Lily Savage and Beyond: Is the UK Ready For a New Drag Icon?

Jodie Harsh was bandied about as an option. Charlie Hides was, too, when people thought she might win Season 9. In any discussion of a UK version of RuPaul’s Drag Race, everyone eventually grumbles that there is no-one British capable of carrying the brand as Ru did. There was at one time.

It is rare that late-night ITV chat shows provide a crux in our personal queer journeys, but there’s an episode of Parkinson (honestly) that has always stuck with me.

Whether I saw it as it aired or taped, I don’t remember. Research suggests it went out Christmas Day 2004. It featured Barbara Windsor, Joe Pasquale, and the wonderful Lily Savage. Presumably the casting director conceived of a vocal mosaic that would stop brandy-soaked families nodding off.

Savage enters as a hurricane of energy, and rules the roost for the next 10 minutes. She fills the stage. She is bawdy but never coarse, gracious to the other guests, without fawning, and absolutely the one on whose words everyone hangs. An undeniable raconteur.

My experience of drag before this point was likely not dissimilar to that of any other working class, Catholic school-educated youth. I had seen fellas in candy-floss frocks in pantomime, the odd Dame Edna Everage telly appearance, Mrs Doubtfire, and not much more. And here was a man with a regional accent in a glam dress and huge hair that everyone was laughing with, or because of, never at.

I mention the accent because Savage’s is an exaggeration of Paul O’Grady’s, the man behind the mug. Both the character and the performer are originally from Birkenhead. Both steadfastly support the working classes. The former is an unmarried mother and a prostitute, the latter a comedian, actor, television presenter, and author—but his onscreen career would likely be nowhere as prolific without her.

He has always been outspoken politically. He marched, as Savage, to protest the government over their handling of the HIV epidemic. O’Grady was asked by The Guardian in 2015, whether he thought younger generations have forgotten about the AIDS crisis. His response: “I think they have. People of my age, we’ll never get over the horrors. We never will.”

After years on the club circuit and a residency at the infamous Royal Vauxhall Tavern, O’Grady broke into television with a role as Roxanne on The Bill. Soon, he got bit appearances as Savage on TV, too, and eventually landed a spot hosting The Big Breakfast in 1995. From then on, her name was in lights: An Evening with Lily Savage, The Lily Savage Show and Lily Live! followed one another, and game show Blankety Blank gave her regular, prime-time Auntie Beeb and ITV exposure.

The hair was always big. Occasionally there was deviation, but almost always it was curly, bouffant and heavily styled. Always with the hint of black roots. Lots of hairspray.

She joked on about needing to pop an E, delivered smart smut in spades, joked about how she hated her bosses and how the prizes were shit, and she brought out the best of her celebrity guests. She was irreverent (if occasionally problematic, in retrospect) and powerful. This was all on prime-time television.

For almost 10 years, Lily Savage was a fixture on British telly screens. Then, that Parkinson performance—the one I so admired—acted as her official retirement. She cloistered herself in a closed-order convent in Bruges, though has popped up once or twice since.

Now, O’Grady is a great television presenter, but the thing is, us gays (at least, the white, gay men), often only get to ask the questions. There’s Graham, of course. Once there was also Simon, and Alan, Julian, Bryan, and Rylan have all had a pop, too. We tend to sit one side of the desk. In no way do I mean to devalue any of those presenters’ achievements, only to note how thrilling my young mind found it to see Savage on the other side, being so definitively different.

I’m not calling for Savage to return to our screens and theatres. Instead, I just want to draw attention to the fact that, at different times, there have been incredibly famous drag performers and artists throughout our British history, even very recently.

Where are they now? We spend pound after pound on attending club nights, buying merchandise, booking meet-and-greets and all sorts in support of the American drag community. We have some absolutely incredible home-grown entertainers.

Not everyone can achieve the success that Paul O’Grady had as Savage, but it’d be great to see some new faces getting visibility at this level. Let’s start lifting up our own brothers and sisters, kings and queens, on these shores.

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