In the wake of his death, Shon Faye writes a tribute to the pillar of culture and beloved national treasure who never sacrificed his opinions, his personality, his gayness in return for his rise to becoming a household name
Waking up to news of the unexpected death of Paul O’Grady at the age of 67 felt, frankly, like another dreary milestone passed in our pilgrimage towards a world that’s only becoming exponentially more boring in both its service of capitalist greed and the prurient concerns of people you would move away from at a party. O’Grady was a rare combination of so many qualities that are honourable enough on their own and truly magnificent in concert: guts, guile, honesty, integrity, wit, cattiness, kindness. I’ve spent enough years in the smoking areas of gay pubs and clubs to know that anyone can be a bitch, but to have a caustic tongue used expertly to lacerate the high and mighty – as O’Grady could – is as rare and God-given a talent as a crystal clear singing voice, and it should be revered as such.
I’m always asked, “when was the first time you remember seeing queerness as child?” on podcasts and panels. My answer is always the same: Lily Savage. The Lily Savage Show on ITV to be precise. A Scouse working-class drag queen making veiled jokes about being a hooker on primetime TV. I was just nine years old but I still remember being captivated. Later, in my twenties, back at someone’s house with the gay guys I used to party with, I would get up old clips of Lily Savage being interviewed on Parkinson YouTube at 3am and make them watch.
Paul O’Grady managed to become an unusual pillar of culture: a beloved national treasure who never sacrificed his opinions, his personality, his gayness in return for his rise to becoming a household name. He died both an animal-loving BBC Radio 2 presenter your grandmother loved and a queer hero who once faced down a police raid in full drag at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern during the AIDS crisis. “It was 34 years ago when the cops raided the Vauxhall,” he wrote of that night. “I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all wearing rubber gloves. I remember saying something like, ‘Well well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.’”
I am truly gutted that I will never interview him. He was one of my dream guests on Call Me Mother. Last year, I interviewed my friend, the cabaret artist and performer David Hoyle who told me his vivid memories of working at the RVT in the 80s and being intimidated by Lily Savage’s wit and talent. I was a support act for Hoyle a few years back and one of the greatest privileges of my life has been performing on the stage of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern myself, precisely because of the sense it was hallowed by O’Grady. The proximity I felt to him on that stage was the ultimate fulfilment of that ineffable recognition I experienced when I saw him on television as a child.
The celebration of his life that will be prompted by his death will force us in the queer community to confront unpleasant shifts in culture and increasing hesitancy many of us feel to be irreverent in a time of unhinged culture war and lucrative Amazon paid partnerships. Paul O’Grady was one of a cluster of truly anarchic gay and gender-freak working-class performers – David Hoyle and Pete Burns also spring to mind – who seemed to get on national television by stealth. Hoyle decided himself too sensitive for fame early on and Burns was too abrasive to be as widely beloved as O’Grady. Yet despite his appeal, it’s undoubtedly hard to imagine such opportunities being afforded today to anyone like Paul O’Grady, who called for George Osborne and David Cameron’s heads to be placed on spikes because of their austerity policies. The sadness of his death is the loss of a brilliant man with looming talent but its also about a longing for more bravery, ingenuity and humour from culture at a time when the right-wing is in ascendancy and the arts has become a sector bloated with far too many double-barrelled, bougie, boring cowards.
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