Paul O’Grady will be best remembered for his iconic drag queen persona Lily Savage, but the bingo community will always have a soft spot for the comedian and TV host who died aged 67 on March 28th, 2023.
As host of programmes like Blankety Blank, Blind Date and The Paul O’Grady Show, Merseyside-born Paul won the hearts of the nation. He also acted in dramatic television shows like Dr Who and Holby City.
But it was his role as Ray Temple in Eyes Down that endeared him to the bingo community, reconnecting him with the working class people amongst whom he was born and raised.
Paul’s rise to stardom
Paul was no stranger to the venues and social circles that make bingo a national institution, having cut his teeth as a drag performer and comedian in the pubs and clubs of Camden during the late 1970s.
As his success grew, Paul toured the country with his act while also working as a barman, and he was soon being booked for performances as Lily Savage across the world.
His television breakthrough came in 1988 when he played the role of Roxanne in three episodes of ITV’s police drama The Bill, catapulting him into the mainstream and leading to decades of success on the small screen.
The Lily Savage Show hit the BBC in 1998, bringing Paul into contact with A-list stars like Elton John, and he drew large TV audiences as host of quiz show Blankety Blank.
Putting bingo in the spotlight
After surviving a heart attack in 2002, Paul agreed to play the manager of a Merseyside bingo hall in the BBC sitcom Eyes Down, relishing the challenge of playing the ill-tempered bingo hall manager, Ray Temple.
Alongside Rosie Cavaliero, Sheridan Smith and Neil Fitzmaurice, Paul had the nation in stitches again as Ray Temple presided over a motley staff for two series of the show, which was well received by audiences nationwide.
Paul described the experience of playing Ray Temple with his trademark sardonic wit, saying: “He’s an evil, twisted man who hates everything that moves. Not exactly a challenge for me.”
An animal lover, loved by all
As well as being a comedian, drag performer, gay rights activist, actor and presenter, Paul was famously an animal lover and in 2012 he featured in the ITV documentary series Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs.
After initially planning to spend six days filming at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home for the show, he ended up staying on as a volunteer for six months and became an ambassador for the centre.
Paul’s pet dogs became nationally famous after they appeared on his TV show, and a bronze statue of his late dog, Buster, was erected at Battersea Cats and Dogs Home.
Paul also travelled the world to raise awareness of the plight of animals, and three series of Paul O’Grady’s Animal Orphans took him to see wildlife in Africa between 2014 and 2016.
Announcing Paul’s death, his partner Andre Portasio said on March 29th 2023: “It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully yesterday evening.
“We ask, at this difficult time, that whilst you celebrate his life you also respect our privacy as we come to terms with this loss.
“He will be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, animals and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion.
“I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”
RIP Paul – you will be sadly missed.