Wednesday, March 27th, 2024

The Life and Death of (the truely wonderful) Lily Savage



Its not often that this reviewer finds himself laughing hysterically and then crying whilst watching the same film.  But then this very incisive and affectionate documentary is about one of the most endearing  and talented queer entertainers I have ever had the joy of seeing perform  so many times.

Lily Savage, the drag persona of Brit Paul O’ Grady, used her working-class upbringing to become a loud-mouth tart with a heart .  Back home in the early days O’Grady was an enthusiastic social worker who broke all the rules when caring for the children in her charge . We would see this passionate desire to help others get even more important to her later on, when at the height of the AIDS pandemic,  Lily spent nearly all her days visiting and entertaining in the many Hospital AIDS wards .

Paul created Lily in the early 1980s and although homosexuality had been legalized in 1969 in the UK, it was still not ‘socially accepted’ by the world at large.  Hence where Lily was ‘born’ was a rather depressing back street Pub in a seedy part of South East London.  She would become one of the regular performers/stars that that would turn the place into one of the hottest gay places in town (and it still is to this day) 

Lily tried her had at lip-synching but she had way to much to say, and with a mike in hand, she developed this voluble outrageous ‘character’ to whom nothing was scared.  Particularly to the gay boys in her audience who were unwittingly close to the stage and were the targets for her quick  (potty mouth) wit.  But Lily’s  fearless outspokeness  wasn’t just reserved for her show audiences.  This after all was the era of the rampant homophobic Margaret Thatcher who was set on destroying our community, and Lily never held back  on her passionate opposition to her and all other anti- gay bodies and people.  

Then Lily was fearless in breaking rules everywhere such as being the first ever drag queen  to create a one hour show to perform at the august Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She was nominated for the prestigious Perrier Award for the show.

This was the first of many unexpected career moves which would eventually transform her into a mainstream TV show star. .  One of which was The Big Breakfast which was filmed in a real house with Lily interviewing celebrities whilst they were both laying on the bed.  One of her quests was Cher!

That led to her starring in a Primetime  TV Game Show Blankety Bank, and one of the best clips in the doc is behind the scenes footage of the show.  Lily’s outrageous ad-libbing  is  making the cast and crew in laugh so hysterically that the filming goes way over time.  When her stint hosting the showed ended in 2002, it was time for her biggest career move yet.

Lily was ‘killed off’ and Paul O’Grady emerged  as himself  to host his own TV chat show  The Paul O’Grady Show. This groundbreaking show was both a commercial and critical success earning him three prestigious awards, and the admiration of other drag queens who said it would never work.

As a mainstream  star he was not quite  as outrageous as Lily ,and we were aware now that we had to share him with the rest of the world.  He didn’t disappoint us  though  as he went on to host a whole range of different shows …..including the reality TV BLIND DATE…. and he was now  an extremely popular star.

The doc benefits not just from unlimited footage of both Lily and Paul  but a whole coterie of his close friends such as Julian Clary, Ian McKellan, Gayle Tuesday, Graham Norton, Sandi Toksvig and Gaby Roslin etc. who pay testament to his endless charisma. Also included is Paul’s daughter Sharon the result of what was probably his one and only time he slept with a woman.

What was surprising to learn was that behind this wickedly funny person was a man who coulf have almost made a another career of his incessant pessimism.  Gail Tuesday recounts an incident when he said he would not perform one particular night leaving her to share the news with the packed theatre. He changed his mind and did go on, but we soon discover that this  was evidently not an isolated incident.

Lily/Paul was a consummate performer from an era when a drag queen had to be so much more than  a heavily made-up  over dressed mannequin.  Lily actually looked like a cheap hooker with his tight tacky dress, oversized blond wig and sparse make up that must have taking him no more than 10 minutes to apply.  He learnt his craft appearing at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern three times a week for 7 years ….. interposed with performing at other (seedy) gay pubs  such as The Union Tavern. 

Lily always wanted us to be able to personally relate to her and leave the performances feeling uplifted and brimming over with joy.  We did, every time, and although we may not have always appreciate  it way back, then but we were in the presence of a sheer genius who knew exactly how to make us all feel so good about ourselves and our community 

This is not only a first class memoir of a first class person/star but it also captures  an essential part of queer history that we all need to appreciate,

 June 14, 1955,  March 28, 2023 age 67 years. RIP
The Life and Death of Lily Savage will air on ITV1 and ITVX on Good Friday - Friday, 29 March at 9 pm. 
It will also be available on demand. It can be watched globally via a VPN


    Never seen before clip of Lily at her best



ROGER WALKER-DACK Creator, Editor-in-Chief Miami Beach, FL / Provincetown, MA 
of G.A.L.E.C.A. (Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association) and 
NLGJA The Association of LGBT Journalists. and The Online Film Critics Society. Ex Contributung Editor 
The Gay Uk & Contributor Edge Media Former CEO and Menswear Designer of  Roger Dack Ltd in the UK

Posted by queerguru  at  14:16



Follow queerguru

Search This Blog

View queertiques By: