Paul O'Grady MBE

Presented by Professor Frank Sanderson

For the past few years, comedian and actor Paul O'Grady has been doing exceptionally well playing himself. But for many years, he was best known to us all through his alter ego, Lily Savage, typically described as an abrasive, brazen, bottle-blonde from Birkenhead, or more prosaically, as "a vampish Liverpudlian woman".

His life so far has been a memorable roller-coaster ride and whoever gets the film rights will do very well indeed. Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage was conceived in Butlins, Pwllheli and was born in Liverpool, outside The Legs Of Man public house on Lime Street…..  Sorry, that's the wrong speech…  

Paul James O'Grady was born to Molly and Paddy in June 1955 in Birkenhead and was brought up in a close-knit Irish Catholic household in Tranmere. The youngest of three children, he first attended St Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Prenton and then St. Anselm's College in Birkenhead, which was run by the Christian Brothers. 

As a child he loved dressing up and says; "even today if I see a wig, a hat or a bit of material, it's on my head. I can't help it". He excelled academically but never had any interest in sport, apart from, he claims, wrestling. Despite doing well in his school exams, he left school at 16 and found a job as a clerk in a magistrate's court, a job he hated. He was still in his teens when he had a daughter, Sharyn - who is in the assembly today. 

After a succession of jobs, including a cleaner for Cleo Laine, office work in an abattoir, and a brief period working in a West Kirby Residential Home, he went to Manila in 1977. Whilst working as a waiter in Gussy's Bar, he began to formulate the idea for Lily Savage. 

Returning to London in the early 80's, Paul became a social worker for Camden Council, supplementing his income working in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, initially as a barman, then doing a mime act on stage and ultimately compèring during the amateur drag nights.  

Realising he could do far better himself than many of the acts, he took to the stage as Lily Savage in 1985, using his mother's maiden name of Savage. The character was mainly based on someone he'd seen in a Sheffield market but drawing also on the memorable wit and repartee of his mother Molly and his aunts Chrissie and Annie.  

After fine-tuning the act in pubs and clubs, Paul moved on to the Edinburgh Festival in 1987, followed by appearances at the London Palladium and Royal Albert Hall. Paul's acting career began as an extra on 'Coronation Street' and in the film 'In The Name Of The Father'. His big TV breakthrough came with 'Live From The Lilydrome' in 1995 and this was followed by regular appearances on Channel 4's 'Big Breakfast'.  

What had been a cult following for Lily Savage now became mainstream, ensuring further television work in series such as 'The Lily Savage Show' and 'Blankety Blank', not to mention the lucrative advertising work. Blankety Blank, previously hosted by Les Dawson and Terry Wogan, became known as Lily Savage's Blankety Blank and transferred from the BBC to ITV in 2001.   

Additionally, Paul enjoyed West End appearances and major national tours with the musicals 'Prisoner Cell Block H' and 'Annie' - in which he played the tyrannical gin-swilling Miss Hannigan in the late 1990s. He then had two seasons of the Pantomime 'Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs', first at Birmingham Hippodrome in 1999, and the following year at the Mayflower, Southampton.   

In 2000, Paul decided that it was time to nip Lily in the bud, appearing on television as himself with his highly regarded travelogue, 'Paul O'Grady's Orient'. One reviewer noted that it "proved that the man was a comic genius and didn't need the wig and frock to get the laughs". 

The format was successfully repeated with 'Paul O'Grady's America' in 2001.  

The hectic lifestyle took its toll when in 2002, Paul suffered a heart attack in London after attending a showbiz party. After a life-saving operation at St Thomas's Hospital, and encouraged by the massive support he received from the public and his fellow entertainers, he made a remarkable recovery. 

This traumatic experience led to a major change in lifestyle. He now limits himself to the occasional cigarette, he modified his diet, and started to take more exercise, including swimming and running, and within a few months was back on the West End stage as the Child Catcher in the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Later in the year, he appeared in Pantomime at the Manchester Opera House, starring once again as The Wicked Queen. In 2003 Paul participated in Celebrity Driving School, in aid of Comic Relief. None of the six celebrities passed the Test during filming, although Paul did eventually pass. He rewarded himself with a VW convertible which he christened Mrs Peel in homage to Emma Peel and The Avengers.   

In 2004, Paul was given his own prime-time chat show on ITV in direct competition with Richard and Judy. The Paul O'Grady Show was an immediate hit and is still going strong, consistently attracting more viewers than the rival show.  

Throughout his career, Paul has received many accolades and awards, including: 

  • numerous 'Entertainer of the Year' awards from Capital Gay
  • Best Comedian in 1997 by readers of Smash Hits
  • Showbusiness Personality of the Year in 1997 from the Variety Club of Great Britain
  • The TV Quick award for 'Funniest Person On TV' in 1998
  • The Best Gameshow Award for Blankety Blank in 1998
  • Personality Of The Year at the Scouseology awards in 1998 in Liverpool

Several National Television Awards, including a British Academy Television Performance Award for The Paul O'Grady Show, and a Royal Television Society Award for the Best Daytime Programme   

Paul once said that "I'm not saying I'm a show-off but give me a stage and an audience and I'm as happy as a flea on a dog". I think we can safely assume that he's happy today.  

Since he burst into our living rooms in the 1980s, he has been a ubiquitous and welcome feature of the British entertainment industry, and we are delighted to be able to acknowledge the achievements of this magnificent Merseysider today.  

Thus I have pleasure in presenting Paul O'Grady, this most distinguished son of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.