No one did it like Paul O’Grady, and I don’t think anyone ever will again. Savage lit up our lives. That’s what I called him – my dear friend for forty years – never Paul.
I first saw him performing as Lily Savage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London in the 1980s. Savage owned the stage and cowed the rowdy pub audience into utter, adoring, submission. The humour was ripe, rough, raucous and it was like watching a lion tamer with a double whip! He worked the pubs and clubs circuit for years and learnt his skills there – like the variety stars of years past – and he never forgot where he came from.
His humour was based on his life and on the people he knew and who were often his friends. That he would go on to take Lily Savage onto BBC prime-time television was as ground-breaking as it was a reflection of the warmth and strength of his personality and his talent.
But Paul would not be defined by Lily and his career was meteoric. It is an abused phrase, but he really did become a national treasure. He was truly loved.
It is a little-talked-of fact, but he was a close friend of the late Queen as well as the current King and Queen Consort. Not bad for a boy from Birkenhead.
He was a regular visitor to Clarence House and he was introduced to the Queen by her cousin. He first met the Queen at the Goring Hotel at a birthday party and they talked forever about animals and farming. The Queen loved his sense of humour.
I smile when I remember his time with us and Mo Mowlam in Northern Ireland at Hillsborough Castle. There had been a late-night party and I awoke remembering that he had carried me to my bed. Still hungover, I got up to wake Mo as I had promised and then returned to bed only for loud banging at my door and one of the women calling out “Mr Cashman! Mr Cashman! There’s someone sleeping in the Queen’s bed!”
I sat bolt upright and I knew, it was Savage!
Whether with royalty or with me – or with a fan he just met – he never changed. The same fun, the same compassion, the same up for a late night and drinking into the early morning. He once swore he would never go out with me and my late partner Paul Cottingham again when, after a good night out, he returned home and had a heart attack!
He was there in the fight for LGBT equality. He was there when we fought against the anti-gay law, Section 28, from Thatcher’s Tory government and he was there appearing at the Royal Albert Hall and the first Equality show at the Palladium when we set up Stonewall.
He didn’t just believe in a better, equal and just world: he got his hands dirty and he fought for it. And he turned that same determination and commitment into his quest for a better understanding and treatment of animals.
A true friend, he was always there for me. He was there for my late husband Paul; at our wedding, at the funeral, when I got my CBE and he was there when I entered the House of Lords four days after my Paul died.
All of his friends will recount similar testimony to this most wonderful of human beings. Compassion ran through him like a stick of (beloved) Blackpool Rock.
So many memories, so much laughter, so much good done and what words he’d have for those shouting down the drag queens of today!
Savage, you made the world a better, nicer place and now my thoughts are with your beloved husband, Andre.
You lit up our lives, now light up the sky, Savage.
Lord Michael Cashman is a member of the House of Lords, actor and co-founder of LGBT charity Stonewall. He writes about his long friendship with Paul O’Grady in his memoir, ‘One of Them’.