When Paul O’Grady met the Queen Consort

Family and friends are mourning the loss of the much-loved broadcaster, comedian, actor and writer Paul O’Grady, who has died at the age of 67.

The entertainer started his show business career as a drag queen in the 1970s. During more than 40 years in theatre, television and radio, he made the rare transition into a mainstream star, becoming a household name who was beloved by the British public.

© PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

He rose to fame through TV programmes such as C4’s The Big Breakfast and various chat and light entertainment shows, his natural humour and down-to-earth personality shining through everything he did.

More recently, he enjoyed a partnership with Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home, where he indulged his own love of animals to make the long-running documentary, For the Love of Dogs. His personal involvement with the charity led to hundreds of abandoned dogs finding new homes since the show started in 2012. He even sat on the floor in kennels with frightened dogs to help their true personality shine through.

The show led to a lasting friendship with another famous dog lover, Her Majesty the Queen Consort, who penned a personal tribute following O’Grady’s sudden death on 28th March.

He had also written several books, including his four-volume memoirs. In 2008, he was awarded the MBE for services to entertainment by Queen Elizabeth II in her Birthday Honours.

Showbusiness career

Although O’Grady worked in ordinary jobs to pay his way, he began a part-time career as a drag artist at the Black Cap in Camden in October 1978, when he was 23. He made his debut miming to Barbra Streisand’s song, Nobody Makes a Pass at Me.

He later formed a drag act, The Playgirls, in Streatham. Over the next few years, they toured the north of England and worked briefly in Copenhagen. O’Grady learned fire-eating to liven up their act.

After the group split, he went solo, calling himself Paul Monroe, just before moving back to Birkenhead. On his return to London, while working for Camden Council, O’Grady formed a new drag act called Lily, Sandra, and Doris.

In 1984, he took a bar job at the Elephant and Castle pub, in Vauxhall, where he expanded his Lily character. Renowned for his sharp wit and insulting the audience, he started using the surname Savage – his mother’s maiden name. Initially, he said Lily Savage was a totally fictional character. However, in 2008, he realised her “characteristics and attitudes” mirrored those of the women he recalled from his childhood.

O’Grady described Lily Savage as a “creature more cartoon than human”, with her bleach-blonde beehive, leopard print mini skirt and stilettos. As the character took off on the live circuit, he was able to give up his council job to concentrate full-time on show business.

Royal connection

When Paul O’Grady met the Queen Consort Camilla, it was the start of a special relationship, based on their love of dogs. They worked closely together to support Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home for many years right up until his untimely death.

To mark the charity’s 150th anniversary in 2010, Camilla opened Battersea’s London Cattery. One of the UK’s oldest charities, Battersea was founded in 1860 by local animal lover Mary Tealby. Originally, it was called The Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs.

O’Grady became the rescue’s ambassador in 2012, when he presented the first series of For the Love of Dogs. He had filmed eleven series in total, with series ten being aired in 2022.

Filming for series one was due to last for only six days, but O’Grady enjoyed it so much that he stayed on as a volunteer for six months. The charity invited him to become an ambassador – an honour he accepted readily. He had wanted to film a show about the animal rescue for years and stepped into the role with great enthusiasm.

Close bond with Camilla

Working with the rescue led to O’Grady and Camilla forming a close bond. The Queen Consort personally adopted two Jack Russells from Battersea as family pets.

O’Grady often spoke of his bond with Camilla and said they had great fun together. In a press interview, he had described her as a “really funny woman”, adding, “You can have a great laugh with her.” He said she was never one for standing “on ceremony”. In some ways, her behaviour “shocked” people because of the total absence of royal protocol.

When the pair met at the 2018 NHS Heroes Awards, Camilla greeted O’Grady with a hug and a kiss – a much-photographed moment that made it into all the newspapers. O’Grady revealed she had always given him a “big hug and kiss” whenever they met.

On Battersea’s 160th anniversary, the duo filmed a special episode of For the Love of Dogs. The Queen Consort hosted a celebratory garden party in honour of the occasion.

Later, she and O’Grady went to Battersea’s site at Brands Hatch to try and find homes for the animals there. Camilla joined in the fun by taking part in a competition to see whose dog would go over to their owner without being distracted by squeaky toys and food along the way.

O’Grady said Camilla’s dog ran straight over to her, ignoring the temptations. However, his own dog Sausage ran over to the press photographers and wasn’t interested in the competition. He quipped she was, “more interested in raising her profile and posing” for the paparazzi!

Sausage was a Battersea rescue dog who had been adopted by O’Grady, joining his other canines, Arfur, Nancy, Conchita and Eddie. Following the 160th anniversary celebrations, he said it had been a “great day”, describing the Queen Consort as a “lovely lady who’s passionate about dogs”.

Queen Consort’s personal tribute

Following the tragic news of O’Grady’s unexpected death, Camilla paid a personal tribute, saying she was “deeply saddened” at the news. The Palace issued a statement saying she would be offering her sympathies to his family privately.

Describing how the late star had “worked closely with Her Majesty in support of Battersea”, the official Palace statement thanked him for “providing lots of laughter and many waggy-tailed memories”.

O’Grady had once tried to persuade the late Queen Elizabeth II to adopt a corgi from Battersea, according to his friend Ali Taylor, the rescue’s head of behaviour. Elizabeth, the patron of Battersea since 1956, had visited both the Old Windsor and Battersea sites on several occasions.

In March 2015, she accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Michael of Kent (Battersea’s president) to open the new Mary Tealby Kennels. At the time, O’Grady tried to persuade the monarch to take a corgi back to Buckingham Palace with her!

Battersea chief executive Peter Laurie said the charity would always remember the star as a “devoted animal lover with the biggest heart”, who had “fallen head over heels in love with every dog he met”.

O’Grady’s own dogs will be looked after by his husband, Andre Portasio, a former dancer with the English National Ballet.

Fans’ dog photos memorial

Tributes have poured in for O’Grady from all over the world, with dog lovers posting pictures of their own canine pals in a touching memorial on social media.

ITV has announced it will screen series eleven of For the Love of Dogs as planned, beginning on 13th April, at 8.30pm, in O’Grady’s memory. Filming was completed shortly before his death.

Describing how everyone at the station was “shocked and deeply saddened” at his passing, ITV bosses said For the Love of Dogs was one of their best-loved shows, thanks to the presenter’s “warmth, humour and joy”.

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