Entertainer, chat-show host, dog whisperer and all round National Treasure, Paul O’Grady reckoned to have hung up his panto wand for good after completing a gruelling run playing Widow Twanky in Aladdin at London’s O2 Arena over Christmas and New Year 2012-13
“It was good fun but such hard work and you never get a break over Christmas,” he said at the time. “I’ve retired from panto.”
But we’re all entitled to change our minds – “I always say never again but yes, I am doing panto again this Christmas,” he reveals. “Somehow they managed to talk me into being the Fairy Godfather in Cinderella at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham for four nights (December 20-24). I do like panto: I sort of fret if I don’t do it, yet when I do it, I moan – ‘Why did I do this? Two shows a day is killing me! But it will be good fun.”
It will be that, all right. Billed as the biggest panto the world has ever seen, the Birmingham extravaganza has more than 100 cast members with The Chase’s Bradley Walsh and children’s TV favourites Dick and Dom starring in the show with Paul.
“This panto’s got everything in it; you’ve got a gospel choir, you’ve got horses, you’ve got 3D, you’ve got me hanging off a rope 2,000-feet in the air as the Fairy Godfather... that’s worth the price of ticket!
“I’ll have to mind me language as I fly across the arena! I love flying. I don’t know why, because wearing the harness is agony! I can see me stuck – with me wings and me wand, swinging like some tawdry ornament on an old Christmas tree.
“Normally with the Fairy Godmothers they’re old and dithery, trying to find their wand, but not my Fairy Godfather. He’s a reformed ex-wicked fairy so there’s a slight edge to him. He keeps his magic wand in a violin case, like the Godfather. He’s avuncular but he’s efficient!”
He might also have a doggy assistant as Paul says he is considering bringing his beloved pooch, Olga, on stage with him. “I might bring Olga up but I don’t know how she’ll go on the stage. She only does telly. She’s very particular – it’s in her contract.”
Paul’s role of Fairy Godfather will be only the second time he’s starred in panto as a man – for most of his roles, he’s appeared as his alter-ego, Lily Savage. Not this year, though.
“No, no,” he jokes. “She’s working for HSBC now, you know. She’s money laundering. She’s actually in Geneva as we speak.”
Paul’s family will be coming to see him at the Barclaycard Arena. “I’ve a grandson and granddaughter – Abel (9) and Halo (6) and they’re coming to the show,” he reveals. It gives my grandson ideas though. He goes off then and decides he wants to be on stage and do magic.”
I might bring Olga on, but I don't know how she'll go on the stage. She only does telly...
Panto aside, Paul (60) has never been busier. He recently filmed a documentary about the Salvation Army. “They are remarkable people, when you get in there and see the work they do. It’s not all about bashing a tambourine.”
This year he also made another series of For The Love of Dogs, currently being shown on ITV1, and has a new series of Animal Orphans, out early next year.
“I went to Borneo and did a two-parter about baby pygmy elephants, moon bear cubs and orangutan babies,” says Paul. “They also throw me in with lions, hippos, baboons... I don’t think about the fact that they are wild animals and could rip me apart. I just forget how dangerous they are.”
And he recently became a patron of Orangutan Appeal UK, too, to help raise awareness of the plight of this beautiful endangered ape and promote the work the charity are doing to conserve them.
It’s thought Paul will also feature in a special ITV tribute this Christmas to his dear friend Cilla Black, who sadly passed away in August.
“I still have moments when I think, ‘I must tell Cilla that’... but of course, I can’t. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that she’s gone. Losing her has changed my perspective on life a little bit, too. It’s made me think why not retire early and enjoy myself rather than when my back or hips have gone, or I can’t see, or I’ve got no teeth? I’ve worked since I was nine. People say I’d go mad if I had nothing to do, but I’d find plenty!”
Much as we love seeing Paul on our screens, we’d certainly hate anything to happen to him. Having had two heart attacks and various other health scares over the years, maybe it is time to start taking things a little easier. But first, our special Christmas – or rather New Year’s wish for him... Paul already has an MBE for services to entertainment, so why not a knighthood in Her Majesty’s New Year’s Honours list for his services to animals? Arise Sir Paul – we can think of no one more deserving.
- Everything you need to know about Paul O'Grady
- For more details about the panto visit www.barclaycardarena.co.uk/whats-on/cinderella