Paul O’Grady – The Definite Article. The Writer’s Cut

150 150 Rob McGibbon

This interview with Paul was for The Definite Article column in the Daily Mail’s Weekend magazine. It was conducted over the phone on 6th November 2017 and was published on 2nd December.

The prized possession you value above all others…My five dogs – Olga, Bullseye, Eddie, Boycie and Conchita. They’re all rescue dogs, each with very different personalities. They follow me around everywhere at home and are really comical. They make me laugh and I love their company. If there was a fire, they’d definitely be the first things I’d save. I’m about to get another one from Battersea Dogs Home – a pregnant mongrel, who was found abandoned on Hampstead Heath. I’m going to give her a happy ending.

The biggest regret you wish you could amend…Messing around and not having a game plan for my life when I was a teenager. I lost valuable years of education and had no real goal or anything to aim for. I finally found a job I loved in Social Services when I was 22, but up until then I was a bit of a drifter, which was such a waste.

The temptation you wish you could resist…Staying up too late. I will read a good book, or start writing, and suddenly I find I’m still going at 3am or 4am. At other times I will stay up watching rubbish television, which by the early hours is always really horrible and violent programmes about serial killers or post mortems. Staying up late makes me feel like death the next day.

The book that holds an everlasting resonance…The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French philosopher. They are full of little nuggets of wisdom that make you think about life. I keep a copy nearby, ready to dip into, and I always feel better for reading it.

The priority activity if you were the Invisible Man for a day…I would go to various friends’ houses and cause chaos by pretending to be a poltergeist. I’d smash a few things and do some levitation, but I’d be much scarier around the people I’m not so keen on.

The pet hate that makes your hackles rise…No.1 is always any cruelty to animals, but I also hate ticket machines at railways stations. They give you about 30 different options for a ticket when all I want is a single or a return. You need to do a bloomin’ course to know how to operate them.  They are hell and I end up in a blind fury.

The film you can watch time and time again…Wild Strawberries from 1957 directed by Ingmar Bergman. It’s about an old man recalling his past as he makes his last journey. It is beautifully shot, superbly acted and very moving. I see something different in it each time. I generally watch it in January, when things are flat after Christmas, because it really suits the mood. 

The person who has influenced you most…My whole family unit – my mum and dad, my uncles and aunties. They were all such great characters and so full of humour. They had a one-liner for everything and were always giving me good bits of advice. Having such a warm childhood surrounded by so many colourful people gave me a great grounding for life. 

The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint…Rosa Lewis, who was the most famous chef in Europe in the 19th century. She was an eccentric and a formidable character. I’d go to her Cavendish Hotel in London to eat one of her feasts and talk about her life, but she was a real snob, so I’d probably be far too common for her.  

The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child…Try not to worry, it will all turn out well in the end. I’d encourage them to enjoy their childhood and not waste time worrying. Kids are under too much pressure these days, especially from social media.  

The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity…Herbology. I’ve been making my own potions since my 30s and love it. I’m pretty good and can mix infusions that cure all kinds of ailments or illnesses. I’m completely fascinated by it and have stacks of books on the subject. 

The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again…My hair colour. It was originally reddy brown until I got a flash of grey at the front in my mid-20s. Then it went salt ‘n pepper and now it’s as white as snow.

The unending quest that drives you on…Curiosity. I am constantly wanting to learn about new things. I know curiosity killed the cat, but it keeps me alive. If something grabs my interest, I will then read up on it so I know as much as possible.

The poem that touches your soul…First Fig by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It only has four lines, but is beautiful: “My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives a lovely light!” I remember reciting it to myself in hospital 15 years ago after the first of my three heart attacks. I had been seriously burning the candle at both ends and I thought I was about to pay the piper.

The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase…That I am delicate because of my past health issues. My cardiologist examined me recently and was puzzled. He said: “I don’t know how you do it, but you’re in great health!” I’m 62 now and I’m as tough as old boots. I think health is all about mind over matter. 

The event that altered the course of your life and character…Getting up as Lily Savage for the first time to compère a talent contest at the Elephant and Castle pub in Vauxhall in 1978. It’s a Starbucks now, but it was the roughest pub in London back then. I had no idea what I was going to say, but it just flowed out and people loved it. I was working in Social Services at the time and had no plan for a career on stage. It was done in a moment of madness and was actually the first time I had even spoken into a microphone, but it was a revelation. The next day I had loads of phone calls from other places wanting to book me and my career took off.

The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it…I would mix up a lethal poison that would kill all the rotten, maniac leaders in the world. I don’t want to mention any names in case I end up with a needle in my foot from an umbrella. 

The song that means most to you…You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick from the musical Gypsy has followed me like a shadow throughout my career. It was part of my act for years, so I can hardly bear to hear it these days, but I will always have a soft spot for that song because it served me so well.

The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions…For starters, I wouldn’t go near any airports! I can’t stand them anymore because the security has gone beyond a joke. They even checked my glasses the last time. What did they think I had in them, a laser gun? So I would have the Orient Express re-routed to take me, my partner Andre and a group of friends to Scotland. Our day would begin with a fabulous dinner on the train, then I would sleep like a log because I always sleep well on trains. I’d wake up in Scotland and have breakfast as the beautiful landscape flipped by. We’d fly to the Isle of Skye by helicopter to have lunch at The Three Chimneys restaurant, which is wonderful. I’d have a dozen oysters with brown bread and a bottle of Guinness. In the afternoon, Andre and I would visit three wildlife rescue charities that are very special to me – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo, where I’d catch up with an orphan I love called Archie, then Wildlife SOS in India to visit the elephants, and finally one called CROW in South Africa. We would have dinner in Vienna at Hotel Imperial, which is like a stately home. I’d have a glass of red wine and goulash soup followed by some tafelspitz, which is boiled beef with carrots. It sounds disgusting, but is delicious and comes with a horseradish and apple sauce. We’d end the night listening to a jazz band and watching a burlesque show in a seedy underground club in Berlin, drinking the best absinthe whilst surrounded by a bunch of unsavoury characters.

The happiest moment you will cherish forever…Around my 30th birthday were particularly happy times. I had a nice flat in Central London, Lily had taken off and I was enjoying a very sociable, hedonistic time. It was all so much fun and joyful. 

The saddest time that shook your world…The death to my long-term partner and manager Brendan Murphy in 2005 from a brain tumour. I nursed him for six weeks and it was hideous to see him suffer. He was like a brother and a soul mate, so it was a bleak time. I stayed strong for him, and physically had to carry him all the time, as well as keep working, but I exhausted myself and promptly had my second heart attack not long after he died. 

The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you…I always wanted a bright red Lotus Europa Mark II, but there wouldn’t be much point because I can only drive an automatic. I’m also told that they are death traps.

The philosophy that underpins your life…Get on with it is my mantra. There’s no time to be messing around.

The order of service at your funeral…I’d have it at a small historic church on Romney Marsh, Kent. I want to make sure everybody is weeping throughout, so my cortege will be led by the Salvation Army band playing Nearer, my God, to Thee, then Tom Jones will sing St. James Infirmary Blues backed by Jools Holland and his band, and then Mica Paris will sing one of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel funeral songs. To cheer everyone up I would be carried out to a New Orleans jazz band playing When the Saints Go Marching In. I want my glass-topped coffin laid in forest and guarded by seven dwarves day and night!

The way you want to be remembered…As someone who tried to help animals. 

Paul O’Grady was born on 14th June 1955 in Tranmere, Cheshire. He died at home in Kent aged 67 on 28th March 2023. RIP.