One of the many reasons we love Paul O’Grady is the fact that he doesn’t big himself up, isn’t full of flannel and is refreshingly aware of his own shortcomings. Nothing proves this as much as hearing what he has to say about visiting India for the first time when he filmed Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Animals – India.
“It was my first trip to India, but I didn’t want to go,” he says. “You know when people say, ‘It’s a free holiday’, well no, it’s not because I didn’t want to go! I’ve always avoided it like the plague. I’ve been all around the world, but I missed India out. What a fool I was! I say that on camera, too. Why did I leave it so long, because it’s possibly the most remarkable place I’ve ever been to.
“I loved it – the atmosphere, the life, the energy. The people are so optimistic. Some of them have got nothing and yet they’re so positive. The kids are lovely, the scenery, the food… Everything about it I absolutely loved – apart from one very important thing. The cruelty to the animals is heartbreaking.”
This mistreatment is the subject of a two-part documentary. We see Paul travel across India, meeting extraordinary animals old and young who are in desperate need of care – both within sanctuaries and in their natural environments. There are, he says, incredibly sad instances of this in the episodes – such as the story of Mohan, the elephant that’s spent more than 50 years chained up
“Oh, I was in pieces. Mohan had just been brought into the sanctuary and he was in his 50s – badly emaciated, having spent all his life in chains. He was lying down and he was skin and bone, you’ve never seen anything like it. I’m with him, talking to him with his head next to mine, stroking him, and a big tear rolled out of his eye. That finished me off. I’ve never, ever lost it on screen before, not even in the Battersea series.”
Paul was also deeply affected by the condition of the dancing bears he met. It is not an easy watch. “It was outlawed in 1972,” says Paul, “but continued because it was an income for a lot of people, so you’ve got to find them something else to do. They would take these bears around villages and make them dance. The animals were in a terrible state. It was still going on until about 2014 and still goes on in other countries.”
On a more positive note, real effort is being made to help some of the animals featured in Paul’s documentary.
“There’s a marvellous charity just outside Agra in India called Wildlife SOS and they rescue working elephants, dancing bears – every animal really,” says Paul. “That’s all they care about.” He sounds pretty committed himself.
“I’d like to do something like that, to tell you the truth,” he adds. “I’d like to go for a year and just look after the elephants, the babies and the adults. I get on really well with elephants, they just come to me and sit and listen when I’m talking. I don’t know what it is. I get on with elephants and orangutans. I’m lousy with humans but I’m great with them!”
We dispute the bit about humans but what, in a nutshell, does he hope viewers take away from
the series? “I hope they will learn a lot from it,” he replies. “And, hopefully, it will make them think twice before they go for a ride on an elephant’s back when they go on holiday. That’s what I want to stop, that’s the aim of the game for me with this series. When you’re sat on the back of an elephant in Thailand thinking, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ No, it’s not. Because that elephant’s been tortured and is crippled with arthritis from dragging people up and down hills all day, seven days a week for its entire life.
"Also, if you see people begging with elephants outside temples, have nothing to do with them because you’re just encouraging a foul trade.” It’s not all serious stuff, though. “I promise there are lots of lighter moments too,” Paul (61) smiles.
“I’m laughing throughout most of this series! Getting soaked trying to shower the elephants with a hosepipe, I’m up every two hours through the night to bottle-feed the baby rhino…
I’m mostly all smiles in this series and I’m not normally like that. Seriously, I’m normally scowling and complaining, but not here.
“We went to the Taj Mahal, and it was closed. But two seconds later I turned my back and was feeding biscuits to all the street dogs outside. It’s all about the animals you know. But you do see what India looks like, too – and it is fabulous. I mean, it’s rough and ready, you know, it’s not always pretty. But I love that, going round on one of those tuk tuks around the back streets. I felt like Indiana Jones! It was fabulous. I loved it.”
So, we’re sure, will we…
- You can catch up with episodes Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Animals – India on ITV player
- Pics ©ITV
- Words and interview by Alison James