|Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage as the Wicked Queen|
20 Questions With...Paul O’Grady
Date: 27 December 2004
Actor Paul O’Grady - alter ego of Lily Savage, now starring as the Wicked Queen in Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs - bemoans critics, backstage filth & modern drag artists & explains why he’s laying Lily to rest after 20 years.
When Paul O'Grady first moved to London from Birkenhead, he planned to find employment as a social worker. But it was on the capital’s pub and club circuit that his comedy career began with the creation of Lily Savage, a single mother of two, notorious for her shoplifting and acid tongue.
In O’Grady’s Lily incarnation, he has performed in the West End musicals Prisoner Cell Block H and Annie (as Miss Hannigan). On television, Lily’s many credits include The Lily Savage Show, Lily Live and Lily Savage’s Blankety Blank.
As ‘himself’, O’Grady has acted on stage as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End, and on screen in In the Name of the Father and Eyes Down. He has also presented Paul O’Grady’s Orient and the forthcoming Paul O’Grady’s America.
Currently, Lily Savage (pictured in costume) is playing pantomime dame the Snow Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She made her pantomime debut at Birmingham Hippodrome in 1999 in the same show, which has since had festive seasons at Southampton and Manchester. This newly cast production opens this week at the West End’s Victoria Palace Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Mine is 14 June 1955; Lily’s is June as well, but I have no idea what year. She’s a bit older, but she’d never admit to it. I’ve always imagined Lily as from the Elsie Tanner era – a well-preserved middle-aged working class woman in a black nylon slip, with too much slap, too much hair, too much perfume, and no sense! Lily’s role model was definitely Pat Phoenix, watching Coronation Street as a kid. I used to adore Elsie, it was never Bette Lynch, she was too drag anyway for me! And those fabulous women you got in movies, like Gladys George and Sylvia Sidney and Eileen Brennan. They never played the lead, they were always the heroine’s best friend, in the bar with a fag. As a character, Lily actually found her feet about 20 years ago. It was at the Elephant and Castle public house in Vauxhall. It was the roughest boozer – full of rentboys, transsexuals, gangsters, prostitutes - it was like the Kit Klub Klub from Cabaret. The pub’s gone, it’s an office block now.
Lives now in...
I left Liverpool when I was 17, and I’ve lived down here more than I ever did there. I lived for the past five years in Aldington in Kent, on the Romney Marshes. That’s one place I’ve now got and am very proud of and I love it, after all these rootless years of touring around, of grotty flats and stinking bedsits and squats and all manner of hell-holes we lived in, and bailiffs and landlords – it was always me sent to the door to deal with them. I love the view I’ve got, and I never tire of it. I still have a place in London, too, and I take dogs out and look at Tower Bridge and I never tire of that, either. But I’ve got to be honest, all the stuff I used to like about London I don’t do anymore. My clubbing days are over. I still go, but I’m not the last to leave, and I’m not sat in Balan’s at 7 o’clock in the morning.
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern School of Dramatic Art on South London’s Barbary Coast.
First big break
My big break was the Edinburgh Festival in 1991. I remember Nica Burns rang me up at half past six in the morning – you’ve been nominated for a Perrier, she told me! I put the phone down and I said, “Why’s she going on about water?” I thought she had lost the plot! It was a funny year – it was me, Eddie Izzard, Frank Skinner and Jack Dee who were nominated. I can’t remember who won but it wasn’t me! I went up to Edinburgh a total innocent – I didn’t even know you got reviewed. I did the Wildman Rooms at the Assembly Rooms, and had the best time. It was a real confidence booster. I used to be embarrassed that I would write down jokes and ideas in a little book. I thought it was a weakness. It was only when I got up there and saw these comics sweating, trying to remember their act and trying out new gags, that I realised it wasn’t just me. We had the same fears. It was a big learning experience.
Career highlights to date
Most definitely, doing my own show at the London Palladium once. It was a great night. I was on the revolve with the original Tiller girls and I came up out of the floor. I thought, “this is it – I’ve done it!” I first appeared there on a bill with Victoria Wood the year before my solo show. Victoria was very tricky with me. She came into my dressing room before the show, and asked, “Do you do stuff about the Royal Family?“ I said I might mention them. She said, “don’t” – and then said don’t do this and don’t do that. Of course, what she hadn’t realised and was very unfair of her was that I was terrified – I wasn’t the established one. I was really insecure about working at the Palladium – what was I doing there? I thought I was out of my depth. They had to hold me down to stop from running out. I had worked on my show for three weeks, and I thought, “this is going to die”. But then I went out and had the best night. Madam was not amused! Wood was an idol of mine – she still is, I think she’s a genius. I’ve always been nice to newcomers after that, always, because I’ll never forget how I felt in that dressing room. I felt like dog turd. I was demoralised, thinking I should be in a pub. And I was, straight back in a pub the following Tuesday! That’s how it was then.
Favourite production you've ever worked on
I thoroughly enjoyed a play I did called Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the King’s Head and Drill Hall. I made such good friends out of that show. We did it for a fiver a night, but when it moved to the West End, they decided to use names we’d never heard of, so I pulled out at the final hour. I said we all do it, or we don’t do it, and I’m not doing it! And did I love Annie, which we did here at the Victoria Palace, and then we went on the road with it for nearly half a year. Prisoner Cell Block H was another big favourite of mine.
All the musicals I’ve done I’ve enjoyed. Except Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I didn’t really enjoy that. I’d just had a heart attack, and Michael Rose is one of the nicest producers you’ll ever want to meet. He said, “Come and do this”, and I thought, “it’s not a big part, but it’s a great way to get me back on stage again”, and I’m forever grateful for that. It got me back to work, but I wasn’t having a good time mentally. I needed time to get over the heart attack, and I didn’t give myself the time. I did the part mainly to do the flying at the end – where the Child Catcher is flown to the top of the theatre – I loved that! The kids would be screaming, I’d be waving my fist at them. I’d find out the names of kids who were in from the box office and I’d say, “David whatever, I know where you live, I’ll get you tonight,” or “Lucy, still living in Ealing, are we, at number 3 so and so street, I’ll get ya!” I found out that Ian Fleming wrote the character of the Child Catcher based on the Gestapo; and that’s the way to play it. If you play the Child Catcher for laughs or you want to be liked or you camp it up, it dies on its arse – you’ve got to do it as pure evil. Out of all the villains in children’s literature, he’s got to be the worst. What does he do with the children once he’s got them? It’s all very distasteful. I used to sit up in bed thinking about this, I used to have visions of them all hanging on meat hooks, but I’d tell myself to just go to sleep.
Everyone I’ve worked with I’ve liked. I’ve never met a nicer bunch of people who look after each other than the ones I’ve worked with on stage and telly. Gayle Tuesday (created by Brenda Gilhooly) I love, she’s great to work with. Working with her was like two pieces of a jigsaw being put together, and off we went. I also love Edna Dore – we did Eyes Down together on television – she’s 86 and sharp as a pin. She’s fab, I love her, what a great woman. She’s got an allotment, and I have one down in Kent – so we have a lot in common. They used to laugh at how close me and Edna were. She’s an old Phyllis Dixie girl, you know. She was one of Phyllis’ strippers. I also love working with Linda Thorsen, who played Tara King in The Avengers. I’ve done lots of stuff with her. She’s fabulous.
I think drag has all changed now. I was never a fan of drag. I used to love the drag culture in the gay pubs – great acts like Mrs Shufflewick, the Disappointer Sisters, Regina Fong – but I feel like the last of a dying race from that era. I have nothing in common with this new lot of exhibitionist transvestites who are screaming around nightclubs. I didn’t want to look like a supermodel. It was never about that for me. It was all about building a character and making a totally believable working class prostitute shoplifter and mother of two. It wasn’t about how I looked. I’m not interested in the new type of exhibitionist drag queens.
Favourite musical writer
Early Stephen Sondheim – not the late Sondheim, plinkety-plonkety-plonk stuff, which drives me insane! I love Gypsy, which he wrote with Jule Styne – that’s a wicked score, and my favourite show. But I saw the one that Sam Mendes directed with Bernadette Peters in New York – it was atrocious! I came out and there was a gaggle of queens there, and I said, “She’s awful!” and they said, “How dare you talk about Saint Bernadette like that?” But she was dreadful, she phoned it in. There’s no excuse for that. She couldn’t handle the score, she had no idea of the character – she was doing Lily St Regis, not Madame Rose.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Lily would love to play Mama Rose. She couldn’t handle the score, but by God, she’d have had a good go. I think she’d be a better Tessie Tura, a clapped out stripper with a beer belly! As for myself, I was quite tempted by the idea of Fagin in Oliver! for a while. He’s one step removed from Miss Hannigan, he’s the male version. But then I thought, “Can I face it?”
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently
The Producers in New York. It’s a burlesque show. I’m worried that people aren’t able to get it all over here, all that mugging over the footlights and all the double-takes. But, by God, what a cracking show. I’d love to be Carmen Ghia, the director’s assistant, in that. He doesn’t do a lot, just gives lots of looks. I’m never interested in playing the lead.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
There’s a lot of criticism. Some shows are okay and have got potential, but the critics go in and slaughter something and it’s left for dead. It doesn’t stand a chance. It seems these days like every review for every show is a bad one. I really think the critics want a bloody good slap around the mouth – get off your high horse, fellas, and give new things a chance.
Money has also got to be spent on theatres, particularly backstage. If they get an Arts Council grant or any Lottery money, it always goes on a coffee bar, but meanwhile backstage, you have no idea. I love the London Palladium. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening to that theatre now, the way it’s been run down backstage. Andrew Lloyd Webber should be ashamed of himself. It’s a beautiful, beautiful theatre, but there are vermin all over the place. During Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there were 14 of us sharing a toilet that didn’t work. It’s the pits. You put up with it because you love the theatre so much. It’s so sad. It’s going to fall down, you know. And at the City Variety in Leeds, the backstage is a white-washed coal hole with a sink hanging off the wall and an old 40-watt bulb and no power plugs at all. But it’s such a fabulous, atmospheric theatre, you don’t care – you put up with it, you see. And because actors know they can be replaced at a moment’s notice, nobody kicks off or gripes or tells the management “I’m not standing there in three inches of sewage and a dead rat!” They’re all too scared.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Hitler. And then I’d say: “Actually, I’m having a bad morning. I’m not going to invade Poland, I’m not going to do any of these foul things. No, I’m going to build a nice little schloss on a mountain and take it easy. Let’s forget all about this rotten war!” I’d change history.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton, because she captures a world that, when I was a kid, completely got my imagination going. I totally believed in the tiny little people she created. I’ve never read a kids book that comes close to it. Harry Potter leaves me cold.
Favourite holiday destinations
Singapore. It’s a beautiful, well-run city. The people are marvellous. I’m also very fond of Shanghai and Beijing. I love China and the Chinese.
E-bay . You’re looking at the world’s champion e-bayer here! I’ve got everything from Tallulah Bankhead’s evening gown to an Avengers’ car set. It’s rubbish – nobody wants it, but I’ve got it!
Why do you think pantomimes are important??
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve only seen three. I saw one at the Liverpool Empire when I was a kid. I couldn’t work out why Cinderella’s sisters were men and why she was marrying a woman. I was very confused. My mum said, “It’s tradition!” – but that meant nothing to a six-year-old. And I saw two others that were shockingly bad. I always vowed that if I did panto, it was going to be a good one, and we were going to tell the story. I hate these pantos where they play the theme tune from whatever soap you’re in, and you come out and for 20 minutes do an appalling act that’s got no relevance to the story. So every time we’re on stage, we’re telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But it’s laced with insanity. My Wicked Queen is evil but that’s motivated by jealousy. She’s a woman past her sell-by date, who’s trying to preserve what was once a beautiful face and figure and resorting to surgery and black magic.
Why did you first want to play the Wicked Queen in Snow White?
There’s not much difference between Lily and the Wicked Queen really! It’s a great part. When I was a child, the Wicked Queen was always my favourite character in the Disney cartoons. She wasn’t in it enough as far as I was concerned. I’ve always had the villains – Miss Hannigan, the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – I couldn’t do nice. I couldn’t stroll on and be pleasant. I come on and smile at the kids, and then insult them. Kids love the villain.
How do you feel about returning to this production? How do you keep it fresh?
It’s easy - though it would be impossible if I was doing Lily 52 weeks a year! This is just five weeks. I can have a bit of fun, have a laugh. As for how it’ll be received, I’m not sure. I always find West End audiences very reserved. Saying that, this is Victoria! It’s not my idea of West End! And then there are the critics. I know the West End’s dying, but it’s their fault! I went to see Bat Boy the Musical the other week, which I thought was wonderful, and then I read the reviews. I thought, “Hang on a minute, I must have seen a different show”, because what I saw was a really fresh, interesting show. The Shaftesbury Theatre is a graveyard for any show – it’s like the Piccadilly, don’t go anyway near it! The Victoria Palace is a lovely theatre to work in. It’s an old variety house, a Frank Matcham-designed theatre that works a treat. You stand centre stage, you see everybody and you’re in total command. You can stand there and chat, as I frequently do. That’s the kind of show I like being in, not snotty productions where you don’t involve the audience. Pantomime is not at all pretentious – it’s about the audience and encouraging them and giving the kids a treat.
Pantomime has been absent from the West End for decades. With two major productions this year, do you think it could once again become an annual West End fixture?
I think panto lost its place because of the expense – the price of tickets, the price of parking, the price of ice cream, all that nonsense. It out-priced itself. I hope it does become an annual fixture again. I’m not a fan of music hall or variety. I love burlesque and that’s what my panto is. It’s a burlesque show suitable for children. There are no topless ladies in it or bawdy comics, and though there are lots of winks to the adults, there’s nothing that any grown-up would feel uncomfortable with. If I wanted to do that, I’d go and do an adult show in a club. This is a panto, and you’ve got to toe the line.
What’s your favourite panto? And favourite panto dame?
This is my favourite, but I quite like Sleeping Beauty, too. My favourite panto dame is Les Dawson. He’s just great, Les. I met him once in Blackpool. I asked him if it took long to get ready. He looked at me as if I was insane. He said that he just puts some lipstick on his nose, wears a grey wig and goes on. Lily takes a good hour to get ready. All those bloody wigs and the make-up. The Queen’s make-up is even more elaborate than Lily’s, and then there’s the nails, and the costumes to be laid out.
What are your top tips for playing a woman?
I’ve never looked on what I do as playing a woman. I’ve just always tried to make Lily totally believable, and it came naturally. You find a lot of heterosexual men at fundraisers are always in drag the first chance they get – they start with the chest and it’s gross! You never see a woman behave like that. Women don’t mince. I do the Wicked Queen as stately and elegant, until she loses her temper – then it’s a fishwife from Birkenhead. You get two sides. She’s very schizophrenic, my Wicked Queen. I don’t know about tips. Maybe that you should always look your best. I’ve never gone on stage looking tatty!
Are you worried about panto dame competition from Ian McKellen?
I worry about my own job, I’m not concerned with what others are doing. As for Ian – Serena we call him – I don’t care. If you start that nonsense, you’ve had it. Forget the Old Vic, let’s worry about what’s happening here, let’s polish this up brightly. I know Ian well, I’ve known him for 20 years, he’s a big pal. And he’s always wanted to do panto. We did a do at the Albert Hall for Stonewall together. I was in the wings waiting to go on and he was panicking, telling me to “go on, go on”. I said, “No Ian, you don’t just ‘go on, go on’, you must take your time when you do”. I did a strip, and he came off and said, “I want to do that”. So I think I’m responsible for him wanting to be Widow Twankey in Aladdin.
What are your plans for the future?
This is the last time I’m doing Lily. I had a great time with her for the last 20 years, but I’m putting her to rest after this.
- Paul O'Grady was speaking to Mark Shenton
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens at the West End’s Victoria Palace Theatre on 21 December 2004 (previews from 17 December) and continues until 23 January 2005.