It was one of presenter Paul O’ Grady’s darkest times – losing much-loved friends to AIDs in the Eighties. But through the heartbreak he never forgot the kindness shown by one dedicated band of carers – The Salvation Army.
“When I wasn’t at the hospital visiting, I was organising or attending funerals,” he reveals during a chat about the fourth instalment of his autobiography, entitled Open The Cage Murphy. “It was a bad time and no-one wanted to help – apart from the Salvation Army, that is. They were the only people. They were non-judgemental and would sit at the bedsides of dying young men. They’d counsel families and help pay for funerals.
"I realised then that they’re called an Army because they’re very efficient, I had the greatest respect for them after that. It’s not about banging tambourines, the Salvation Army are the fourth emergency service. When services are cut back, they step in to help young single mums and to resurrect day centres for the elderly.”
Paul feels we desperately need more Salvation Army-type kindness right now.
“I’m off the world at the moment,” he says with typical candour. “We’re on a beautiful planet with beautiful people and we’re destroying everything. It’s like the world’s gone mad. I was in Borneo, filming Animal Orphans about the orangutans and it’s horrific what is done to these beautiful animals. Some of the stuff that goes on is too awful to show. It’s the same with rhinos and elephants. It’s mainly to do with greed.”
But Paul is heartened by the response of the British public to crisis. When he spoke out in support of a Save the Children campaign he was taken aback by the response. “God bless the British public! They always do what they can. When there was the Save the Children’sKnit One, Save One campaign for hats to be knitted to help stop children across the world from dying of hypothermia, we were absolutely inundated with beautiful knitted hats – some of them were really intricate and had Good Luck messages knitted into them.
"More than a million were sent and across the country people set up knitting groups to make them. It just goes to show what happens when people are made aware of something.”
Paul says he has to speak out when he feels it’s necessary. “I always seem to kick off when I’m on The One Show. They’re so squeaky clean and lovely, and I always feel like a right old slapper! I ask them not to ask me contentious questions about Boris Johnson or the Government but they always do and so I always kick off.”
But we love him for speaking his mind and it’s great to see him in such feisty form.
He’s in good health now after suffering with heart problems.“Yeah I’m smashing at the moment, thanks,” he says. “I take my pills and just get on with it. I think you have a choice after you’ve had a heart attack. You can carry on as you were or behave yourself.”
He also laughs at the fact that people still say ‘Hey up, Trouble’. “I’m 61 this year, I live in the country with my animals and I make jam! What kind of trouble am I going to get myself into? It’s flattering I suppose but the thought of going clubbing would make me want to cry. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not interested any more. I’m in the doldrums a bit, actually. That’s not to say I’m fed up or anything but it’s like, ‘What’s next?’ I’m always like this when I hit a zero birthday, a 40, 50 or 60th.”
And being in the doldrums is perhaps not surprising given the fact that in the past year Paul has lost a number of his closest friends, including novelist Jackie Collins and Cilla Black. “Oh, Cilla and I were best mates,” he smiles.
“She was great to work with, too. She came on my show when she was 60 and I bought her some Tenna Ladies! I also said we should put something on the chair before she sat down. You couldn’t do that with a lot of people, they’d take offence, but Cilla was fine with it. She’d just go, ‘Isn’t he awful!’ I remember we once had Samba lessons when we were in Barbados. We were jigging around but then she pulled me on top of her, and the dance floor started to pile up with people.”
So what’s next for Paul? When The Sally Army and Me finishes on BBC1 we’ll next see him in a new series of Animal Orphans this Spring on ITV. And of course his Sunday evening Radio Two show Paul O’Grady on the Wireless continues with great success.
“I always think I’m talking to myself,” he says. “You’re in a tiny room with air conditioning belting out while my producer Malcolm is through two sheets of glass. There’s something very intimate about it and you don’t have to get dressed up or anything. But when I start rambling and going off on one, I can see the panic on Malcolm’s face. He knows where it’s going – politics! I was only supposed to do six weeks and now it’s ten years later. I always say I’m going to leave but it never happens.” We hope it never does!
- Open The Cage Murphy, out now priced £7.99, is Paul’s latest instalment in a series of autobiographies taking us up to 1997
- The Sally Army and Me is on BBC 1, Sundays at 6pm
Did you know...?
- Born to a working-class Irish migrant family in Birkenhead, Cheshire, Paul moved to London in the late 1970s, where he worked as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council
- He apparently based his drag act Lily Savage on female family members he knew
- As Lily, Paul presented morning chat show The Big Breakfast, Blankety Blank and comedy series Lily Live!
- In 1974, Paul had a daughter, Sharyn, with his friend Diane Jansen. Their first grandchild Abel was born in 2006
- Paul has had many celebrity friends over the years including actresses Amanda Mealing and Barbara Windsor, comedian Brenda Gilhooly and the late Cilla Black
- Paul divides his time between his Central London flat and his rural Kentish farmhouse, where he grows organic fruit and vegetables
- In 2012, Paul became a celebrity ambassador of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home after recording the first series of ITV programme Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs