Lily Savage was queen of the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern for eight years before she, or rather, Paul O’Grady, was nominated for the Perrier. Still Standing: The Lily Savage Years, the latest volume of O’Grady’s hilarious, caustic memoirs, tells how Lily came into being. And a very funny story it is indeed. (The above picture is actually Kylie Minogue’s dressing room. Lily always trashed hers.)
O’Grady deserves kudos for the entertaining, brutal interviews he’s been giving for the past few weeks. The best one is here in the Independent with Patrick Strudwick. Not only that but the first of his three memoirs (this is the last) was the only book ever to get unqualified praise in Private Eye:
Funny, well observed and recognisably human. Soon you start to wonder why all celebrity autobiographies can’t be like this.
I’ve reviewed Still Standing: The Lily Savage Years for the Sunday Express but it’s horribly truncated so I’m putting the original below.
Still Standing: The Savage Years by Paul O’Grady (Bantam Press, £20)
I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, please, not another celebrity autobiography….” But be assured. Paul O’Grady – and Lily Savage – are cut from a very different cloth. In Lily’s case, cerise pink PVC.
O’Grady’s first two books about his “life adventures” were best-sellers and hailed as the best kind of celeb autobiography: genuinely gripping, brilliantly observed, moving. And – shock, horror – actually written by the author.
Still Standing: The Savage Years, “the third and final chapter” of his life, does the same job. It’s honest, funny and supremely readable. It charts in meticulous, hilarious detail the start of O’Grady’s life in entertainment, beginning with the experiments in drag and cabaret which eventually turned into Lily Savage.
As this book begins, Lily is just being born. It’s the early 1980s and after a series of odd jobs O’Grady has decamped from London to Yorkshire (having been born and raised in Birkenhead, Merseyside). He’s been offered a stint doing a new drag act. The days of the great northern variety clubs are over and Lily finds herself in a spray-painted geisha wig performing to geezers in rough pubs who really want to see a stripper.
At the time O’Grady’s beloved mother Mary had no idea what he was up to. “What would you do if I waltzed in one day wearing a frock and a wig?” he asks. “I’d bloody poison you, that’s what,” shoots back her answer.
By his late twenties, having undergone a struggle with his sexuality (and having fathered a daughter at the age of nineteen, whilst realising that he was actually gay), he is starting to think he needs to find a career. “I told myself that at twenty eight it was time to get my act together and do something with my life.” After numerous false starts, Lily really takes off when she gets a cabaret residency at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern which lasts for eight years, eventually leading to a nomination for the Perrier Award in Edinburgh in 1991.
O’Grady’s great skill is that he really knows how to tell stories, both large and small. There are tales of his larger-than-life (male) best friend Vera, of wild nights taking acid and of cast parties which end up with naked dwarves (from Snow White in pantomime) trying to pull his covers off in the middle of the night.
In amongst it all, he’s trying to find his way amongst the “ragbag of queens” and make Lily Savage real as well as funny. The character, he says, is not based on his mother as many have assumed. (Mary died just before O’Grady was cast in a drag role in The Bill in 1988.) “Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage… drank, smoked, openly took drugs, fiddled her gas and electricity meters, believed in plain speaking and possessed a mouth that would make the inbreds who appear on Jeremy Kyle blush. Apart from plain speaking, my mother had none of these attributes.”
There’s a bit of fast forward once Lily takes flight and we’re suddenly into 2012 and O’Grady’s life now, which involves him surviving two heart attacks and the death of his long-standing partner Murphy. Before finding himself alone in Waitrose buying corn plasters.
With O’Grady, now 57, you really get a natural born storyteller, a true drama queen and a master of the punchline. You could say this book becomes slightly disjointed. But when the writing and jokes are this good, you could just surrender and read the other two books too so that it all makes sense. It’s what Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage would want.