Paul O'Grady:
Paint it black

Such was their friendship that Paul O’Grady once punched out someone who was getting fruity with Cilla Black. So it’s fitting that he’s the new presenter of a reboot of Blind Date

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Walking into an upscale conference room in central London, Paul O’Grady ceremoniously lights up a cigarette. “This is such a civilised hotel where you can open the windows,” he exclaims. “These bloody American ones where everything’s sealed up and I’m sat on the lav with a can of Febreze.”

This opening is quintessential O’Grady. Despite being a 61-year-old millionaire broadcaster, bestselling author and presenter of tear-jerking shows about rescue dogs, amid salubrious surroundings, he still makes you feel like he’s having a good natter over the garden fence. He takes a couple of puffs of the cigarette and then tosses it.

“Cilla would say awful things about me and I’d say terrible things about her. It was a good double act.”

“I can buy 20 and they last me all week,” he says. Besides, it’s his last vice. “Oh Christ, I’ve calmed down,” admits the man who once swallowed a lump of hash he found in his pocket in Bangkok customs so as not to get caught with it. He rarely drinks. “Award ceremonies put me off booze because they always have cheap, crap nasty wine that should have a pickled onion in it.”

In a stylish blue suit, he cuts a more demure look than his drags-to-riches alter-ego Lily Savage – a brassy “blonde bombsite” from Birkenhead who, despite being a shoplifting ex-prostitute, broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, landing a succession of TV gigs, including an interviewing stint on The Big Breakfast, before he retired the character in 2004. We’re here to discuss his role as matchmaker on Channel 5’s reboot of Blind Date. The ITV Saturday night stalwart ran from 1988 until 2003 – one of the first modern reality shows in which members of the public were held up for viewers’ entertainment or judgement – and was helmed by his friend, the inimitable Cilla Black.

Two years on from her death from a stroke following a fall at her Spanish villa,  O’Grady says he still “misses her terribly”, so when he received the call about the job, he was initially reluctant. “Then I rang up Cilla’s son Robert, who I’m very close with, and he said: ‘My mother would love you to do it.’”

But he was nervous, he admits, in a voice that sounds like he’s gargling the Mersey, despite moving to London aged 18. The first time he heard the music – he mimics the famous jazzy Blind Date theme tune – and the line ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host’ he was waiting for ‘Miss Cilla Black’. When he heard ‘Paul O’Grady’ instead – he recoils as if his name is a bad handshake – “I thought, that doesn’t feel right.

“It was emotional. Her presence was very much there. I find myself morphing into her, using her catchphrases, then correcting myself. It felt like she was operating me from above.”

It’s inspired casting. Although boasting that she “never turns right on a plane”, Cilla possessed the same seemingly down-to-earth charm. Rumours originally abounded that Geordie Shores’ perma-tanned Vicky Pattison would star in the show, but thankfully orange isn’t the new Black. It’s also touching because, for two decades, O’Grady and Cilla were inseparable, like a Scouse Will and Grace, having first met on Parkinson in 1998. She said O’Grady taught her how to laugh again after the death of her husband. He’d sent her a guardian angel, she said, only this one had hooves, horns and a tail. “She’d say awful things about me and I’d say terrible things about her. It was a good double act we had going.”

As O’Grady hilariously recounted in his eulogy at Cilla’s funeral, he introduced her to gay clubs in New York such as Escuelita – located in a neighbourhood so rough the cab driver was reluctant to drop them there – where he’d squirrel her jewellery in his pocket.

“I’d go round with my hands in my pocket and people thought I had a gun because I was paranoid she’d lose it. She’d be up dancing with everyone and having a good time. She was not a snob. She was game for anything. You could say ‘Do you fancy paragliding, Cilla?’ and she’d give it a go.”

Both hailed from an Irish-Catholic working-class upbringing in Merseyside – her Liverpool, him Birkenhead – steeped in poverty and the same culture, even though she was 12 years his senior. “We both had outside lavs.”

Each had worked on market stalls. “I’m very like Cilla. She’d always have a wad of cash in her handbag. Mine wasn’t quite as waddy, but I never go out with just credit cards. You’d be in Gucci on Madison Avenue and there’s Cilla saying: ‘How much for readies, love?’ The market trader never left her and it’s never left me.”

They were like stars in a lost buddy-cop movie. Trouble, he claims, followed them and he was protective of her. “I became like her minder. In gay bars, everyone would want to dance with her, so I’d have to tell them to back off.  I punched somebody once over her,” he says, with barely concealed delight. “There was this fella getting a bit fruity with her on the dancefloor. I battered his stinking carcass while Cilla’s standing there with a drink in her hand, like a gangster’s moll.

“She was telling everyone: ‘You should have seen Paul in action last night – he’s hard as nails!’ She was quite proud. I think it’s the Mersey in us.”

Despite Channel 5’s former reputation, the new Blind Date hews scrupulously to the original family-friendly format: it isn’t sexed up or Blind Date On Benefits. A singleton hoping to be impaled by Cupid’s arrow chooses between three suitors hidden behind a screen – although one concession to modernity is that it now features LGBT contestants. “It’s not just boy meets girl anymore,” notes O’Grady. “It’s boy meets boy, girl meets girl, boy meets alsatian. We’ve moved on. It’s 2017 – you can’t ignore diversity. Anyway, I insisted. I’ve no time for prejudice.”

Whereas in the 1990s, Lily Savage – who looked like she’d never encountered a tone she couldn’t lower – was a rare example of gay subculture going mainstream, drag is now increasingly fashionable and popular thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race. O’Grady doesn’t watch it – in fact, it “bloody annoys” him.

Paul O'Grady and Cilla Black
Like a Scouse Will and Grace, O’Grady and Cilla were inseparable. Photo: Karwai Tang Getty

“The attitude has always been if it’s American, it’s sexy and called lip-synching, whereas over here you were a mime act and you worked in a pub. American drag has always been about glamour and looking like a supermodel, but ours was more steeped in music hall.

“The aim of RuPaul’s Drag Race is to look like a woman, which it wasn’t for us. The aim for us was to invent a character and be funny. Lily was an out-and-out whore – mini-skirt, hole in tights, just been shoplifting – and talked about real things like social security.”

The character of Savage was conceived when he was working as a barman at the Elephant and Castle in the 1980s, a Vauxhall gay pub next door to a homeless hostel. “So that was my audience. ‘Gwwwwaaan Lily!’ they would shout. ‘Gwwwwan girl!’ They were fabulous.”

Savage’s switchblade tongue reappears when he talks about society’s marginalised, whom he seems to feel an affinity with. Like them, he was an outsider.

“I knew all the homeless and a couple died on me. There was a guy, Michael, down Tower Bridge, who I knew for years. He was found dead. His friend came round the house to tell me because he knew how close we were. We don’t treat the homeless like human beings in this country. Don’t just walk past – talk to them.”

He bangs the table in anger. “When they started putting spikes on doorways, I thought: ‘You wicked bastards.’”

When he suffered his first heart attack in 2002, Brendan Murphy – his partner of 25 years who died from brain cancer in 2005 – walked down Old Compton Street. “All the rough sleepers in doorways and the prostitutes asked him: ‘How’s Savage? Is he all right? Give him our love. Tell him we’re thinking of him.’ He said: ‘How do you know these people?’ Because I sit and talk to them – that’s why.”

“This government is unfeeling, cold and heartless. That’s what worries me.”

We meet during the spin-cycle of the general election campaign. As someone who threatened to leave Britain for Venice if the Conservatives regained power in 2015, he’s downcast about the future. “I don’t watch the news anymore, because I find it too distressing. I’m worried about what’s going to happen when we leave Europe – I really am. I really don’t like this government, because they’re just going to dismantle the National Health Service. It’s going to be dreadful. When you ring an ambulance, you’re going to have to give your credit card number. They’re unfeeling, cold and avaricious. It’s heartless. That’s what worries me.”

As a one-time social worker for Camden Council, he is livid about the tightening noose of welfare bureaucracy in modern Britain. “Anyone who is unemployed or disabled is now seen as a scrounger and they’re using any excuse to cut their benefit. Jesus, they depend on that! They’re making people jump through hoops until they give up trying – they’re breaking people’s spirits in the cruellest possible way. We’re not heartless people. Why are we acting this way as a country?”

Even with added diversity, how will Blind Date’s relatively back-to-basics approach be received in an age of Naked Attraction (where contestants select dates partly based on seeing just their genitals, like a televised glory hole) and Take Me Out (a bloke descends the “love lift” to face 30 single women in what resembles a sexual battery farm)? Cilla, after all, gave outright smut the cold shoulder pad.

“I’ve never seen those shows. We’ve gone back to the days before dating apps and Tinder. Blind Date’s an old show and we keep it like that.”

No, he has never checked out Tinder himself. “I wouldn’t know what to do when they came round,” he mock gasps.  “It would be like ordering a curry.”

O’Grady is writing his next book, about the countryside, having moved to a farmhouse in Kent in 2005, which he shares with his long-term partner Andre Portasio and myriad animals. “It’s not all arts and flowers – it’s decomposing rats under floorboards. When I first moved there, I remember looking out of the window at sheep, thinking: ‘What have I done? There are no clubs around here.’ Now I really embrace it.”

A grandfather – he conceived a child with an older woman at 17 – there’s also a children’s book on the horizon and he’s mulling over bowing to demand and writing another about his adventures with Cilla. “I keep mentioning her all the time because you can’t ignore her. It was her show, she was synonymous with it, and we were so close. Even two years down the line, I really miss her.”

Blind Date is on Saturdays at 7pm on Channel 5

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