Paul O’Grady has just released Open the Cage, Murphy.
It is his fourth autobiography, but it barely takes him up to 1997, so it is safe to assume there are a few more volumes in him yet. “It’s worse than Harry Potter,” he admits. He says he was only going to do one book, but by the time he had checked the word count on the first, he had only got to Paul at 17. He just really likes detail. And what detail it is: the 60-year-old presenter of a teatime chatshow and a weekly programme about rescue dogs has some wild stories to tell. The clubs. The pubs. The night Eartha Kitt stole his makeup backstage at Butlins in Skegness. The bacchanalian 40th birthday party at the Savoy which turned into “Sodom and Gomorrah”. The time he swallowed a lump of hash he had found in his pocket at Bangkok customs, so as not to get caught with it. The deaths. You can see why the previous instalments have been bestsellers. Things seem to happen to O’Grady that don’t befall your typical daytime talkshow host. I don’t recall Alan Titchmarsh in full drag whipping a German man for £500 because his electricity bill was overdue.
It’s strange that O’Grady is so mainstream now, because he was never the mainstream type. After decades on the London pub drag circuit, his Lily Savage character finally broke through in Edinburgh, which landed him a handful of TV jobs, including a year-long stint on 90s morning show The Big Breakfast. Lily made him a household name, but she wasn’t exactly PG. “She was a prostitute, a single mother, a shoplifter, she openly took drugs …” He giggles at the memory. “She was a drinker, she had a dysfunctional family, she had a racing whippet called Queenie, her granddaughter, Kylie Marie. And she was religious, so make sense of that!”
He has come a long way since Lily’s heyday. He retired her in 2004 (she returned for a cameo in Paul O’Grady’s Little Cracker, short Christmas ghost story in 2012, but he has no plans to bring her back again), and has established himself as the down-to-earth, no-nonsense voice of ITV, with a sideline in documentaries about animals. We are meeting in a fancy room in the central London headquarters of Olga TV, the production company he set up in 2005. He looks ordinary in a V-neck jumper, shirt and slacks. He lives in Kent now, mostly, with his long-term partner, on a farm they share with five dogs (“two epileptics, one’s getting over cancer, one’s got arthritis and an eye ulcer, and one thinks he’s Napoleon”). We talk for an hour, and it’s mostly a hoot, all razzle-dazzle anecdotes in those Lambert & Butler-streaked tones. It’s only listening back to the recording that I realise how tired he sounds.
“I’ve got six pigs. Eight sheep,” he says, continuing the animal inventory. “My favourite sheep died while I was away. What a rotten year it’s been! Cilla, and then, while I was in Borneo, I saw it on the telly – Jackie Collins. I only spoke to her before I left. We were going to have lunch, and I said, ‘I can’t, I’m going away …’”
O’Grady delivered a hilarious eulogy at Cilla Black’s funeral in August, about how they used to go clubbing in New York together, to working-class Latino gay bars, where he would stick her jewellery in his pocket. He brings her up often today. He says her death fills him with regret. “Regret of a friendship that’s gone. Maybe regret’s the wrong word. Sadness, really, because you’ve lost a big chunk of your life. It’s like the fun’s taken away from you.” He gets glassy-eyed recalling the times they spent together. “She’d come in in the morning, in the dressing gown with her mug and a piece of toast balanced on top: ‘Do you want a cup of tea, Paul?’ It was all very normal and I miss that. I miss her companionship and I miss her advice. It’s that feeling of loss. It’s dreadful feeling.”
He mentions Cilla briefly in the introduction to his new book, but only to explain why she isn’t in it. “Our time together would take at least a couple of volumes to do her justice,” he writes. But Jackie Collins appears intermittently, as it was finished before she died in September. “I’m scared to write about anybody! I feel like the Grim Reaper with a pen. It was such a shock. She was wonderful, Jackie. Full of life. Unbelievable.” He mentions another friend, Paul Cottingham, who died in 2014. “They’ve gone down like ninepins.”
For all the uproarious, seedy glamour of Open the Cage, Murphy – the title refers to what is best described as a battle cry, delivered to his long-time manager and partner whenever something big was about to happen – it is simultaneously haunted by death and loss. “I’ve lost just about everybody I know,” he says – Cilla, Jackie, his friends in the drag community, and Murphy, too, who died of a brain tumour in 2005.
“I’ve been used to it,” he says, matter of factly. “When Aids hit London, it wiped out all of my friends. And you’d nurse them as well, and you’d have to break the news to their families, that they’ve got Aids, and the stigma surrounding it at the time … ‘We’ll say he’s got cancer.’ As if that was easier. But, to be honest with you, this year, I feel battered by it. Battered.” He sits back in his chair and, for a second, looks defeated.
He remembers nursing his friend Chrissie, who was dying in hospital, “in the early days, when they were testing the meds. They put him on extra-strong medication. And he said: ‘You can’t sit there, Jesus is there.’ And there’s his mother. And Joan of Arc. It became perfectly acceptable to me to be having tea with Francis Drake. I just went along with it. It was like improv.” How else does a comic deal with a desperate situation, other than with humour? “I’ll never forget a guy who used to dance with paper fans. They were a bloody nuisance, to tell you the truth, and he said, oh, they’re not cool any more. And I said, ‘What is?’ And he said, ‘Dying.’ I’ll never forget that, in the kitchen of Westminster hospital, scraping the ice-cream off me that Chrissie had thrown.”
Have the younger generations forgotten about the Aids crisis? “I think they have. People of my age, we’ll never get over the horrors. We never will.” He says he’s making a documentary about the Salvation Army – with his Catholic upbringing, they’re “strange bedfellows, but we get on like a house on fire” – because they did so much work on the Aids wards in the 80s and 90s. “I’m joining the band! I’m on the drums, going down Oxford Street in the full gear. My mother would be turning in her grave. She’d be kicking the lid off.”
O’Grady is contrary, but he seems to relish it. He will talk about his love of the Salvation Army, of old women in cafes, of people on the bus, of the volunteers at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, of pagans and witches. But, recounting a horrific story of orangutan abuse – he is just back from Borneo, where he has been making a documentary – he will then declare emphatically that he hates people. “I hate bloody humanity. I seriously do. We have a beautiful planet and we’re just bloody destroying it. I’ve stopped watching the news and I’ve stopped reading the papers because it’s too depressing. What’s going on? It’s horrific, isn’t it?”
In May, O’Grady said he would leave Britain and move to Venice if the Conservatives won the general election. “I had visions of me sitting on the Lido, till I saw the property prices,” he says now. “Not only that, it’s freezing for half of the year. And I can’t speak a word of Italian.” But along came Jeremy Corbyn, who has given him some hope, at least. “Because he came along when the Labour party was in the doldrums and were a wishy-washy lot. I’m not interested in them. This man comes along and says, no, we need social housing, we have to be a more caring society. Thank God somebody has come along and said it. It doesn’t matter if he can’t win. How do we know he can’t win? Just because he’s not in a Savile Row suit with the slick haircut!”
Why does he think people voted for a Conservative majority? “They’re absolutely blinded. They listen to this guff from Osborne – dreadful man. And Cameron – ugh! I loathe them,” he hisses. “They have no idea how normal people live, and how they try to manage. They see us all as Jeremy Kyle.”
Despite the farmhouse in Kent, despite our surroundings now or in the production company he owns, he still says “us all”. Is he still working class? “Very much so. I know that probably sounds strange. Mentally, I still am. I’m still thinking, have I got the rent for Friday?” He won’t have a cleaner. He doesn’t like the thought of someone being in his house. But it’s not because he’s cheap. “I remember I was out with Jackie Collins once, shopping, and she was looking at a handbag, one of these tiny things. I said: ‘What are you going to put in that?’ It was thousands of dollars. She said: ‘I’m not paying that.’ And I said: ‘Are you thrifty?’ And she said: ‘No, but I’m not a mug.’ And I knew exactly what she meant. You go on Mr Porter or whatever and you think, £2,000 for a sweater? Are you out of your mind? One wash and it wouldn’t fit a dog.”
O’Grady says one of the reasons he never goes out now is that he would spend the week worrying what he should wear. “I’m terrified of being mutton dressed as lamb.” He says gentrification has ruined pubs. “Any pub that says they do gastro food and children are welcome – that’s not a pub!” he roars. “A pub should smell of cigarette smoke, booze, with a nice old barmaid who reeks of perfume, who’s been there all her life.”
But mainly, he says, waving his hand, “Can’t be bothered. Soho can breathe a sigh of relief. When I had the first heart attack, Murphy walked down Old Compton Street and he said every nightclub bouncer, every hooker, every homeless person, said, ‘How’s Savage?’ He said: ‘What have you been up to?’ But you do have to change your ways. You move to Kent. You make candles. You make jam.” What flavour jam? “Strawberry. Cos I’ve got an allotment. You get a surplus. But I hate jam! I’ve still got pots from 10 years ago. This is what you’re reduced to in the country.” Despite his talk of being over it, it sounds as if he still misses the pubs, the nightlife. “I do. Very much.”
He seems sad again. But like he says, it has been a rotten year. I ask if he thinks he is going to be all right. “Oh God, yeah,” he shrugs. “I’m very resilient, me. I’ve had three heart attacks. I’ll go and lick my wounds. I’ll do what we all do in Birkenhead and I’ll take to my bed. You know when you’ve had enough? You go, that’s it, I’m taking to my bed, flaming.” He smiles. “Then I’m up again a couple of hours later.”
• This article was amended on 13 October 2015 to correct the date of Cilla Black’s funeral.
• To order a copy of Open the Cage, Murphy by Paul O’Grady for £14 (RRP £20), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99. Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs is on Thursdays, 8pm, ITV
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010