Meet the unstoppable Paul O'Grady

He went from drag queen to sharp-suited presenter and is now happy as a pig in clover on his farm on the Romney Marshes. Meet the unstoppable Paul O'Grady...

He went from drag queen to sharp-suited presenter and is now happy as a pig in clover on his farm on the Romney Marshes. Meet the unstoppable Paul O’Grady...

Waiting to speak to Paul O’Grady, I have to admit to being the smallest bit nervous.  His wit is legendary, his straight talking has been witnessed by millions on primetime TV and BBC Radio 2 and he is one of the most popular personalities on television.  But within minutes of our conversation it feels like I am chatting to an old friend.  He is funny, he is honest, he is so charming... and once he starts, he doesn’t stop talking. I sit back and enjoy a private audience with one of our greats!Paul began his career in fishnet stockings and dangly diamant� earrings as the drag queen Lily Savage. As Lily he starred in the musicals Prisoner Cell Block H and Annie (as Miss Hannigan) and on television presented The Lily Savage Show, Lily Live and Blankety Blank.However, Lily was “packed off” to a French convent in 2004 and Paul O’Grady emerged as himself in a smart tailored suit. Since then Paul has starred as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and on television in In the Name of the Father and Eyes Down. As a presenter, Paul’s credits include Paul O’Grady’s Orient and Paul O’Grady Live.For the past six years he has lived in Kent and says he loves the rural views and rolling countryside around his gorgeous farmhouse. It’s a place where he feels no pressures, no expectations and no one is watching him – except his flock of sheep, the goats, an owl, the chickens ducks and dogs, of course.“Aldington is my home; it’s where I can relax and have some downtime,” he tells me. “It’s sucha lovely part of the world to live. I love the place; I never tire of what I see each morning. When the sun is shining it’s just fab – it feels like I’m on a permanent holiday!”The peace and quiet of the Kent countryside has been vital these last years. His busy schedule and incredibly demanding workload began to take their toll and in 2002 he suffered his first heart attack. The second came in 2006. Naturally, his health problems shocked him. “I take things much easier now,” he admits. “When I am not working I’m quite lazy, I literally mooch around. I love taking the dogs out for walks. You’ll often see me on the Romney Marshes tramping along. The landscape is so beautiful; the marshes are stunning. I sometimes get a real urge to go out for long walks. It’s good for keeping fit and you feel much better for it once you get home.”He had always wanted a cow and it was the first thing he found once he bought his farm. “Some people have fabulous cars or glam status symbols. Oh no, not me! I buy a cow. Farming is in my blood; I was milking a cow at age seven. My father’s family had farms in Ireland. I can deliver lambs too: once you get over the initial horror of it, it’s not actually too bad! “I have a pig called Blanche who’s 11. She’s a proper old lady. We go for walks together.She’s such a sweetheart and I am sure she understands everything you say to her. They are so intelligent, are pigs.”A year ago Paul attempted to save a local sheep called Marcus. The hand-reared sheep had been kept by children at Lydd Primary School but it was decided it should be slaughtered. Paul tried to buy the sheep and welcome him into his own field, but it was not to be, despite Paul assuring the school he’d take good care of him and keep the children informed of his progress with photos and updates.  “I’m all for teaching children about animal husbandry but what happens on a farm is very different to what the children saw at their school farm, where the sheep had been made into a pet. A lamb that you hand-rear is not something you can send off to be slaughtered.”Since moving to Kent Paul has acquired an Aga and has become an expert at country cooking.“I got my Aga years ago and I do all sorts of cooking. I can’t cook on an ordinary stove now. It just doesn’t taste the same. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true!”  He adds: “Everything comes out so juicy and you get fabulous cakes out of an Aga. You should see the cakes I bake! My uncle was a baker so it’s in the genes. I’d make a cake a day if I could.”  He also has a huge allotment which provides most of his fruit and vegetables. “I can’t stand waste. I get thousands of strawberries and by the end of the season I can’t bear to see another strawberry so I make jam, ice cream and cakes. It’s not hard, it’s easy really. I suppose you just need the confidence to try out recipes. Believe me, if I can do it anyone can!”Local to his home there are some lovely restaurants, but Paul prefers to cook. “Down in Dungeness there are some fabulous fish places. There’s a shop where I get my kippers. Hythe does fabulous fresh fish too and in Rick Stein’s cookery book he has a whole chapter on Hythe and the fish places down there.  “I also love home-made bread and not the stuff made in a bread-maker. I love breakfast rolls and fresh from the Aga they are gorgeous! It’s that sense of achievement that I like too, that I have gone to the allotment, picked the veg and made dinner with my own produce. I love it!   >“I have raspberries, gooseberries, spinach, cauliflowers, cabbage, courgettes, beans, turnips – you name it, we’ve got it! Going out and pulling up a few carrots, shaking off the mud and cooking them yourself feels great! I even have pumpkins on the go and chillies and tomatoes. My chickens provide the eggs. I am a modern-day Good Lifer, although I do have Bob who comes and helps me.”  It’s hard to imagine the immaculate television presenter wearing muddy wellies and holding a basket of sprouts and pig feed. He always looks so smart on screen. “I like to look presentable when I am on the telly, but during the day I look like Catweazle!” he laughs. Is he happiest in front of a camera or at home? “That’s a hard one, but I suppose I am happiest in a television studio, if I am honest. I can chat; I can relax, it’s my environment. I am home.”He tells me how pleased he is that his audience is so diverse. “I was at The Goring Hotel in London a while back and these dowager duchesses and rich ladies taking afternoon tea all came over and were so keen to meet me and have a chat. I was amazed.  “And when I met Maggie Smith at The Olivier Awards one year she called me over and said, ‘You are the only person in this room I want to talk to! I love the show!’ I couldn’t believe that she even knew me, let alone that she bothered to watch.”His appeal is incredible and its no wonder his autobiography At My Mother’s Knee was a huge success and sold some 800,000 copies in hardback. The funny and moving book topped the bestseller lists. The next instalment The Devil Rides Out was published last year and the paperback is now out.  Did it feel cathartic to write about the old days? “No, not really, it didn’t really feel as if I was writing about myself! It’s all so long ago! I do feel I have been at this game for so long now. It’s gone so quickly. But it’s been a hell of a lot of fun on the way.”Paul grew up in Birkenhead and on leaving school had a succession of weird and wonderful jobs: he worked as a barman, in an abattoir, as a cleaner and as a civil servant. However, it was in a brothel in Manila (where he was working as a barman) that the idea of Lily Savage came to him.As to the future, Paul says he has never been particularly ambitious although he has no plans to stop working. He is on top of his game with a BAFTA, an MBE, TV awards and a new show on the horizon. He still loves his work, is content on his farm and adores spending time with his little grandchildren and daughter.“I would go crackers if I didn’t work. I remember an old sheep dog we had; it had been a working dog all its life. When they retired her she came to live with us and she went mad. She was lost because she had nothing to do so she used to go out and chase buses. That will be me, if ever I stop working, I’ll just go nuts.  So I have to keep working for health reasons!”  n

Waiting to speak to Paul O’Grady, I have to admit to being the smallest bit nervous.  His wit is legendary, his straight talking has been witnessed by millions on primetime TV and BBC Radio 2 and he is one of the most popular personalities on television.  

But within minutes of our conversation it feels like I am chatting to an old friend.  He is funny, he is honest, he is so charming... and once he starts, he doesn’t stop talking. I sit back and enjoy a private audience with one of our greats!

Paul began his career in fishnet stockings and dangly diamant� earrings as the drag queen Lily Savage. As Lily he starred in the musicals Prisoner Cell Block H and Annie (as Miss Hannigan) and on television presented The Lily Savage Show, Lily Live and Blankety Blank.

However, Lily was “packed off” to a French convent in 2004 and Paul O’Grady emerged as himself in a smart tailored suit. Since then Paul has starred as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and on television in In the Name of the Father and Eyes Down. As a presenter, Paul’s credits include Paul O’Grady’s Orient and Paul O’Grady Live.

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For the past six years he has lived in Kent and says he loves the rural views and rolling countryside around his gorgeous farmhouse. It’s a place where he feels no pressures, no expectations and no one is watching him – except his flock of sheep, the goats, an owl, the chickens ducks and dogs, of course.

“Aldington is my home; it’s where I can relax and have some downtime,” he tells me. “It’s sucha lovely part of the world to live. I love the place; I never tire of what I see each morning. When the sun is shining it’s just fab – it feels like I’m on a permanent holiday!”The peace and quiet of the Kent countryside has been vital these last years. His busy schedule and incredibly demanding workload began to take their toll and in 2002 he suffered his first heart attack. The second came in 2006. Naturally, his health problems shocked him. “I take things much easier now,” he admits.

“When I am not working I’m quite lazy, I literally mooch around. I love taking the dogs out for walks. You’ll often see me on the Romney Marshes tramping along. The landscape is so beautiful; the marshes are stunning. I sometimes get a real urge to go out for long walks. It’s good for keeping fit and you feel much better for it once you get home.”

He had always wanted a cow and it was the first thing he found once he bought his farm. “Some people have fabulous cars or glam status symbols. Oh no, not me! I buy a cow. Farming is in my blood; I was milking a cow at age seven. My father’s family had farms in Ireland. I can deliver lambs too: once you get over the initial horror of it, it’s not actually too bad! 

“I have a pig called Blanche who’s 11. She’s a proper old lady. We go for walks together.She’s such a sweetheart and I am sure she understands everything you say to her. They are so intelligent, are pigs.”

A year ago Paul attempted to save a local sheep called Marcus. The hand-reared sheep had been kept by children at Lydd Primary School but it was decided it should be slaughtered. Paul tried to buy the sheep and welcome him into his own field, but it was not to be, despite Paul assuring the school he’d take good care of him and keep the children informed of his progress with photos and updates.  

“I’m all for teaching children about animal husbandry but what happens on a farm is very different to what the children saw at their school farm, where the sheep had been made into a pet. A lamb that you hand-rear is not something you can send off to be slaughtered.”

Since moving to Kent Paul has acquired an Aga and has become an expert at country cooking.“I got my Aga years ago and I do all sorts of cooking.

I can’t cook on an ordinary stove now. It just doesn’t taste the same. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true!”  

He adds: “Everything comes out so juicy and you get fabulous cakes out of an Aga. You should see the cakes I bake! My uncle was a baker so it’s in the genes. I’d make a cake a day if I could.”  

He also has a huge allotment which provides most of his fruit and vegetables. “I can’t stand waste. I get thousands of strawberries and by the end of the season I can’t bear to see another strawberry so I make jam, ice cream and cakes. It’s not hard, it’s easy really. I suppose you just need the confidence to try out recipes. Believe me, if I can do it anyone can!”

Local to his home there are some lovely restaurants, but Paul prefers to cook. “Down in Dungeness there are some fabulous fish places. There’s a shop where I get my kippers. Hythe does fabulous fresh fish too and in Rick Stein’s cookery book he has a whole chapter on Hythe and the fish places down there.  

“I also love home-made bread and not the stuff made in a bread-maker. I love breakfast rolls and fresh from the Aga they are gorgeous! It’s that sense of achievement that I like too, that I have gone to the allotment, picked the veg and made dinner with my own produce. I love it!  

 “I have raspberries, gooseberries, spinach, cauliflowers, cabbage, courgettes, beans, turnips – you name it, we’ve got it! Going out and pulling up a few carrots, shaking off the mud and cooking them yourself feels great! I even have pumpkins on the go and chillies and tomatoes. My chickens provide the eggs. I am a modern-day Good Lifer, although I do have Bob who comes and helps me.”  

It’s hard to imagine the immaculate television presenter wearing muddy wellies and holding a basket of sprouts and pig feed. He always looks so smart on screen. “I like to look presentable when I am on the telly, but during the day I look like Catweazle!” he laughs. 

Is he happiest in front of a camera or at home? “That’s a hard one, but I suppose I am happiest in a television studio, if I am honest. I can chat; I can relax, it’s my environment. I am home.”

He tells me how pleased he is that his audience is so diverse. “I was at The Goring Hotel in London a while back and these dowager duchesses and rich ladies taking afternoon tea all came over and were so keen to meet me and have a chat. I was amazed.  

“And when I met Maggie Smith at The Olivier Awards one year she called me over and said, ‘You are the only person in this room I want to talk to! I love the show!’ I couldn’t believe that she even knew me, let alone that she bothered to watch.”

His appeal is incredible and its no wonder his autobiography At My Mother’s Knee was a huge success and sold some 800,000 copies in hardback. The funny and moving book topped the bestseller lists. The next instalment The Devil Rides Out was published last year and the paperback is now out.  

Did it feel cathartic to write about the old days? “No, not really, it didn’t really feel as if I was writing about myself! It’s all so long ago! I do feel I have been at this game for so long now. It’s gone so quickly. But it’s been a hell of a lot of fun on the way.”

Paul grew up in Birkenhead and on leaving school had a succession of weird and wonderful jobs: he worked as a barman, in an abattoir, as a cleaner and as a civil servant. However, it was in a brothel in Manila (where he was working as a barman) that the idea of Lily Savage came to him.

As to the future, Paul says he has never been particularly ambitious although he has no plans to stop working. He is on top of his game with a BAFTA, an MBE, TV awards and a new show on the horizon. He still loves his work, is content on his farm and adores spending time with his little grandchildren and daughter.

“I would go crackers if I didn’t work. I remember an old sheep dog we had; it had been a working dog all its life. When they retired her she came to live with us and she went mad. She was lost because she had nothing to do so she used to go out and chase buses. That will be me, if ever I stop working, I’ll just go nuts.  So I have to keep working for health reasons!”