From tipsy daytime TV to epic political takedowns, these are Paul O’Grady’s best moments

Paul O'Grady Iconic Moments

The LGBTQ+ community and entertainment industry was rocked in March 2023 by the sudden death of drag icon Paul O’Grady at the age of 67.

For more than 45 years, O’Grady shone within Britain’s entertainment world, beginning with Lily’s domination of the London drag scene in the late 1970s, all the way to the early 2000s.

He won over the masses as Lily while hosting BBC’s Blankety Blank up until 2002, later presenting a string of his own primetime TV programmes, including The Paul O’Grady Show and Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs.

He was a hit on the airwaves, too, hosting a Sunday afternoon show on Radio 2 for almost 14 years, until just a few months ago.

It’s impossible to sum up all the best moments of O’Grady’s colourful life. But, as the world remembers an LGBTQ+ hero, here are just a few of his most memorable.

Paul O'Grady Lily Savage
Paul O’Grady, who performed as Lily Savage, has died at the age of 67. (Rex)

His brilliant response to a homophobic police raid

Lily Savage truly came to power during her many years performing and hosting at London’s iconic LGBTQ+ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT).

Savage’s run at the RVT in the 1980s coincided with the growing media hysteria around HIV and Aids and the gay community. One Sunday in 1987, while Savage was on stage, police officers, all wearing ridiculous rubber gloves for “protection”, raided the RVT and ordered everyone out of the bar.

Reflecting on the incident 34 years later, O’Grady said: “I remember saying something like: ‘Well, well, looks like we’ve got help with the washing up!”‘

O’Grady also recalled numerous other homophobic police raids during the Lily Savage era.

“I was beginning to think it was me – in fact, the South London Press, in an extremely homophobic article, called Lily ‘a lascivious act’ which I was very proud of,” he wrote on Instagram.

The time Lily got wasted on daytime TV

Dressed in a glitzy pink top, tumbling blonde wig and leopard-print skirt, Lily appeared on an early 1990s episode of This Morning, alongside hosts Richard and Judy for a wine tasting.

She sipped “disgusting” French beer, saying: “It tastes like that stuff you put on cat litter trays to get rid of the smell.”

Guzzling fancy wine, she condemned its price: “I’m not paying a fiver for it, sorry. Not while there’s Blue Nun in the shops. No way.”

Before long, she was serenading the hosts, leaving the pair in hysterics. 

His surprise striptease for Lorraine Kelly’s 50th birthday

O’Grady was one of the most genuinely beloved stars in the UK, particularly by his fellow celebrities. But one such close friend, TV host Lorraine Kelly, almost saw more of O’Grady than she bargained for.

While celebrating her 50th birthday live on her show Lorraine in 2009, Kelly was thrilled when the funny man joined her as a surprise. He began by taking off his tie, wrapping it around Kelly’s neck, before unbuttoning his top and pretending to give her a striptease.

“They didn’t have much money in the budget, so they got me, I was cheap,” he laughed, while reflecting on the moment with Kelly in 2021.

Hilarious rants

As Lily rose to national fame in the 1990s, she fronted several mainstream comedy specials, including ITV’s An Evening with Lily Savage and BBC’s The Lily Savage Show.

Savage’s performances were never scripted, and her hilarious, foul-mouthed rants would often have audiences in stitches.

One fan favourite is the time she launched into a tongue-in-cheek tirade about lad culture.

“It’s this new breed, isn’t it? Fellas now, they’re called lads. I know what I’d call them: c***ts.”

Cue rip-roaring laughter, and Savage on stage appearing shocked at her own language, clutching her actual pearls.

His epic takedown of Tory austerity cuts

There aren’t many mainstream presenters today who would take aim at the government quite like O’Grady.

Speaking on his ITV chat show Paul O’Grady Live in 2010, the comedian gave both barrels to then-chancellor George Osborne’s new austerity policy, which saw local services cut to the bone.

“Speaking of nits, George Osborne… what do we think?” he asked the audience.

Saying he’d rather have rock star Ozzy Osbourne as chancellor, he added: “Do you know what got my back up? Those Tories whooping and hollering when they heard about the cuts… b*****ds. 

“I bet when they were children, they laughed when [Bambi’s] mother got shot.”

Scathing political commentary delivered with a cutting sense of humour. A recipe for TV gold.

Lily dominating a Michael Parkinson interview

How do you start a TV interview with legendary British broadcaster Michael Parkinson? By showing up in a glistening rainbow dress and demanding he “take what he likes” – as long as there are “no tongues”.

Savage’s appearance on the show came in 2004, the same year that O’Grady retired the drag act, but he wasn’t going to let the character go out without a bang.

Across just 10 minutes, Lily managed to tear into Wayne Rooney, her good friend Barbara Windsor, and Walt Disney.

The relentless one-liners created nothing short of a masterclass in classic comedy.

The kind soul behind the TV persona

O’Grady radiated kindness onscreen, whether he was chatting with the likes of Mariah Carey or Simon Cowell on his own shows, or encouraging dog adoptions on his For The Love of Dogs documentary.

It’s nice to know he had that same persona offscreen. Creative director Mark Downie explained that when they worked together at Channel 4, the comedian insisted that ”roles for his show were advertised at the local job centre, with the aim of opening up work within the media to anyone, regardless of their background.

The chaotic presenting with Cilla Black

O’Grady and Cilla Black were great friends, and their chemistry was palpable.

While presenting ITV’s special, Avenue of the Stars, in 2005, which celebrated 50 years of the TV network, the chums appeared on stage while Black accepted a star.

Chaos erupted, with Black unable to get a serious word out thanks to O’Grady’s constant ribbing of the stage set-up. The audience in the studio, and at home, were left crying with laughter.

His role in pushing LGBTQ+ culture into the mainstream

O’Grady was a force to be reckoned with when it came to advocating for equal LGBTQ+ rights and establishing the community’s place in popular culture.

By taking Lily Savage from stages in bars to TV shows on the country’s biggest networks, O’Grady paved the way for drag queens across the UK to rise to prominence. Without Lily, it’s almost certain that there would be no RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.

Beyond drag, O’Grady craved a space for LGBTQ+ comedians to inhabit mainstream TV networks.

Joe Lycett, whose queer new comedy show Late Night Lycett premieres on Channel 4 on 31 March, summed his impact up perfectly, praising the late comedian’s ability to be political while still be “really, really funny”.

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