Drag on your Primetime TV
Author: Sam Chambers
Paul O’Grady first started performing as Lily Savage in the late 1970s. O’Grady had moved to London and was working for Camden Council when he was encouraged by a friend to perform in drag. Lily’s debut was at the Black Cap gay pub in Camden and consisted of miming words to Barbara Streisand songs.
With opportunities to perform in London hard to come by, O’Grady briefly moved to Yorkshire with another drag act to perform as the Playgirls. The act was diverse including a tongue in cheek strip tease and even fire eating but the financial strain became too much, and O’Grady moved back to Birkenhead to live with family. Soon after, O’Grady toured parts of Northern England, with his friend Vera, before deciding to move back to London after the act began to take off.
From 1984, Lily Savage had a residency in the Elephant and Castle gay pub in Vauxhall. Hosting “Ladies Night” each Tuesday, Lily became known for her comedy routines insulting both the acts that were performing, as well as the audiences. The show became a great success and attracted large audiences, leading to Lily being offered work at the nearby Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Lily’s new show “Stars of the Future” ran on a Thursday night but before long Lily was appearing up to three times a week, enabling O’Grady to quit his day job and focus on drag full time.
The act toured around the UK, as well as parts of Europe, whilst also regularly appearing in pubs and theatres around London. Through the late 80s and early 90s Lily Savage became a well known comedy act in the UK including a nomination for the 1991 Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. O’Grady would later comment that “The Edinburgh Festival changed my life. The experience opened doors for me that would otherwise have been firmly closed, exposing me to a much wider audience than I’d previously been used to.” A live recorded show from the Hackney Empire followed, the first time Lily had been recorded live, as well as an Australian tour.
TV appearances began to come Lily’s way, featuring on a late night Channel 4 show, “Viva Cabaret” before getting a late night show of her own, “Live from the Lilydrome”. Nominations at the British Comedy Awards for Top Live Stand-Up Comedian and Top Television Newcomer followed before Lily’s biggest TV break came.
The Big Breakfast had been running for three years and had become the highest watched Breakfast TV show in the UK during the early to mid 90s. Paula Yates had been part of the presenting team but quit in 1995 and Lily Savage was hired to replace her. Lily’s part of the show “Lie in with Lily” became a huge hit with viewers. Ignoring the suggested questions of PR agents, Savage asked more personal questions of her guests leading to a much more watchable interview than the norm. Lily was only on the Big Breakfast between 1995-96 but it was huge exposure for her. The number of viewers tuning in to see the presenting of a drag act on Breakfast TV was highly impressive in 90s Britain. Whilst the landscape of LGBT rights was continuing to change, the presence of a Drag Queen on Breakfast television was something quite extraordinary and it led to much bigger things for Lily Savage.
In 1996 ITV broadcast An Evening with Lily Savage attracting over 11 million viewers and this led to the offer of a weekly show. The offer was declined with O’Grady feeling a pre watershed show would force him to tone Lily down. Lily continued to tour selling out for 16 weeks at the North Pier theatre in Blackpool.
During 1998, Lily briefly presented the BBC show, “The Lily Savage Show”, that didn’t go down well with viewers. However, it was also around the same time the BBC had begun to discuss reviving quiz show Blankety Blank, which had been off air since 1990. The BBC approached O’Grady about fronting the show but with a difference to the Lily Savage Show, Lily Savage on Blankety Blank, had no script.
Shown on primetime Saturday night TV, families up and down the country sat and watched as the tongue in cheek, quick wit and acid tongue of Lily Savage struck celebrity guests and contestants week in week out. It was a ratings hit with a regular audience of 9 million viewers tuning in and led to Lily Savage being an iconic figure of UK Saturday night TV. The show’s success led to ITV purchasing it, along with Lily as host, with a lucrative contract and it ran until 2002.
At the turn of the century, O’Grady began to look for work outside of drag, after tiring of appearing as Lily Savage. He would eventually present successful evening shows for ITV and Channel 4 making a career as Paul O’Grady, but the memory of Lily Savage lives on. Retiring the character in 2004, one of Paul O’Grady’s final appearances as Lily can be seen here
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