Paul O’Grady: “Love hasn’t been the driving force of my life”

Blind Date’s new host on stepping into Cilla Black's shoes, living with grief, and modern dating

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Paul O’Grady says it felt wrong the first time he stood in a TV studio presenting the new Blind Date. After all, this was the legendary dating show made famous by his great friend Cilla Black, who died less than two years ago. “It was a shock at first when I heard the music, and they said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host, Paul O’Grady’. I thought, ‘This isn’t right, it’s so synonymous with Cilla, she should be here, not me.’ I felt like I shouldn’t be doing it. It was her show. But then I spoke to her sons and lots of people who knew her and they said, ‘You have to do it, because she’d want you to do it for everyone.’”

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Sixty-two-year-old O’Grady has been thinking a lot about Cilla. In fact he’s been thinking a lot about friends he has lost, in general. The chat show host, animal lover, comedian, former drag queen and successful memoirist prefers to natter rather than do a formal interview, and today he wants to natter about Cilla. He doesn’t need to say how much he misses her. It’s written all over his face. You almost wonder whether doing Blind Date is his way of staying close to her.

Cilla gave up Blind Date 14 years ago – had he ever talked to her about the possibility of him taking over the show? “No. We never spoke about work, me and Cilla. We used to go out and enjoy ourselves. Work was the last thing on the agenda. We didn’t want to know. Too busy out having a bloody good time, because she came into her own when she hit 60, Cilla. She’d never been a party animal – she’d always done the show and gone home. After Bobby died she said she was sent a guardian angel but it had hooves and a tail, and that was me.”

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Within seconds O’Grady is transported back to the golden days with Cilla. They might have been united by grief (Cilla’s husband Bobby died 16 years ago; O’Grady lost his long-term partner Brendan Murphy 12 years ago) but it was a friendship cemented by laughter.

Was she different from how we saw her? “Completely,” he says. “Very down to earth, and very very funny. A hoot.” What made him laugh most? “When she did her Gracie Fields impression in her dressing gown, haha! She’d stand there with a mug of tea and a piece of toast on top, ‘Here y’are Paul,’ and she’d start ‘Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar’.” O’Grady is singing and cackling with laughter at the same time. “This is nine o’clock in the morning, and you’d be lying in the bed crying laughing. She was a real good sport, and up for anything.”

They were at their happiest, he says, when they went on holiday together, unknowns in foreign lands. They’d go around like a pair of kids, making ridiculous stuff up about their lives. “We were in America, and someone said, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Oh we’re undertakers, it’s a family firm, and my sister, Cilla, has just won embalmer of the year’, and Cilla would look at me with a poker face. It was a hoot because nobody knew who Cilla was, and if they didn’t know who Cilla was in the States they didn’t have a clue about me. That was the bliss of it. Afterwards we’d be laughing in the street.”

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There are so many stories of the things they got up to. “We were in Spain once and two Danish fellas were talking to us and she went off to the loo and I said, ‘You know she’s a notorious brothel madam’, and they went, ‘Really?!’ And she came back and another guy came over and said, ‘Cilla, I’d like to thank you for all the pleasure you’ve given me on a Saturday night over the years.’ And I said to these two Danes: ‘Told ya!’ I’d always send her up, and she was a great sport.

“Mind you, what I used to dole out she used to dole out to me as well. She said I went to bed with a goat, which wasn’t true.” He clarifies: “I had a sick goat, a kid, and I put him in a box by the bed because I was bottle-feeding him, and she told the press I slept with a goat.”

O’Grady worked as a barman, clerical assistant, assistant clerk at Liverpool Magistrate’s Court, abbatoir accountant and carer before finding success with his brilliantly grotesque creation Lily Savage in the clubs in the 1980s, then on mainstream TV in the 1990s. He says he and Cilla bonded over their working-class Liverpool background. “We knew where we were both coming from. We both knew what outside loos were. All the stereotypical stuff.”

He’d happily talk about Cilla all day. And politics. He calls himself a socialist and says he’s terrified of what will become of the NHS (we’re talking before the election). “Soon when you ring for an ambulance they’re going to say, ‘Can I have your credit card please?’ That’s what will happen, and we can’t let that happen. What does he think of Theresa May? “She’s so bloody boring.” And Jeremy Corbyn? “His principles are good, but he’s weak. There’s no fire there. I’d like to see a socialist prime minister with backbone.”

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Lily Savage

O’Grady has had two heart attacks and another scare three years ago, but today he looks svelte, fit and immaculate in his pinstripe suit. He admits he has been thinking a lot about death – but not his own. “It’s the grim reaper you’re looking at here. I’d be very careful if I were you!” A month after Cilla’s death, novelist Jackie Collins died. “I was in Borneo when I heard the news. I couldn’t believe it. She’d asked if we could have lunch, but I was off to Borneo. She said, ‘You’re always bloody off somewhere filming with animals’. And then she died. She was a great character. Bloody wonderful. You’d go into a restaurant with her and people would pay homage to her. She had this power in case she put them in her book. Or, worse, didn’t put them in.”

Nothing can shock him, these days, he says. And nothing will ever be as bad as it was back in the Aids epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. “All my mates died. It was really traumatic. And there was no one you could talk to about it because there was such an awful stigma attached to it. So I’m visiting a friend who’s ill, ‘Oh hope you get better soon,’ and you’d get off the bus and think, ‘There’s no chance of them getting better.’ It was dreadful. You’d go from one to the other, then you’d have to see the families, sort their flats out and arrange funerals. God almighty it was bad.” How many people did he lose? “He exhales loudly. “About 50, 60. Everyone I knew, basically, was wiped out. Terrible.”

O’Grady is a survivor. As he says, there has always been a toughness to him – it’s another thing he had in common with Cilla. “You’ve got to be tough in this game. I think the weak fall by the roadside. I don’t mean by being pushy, I think you’ve got to develop a thick skin and believe in yourself and get on with it.”

There have been stories that he found Blind Date a harder gig than he thought it would be. Newspapers reported that he told the studio audience, “No wonder Cilla was on the coke when doing this show.” He laughs when I mention it. “It was a joke, like saying Julie Andrews is in a leather bar in Amsterdam. It’s ridiculous!” But yes, he says, he hasn’t found it easy. “There’s a definite skill. Because you’re not interviewing celebrities, like I used to. You’re interviewing the public, so they’re not as confident. You have to be easy on them. I don’t send them up because they’re sitting there on the stool, and the last thing they need is for me to devour them, so I’m very avuncular with them, I’m very kind. I’m like a brothel madam, really.”

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With Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

What’s surprised him most about Blind Date? “All the contestants are so bloody clever. When you say, ‘What are your hobbies?’, they’re like, ‘I play piano, oboe, violin, I speak six languages, I’ve got two university degrees,’ and I feel like saying, ‘Well, maybe you should keep your mouth shut and act dumb, you might just get a fella.’ If you said all that to me I’d say, ‘OK, I’m just going to the loo,’ and vanish.”

Has he ever been on a blind date? “No, never. I wouldn’t turn up. I’d hide round the corner and have a peep and if I didn’t like the look of ’em I’d leg it. And if they were stunning I wouldn’t turn up either because I’d think I was inadequate. Hahahaha!”

Why does he think the show was so successful? “I think it dates back to an innocent time when boy met girl – or boy met boy or girl met girl, which is what’s happening on the new show – at a party or in a bar rather than through a dating app like Tinder, Grindr and Bag of Fish, or whatever it’s called. This is the old-fashioned way of dating.” He comes to a rare stop. “I’m out of the dating game completely, so I don’t know what’s going on.”

I ask how important love has been in his life. “It hasn’t been the driving force. For a lot of people that’s all they’re looking for, love and a happy ending. It’s certainly not been for me. Bit of a lone wolf, to tell you the truth. Always have been.” It’s answers like this that make O’Grady so interesting. He is refreshingly honest.

O’Grady has been with his partner Andre Portasio since 2006. Is he a serial monogamist? “Yeah. I’m not very good at sleeping around.” Another pause. “Well I’m not too bad actually. Hahahaha!” He sleeps around now? “God no, I couldn’t do it now. Pick somebody up in a club and go back? No way, I’d die.”

When was he in his promiscuous prime? “When I was a teenager. Remember I’ve got a daughter of 43 now.”

Did he just have girlfriends back then? “I had girlfriends and boyfriends.” Wow, I say, you were sophisticated – this was the early 1970s.

“Wasn’t I!” He grins. “My mother used to say you never know where you are with our Paul.” Did he think of himself as bisexual? ‘’No, I didn’t know the meaning of the word. It was just the way I was. If I liked you I’d go to bed with you. I was way ahead of my time.”

How would he define his sexuality now? “I’d say gay. I’m a burnt-out wreck of a once-glorious disco. The glitter ball’s hanging there, but don’t turn it on, please, because it will fall off!”

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Blind Date begins on Saturday 17 June at 7pm on Channel 5