It was 1am, one warm Thursday night in July, 2014, when I ended up in a glorious lock-in at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in the company of Paul O’Grady.
Paul — or ‘Sav’ as he was known to close pals and colleagues — was returning to the very LGBTQ venue that forged his career, where he played a key role supporting gay activism in the 1980s, and whose stage, and seriously tiny dressing room, became the best finishing school for a scratchy, comically jagged Birkenhead matriarch by the name of Lily Savage.
Like Lily herself, Paul was showing his roots to watch comedy pal and close friend Mark Trevorrow perform as the crooning Australian prince of polyester, Bob Downe. Another pal — and Paul’s neighbour — Julian Clary had just left and the RVTbar was thinning out.
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In the 1990s, Mark and Paul had toured the world together with Lily and Bob. They had both cut their cabaret teeth together at the coliseum to queer nightlife that is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, as well as various Edinburgh, Australia and London runs.
Trevorrow would join O’Grady on stage to rip the Torvill and Dean out of a spoof spin on Ravel’s Bolero. And the pair would find each other either on UK or Australian soil when they could – often driving the country lanes of Kent with Paul playing the soundtrack from his beloved The Avengers TV show at full blast.
"Being backstage with him all those years was my comedy masterclass," Trevorrow recalls fondly. "His complete focus, utter pre-show sobriety — after was a different matter — and his method of writing out a one-word list of his routines was an aide-memoir I use to this day."
In an era of countless Drag Race variants, Drag-Cons and more mainstream culture’s embracing of British drag and its popular royalty, Lily Savage was vital. She was never the only queen on the UK club circuit. Yet, she was the one that a whole generation of both queer and straight audiences knew first.
In the 1970s and 1980s British TV had known the safe, end-of-the-pier drag likes of Hinge and Brackett, Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery and Danny La Rue. The Two Ronnies would forever be throwing on the slap and frocks, and gay stalwarts John Inman, Christopher Biggins and Larry Grayson kept it all quietly knowing for the mums and nans, but it was never stated.
And then along came Paul O’Grady.
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From being a stairwell cameo in opening titles to barely watched LGBTQ magazine shows in the early 1990s, police informant Roxanne in The Bill (1990), and a menacing inmate in Jim Sheridan’s In The Name of the Father (1993), Paul’s comedy career benefitted from a successful Edinburgh Fringe experience in the late 1980s.
It enabled him to hone Lily for wider audiences. And to not hold back the gay world genesis of Lily. When presenter Paula Yates left Channel Four morning show The Big Breakfast, it was Lily who became an instant interview hit as every morning Sav would lay resplendent in leopard print at early o’clock to chat to the great and never great.
Mainstream presenting stints on Blankety Blank soon followed. As did Live at the Lilydrome – a Granada TV series showcasing Lily alongside Ian McKellen, Coronation Street’s Liz Dawn, and Trevorrow’s Bob Downe.
In a wholly rare move, Paul brought drag or Lily’s drag to mainstream, non-drag roles in stage versions of his beloved Prisoner Cell Block H, Miss Hannigan in Annie, and the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Now every Bianca Del Rio, Jinx Monsoon and The Vivienne can guest in stage musicals, panel shows and reality competitions in full drag – because Sav crossed over first and left the hairspray, and door, open.
She also proved the commerce and wider crossover potential for drag.
Trevorrow remembers one hilarious moment touring with O’Grady. It was 1992 and the Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala. Lily Savage, Bob Downe, The Golden Girls’ star Bea Arthur and eccentric singer Tiny Tim are all sharing the same theatre.
"We’re in our shoebox dressing room", recalls Trevorrow, "me dressed as Bob Downe and Lily resplendent in a beaded black corset, thigh high dominatrix boots and a chiffon cape edged in black feathers. It turns out O’Grady is a massive Tiny Tim fan so races down the corridor to find him.
"Half an hour and a lot of noisy chat later between the pair, Tiny Tim turns to his assistant with a beaming smile and says of Lily Savage, ‘that Bea Arthur is a lovely woman!’"
Arthur was not amused. Sav definitely was.
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Cut back to that July lock-in in Vauxhall, and I am perched alongside the venue’s famed red pillars talking to Paul over a gin, a diet tonic and one of those cigarettes he had allegedly given up.
My husband was at home nursing a fractured spine and Paul amusingly filmed a ‘get well soon’ video that was suitably hilarious and dark in equal measure.
Sav was no stranger to enjoying, living, and owning life – all the while reinforced by being that generation who lost so, so many lovers, colleagues and friends to HIV/AIDS.
Here I was in the very same gay bolt-hole that meant both resistance and expression to Paul O’Grady and so many more. The RVT was the place where Diana, Princess of Wales allegedly came out for clandestine comedy nights in bearded drag herself, accompanying pals Kenny Everett and Freddie Mercury. And it was O’Grady who would defy attitudes and staff to bring some nurse drag and a bit of Lily’s Vauxhall veneer to the AIDS wards and hospices when no one else would.
Thursday nights at the RVT would be Lily’s comedic take on Workers' Playtime. One late show saw aggressive police storm into the tavern full of AIDS paranoia and institutionalised homophobia. With a whole police squad all sporting rubber marigolds in unfounded fear, Savage turned round in a heartbeat and quipped, "have you come to do the washing up?!"
O’Grady and the RVT are still waiting for an apology.
As O’Grady, Trevorrow, myself and others put all sorts of worlds to rights and the 2am police sirens soared past without stopping as they did during those 1980s raids, I asked Sav how she was after two heart attacks dominated the tabloids.
And with that steely blue Lily stare that could cut coal into carats, Paul warmly, yet pointedly replied: "Oh there was more than that, but I managed to keep them out of the press.
"I would rather die happy tonight than sober tomorrow."
Trevorrow recalls someone who was "an utter joy to work and collaborate with. Like all true talents he was unconcerned about whose idea went where – just that it would be funny and serve the show."
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And as those post-midnight artist hours became 5am and a new day in Vauxhall, we all ponder how it is possibly time to call it a morning.
"Under the kabuki-like Scouse bluster and bickering," Trevorrow reminds, "was a gentle, generous soul."
And with a nearly staggered wave of that creased linen shirt soaking into the south London dawn, Sav throws us both a "ta-ra, son!" wave.
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