No one says 'openly heterosexual'. What do they want me to do? Sit behind closed doors watching Judy Garland films?"
Such journalistic practices are comparatively mild, however. The News of the World hacked his phone, according to officers from Operation Weeting, the police investigation into phone hacking.
"The police went through [private investigator] Glenn Mulcaire's bits and showed me phone records with a News of the World phone number and said, 'They've listened in here and here'. I've had a hack listening to various members of family and friends."
But he chose not to speak publicly about it. "I could not stand up in the court next to those parents [of Milly Dowler] who'd lost their daughter and say, 'Yeah they listened into a few messages but no harm was done.' I didn't want to enter that arena. I don't want to wade through Murdoch's sewer."
Even the prospect of damages wasn't enough. He didn't want News International's "stinking money". Instead he urges that Rupert Murdoch be "held to account. He says he was unaware [of the hacking]. Bollocks. His name's over the door, he knows what goes on with his staff."
As we move onto more personal matters, O'Grady's rage implodes into a plea. He calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide, after a friend asked O'Grady to help end his life before dying of throat cancer earlier this year.
"He said, 'You must have something to push me on me way.' He didn't want to die in a hospice on his own, slowly rotting."
The request was unmet, but O'Grady, who has twice suffered a heart attack, and seen "too many horrific deaths", would like the option if the time came.
"I know if I was in that position I wouldn't want to stay around. I don't want to lie here in agony."
He has already left rather uncompromising instructions, stating that under no circumstances is he to be resuscitated.
"I've put in my will – the solicitor was roaring laughing – 'God help anyone who ignores my wishes, because when your turn comes to die I'll be stood at the gates of hell waiting for you."
One suspects there may be a few others he'll be waiting for too.
O’Grady on The Catholic Church
"The Catholic Church has no right to wag the finger at gay people. How can we respect a church that has encouraged paedophiles by moving them from one parish to another, free to carry on again?"
O’Grady on the coalition
"I loathe Cameron; I loathe Osborne. We didn't vote them in and yet here they are deciding for us. I'd like to see their heads on spikes on Tower Bridge. Seriously. I'd sleep well"
O’Grady on Kelvin MacKenzie
"He is a skid mark on the face of journalism. When you say sorry, you don't say, 'But it wasn't my fault'. It was his fault. He was the editor, the captain of the ship. Liverpool will never forgive him"
Still Standing, The Savage Years, by Paul O'Grady is out now on Bantam Press priced £20
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