A NEW ITV documentary, The Life And Death Of Lily Savage, honours the beginnings of the late TV presenter’s career.

Never has the term ‘national treasure’ been more fitting than for Paul O’Grady.

The comedy star and broadcaster, who died last March aged 67, touched the hearts of millions during his career, leaving a legacy of laughter and putting animal welfare in the spotlight – particularly during more recent years, fronting ITV’s For The Love Of Dogs, which was set at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and ran for 11 series.

O’Grady, who died on March 28 from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia at home in Kent, where he lived with his husband Andre Portasio, is also remembered for bringing LGBT+ culture into the mainstream, because at the root of his rise to household fame was Lily Savage, O’Grady’s drag queen alter-ego.

A year on from his death, ITV is honouring that remarkable journey in a documentary called The Life And Death Of Lily Savage.

While UK culture and media may have come a long way in recent years, Lily started life at a time when LGBT+ rights were practically non-existent and homophobia was rife.

The loud self-professed ‘blonde bombsite’ with an acid tongue began as a cabaret act in underground gay bars in the 1970s, but went on to become a mainstream TV star as a presenter on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast in the mid-1990s, before landing a Saturday night slot on BBC1 hosting comedy celebrity gameshow Blankety Blank.

The 90-minute special features interviews with close relatives, including O’Grady’s sister Sheila Rudd and, for the first time, his daughter Sharon Mousley (from a brief relationship with a work colleague, Diane Jansen, while in their late teens).

A host of famous friends also take part, sharing memories and reflections from O’Grady’s life and career. Among these are fellow LGBT+ stars including acting legend Sir Ian McKellen, comedian Julian Clary and TV presenter Graham Norton, who all recall O’Grady’s kindness and humour, as well as everything he did for the gay community.

Of the razor-sharp wit that first made Lily Savage a hit, Norton says in the show: “Lily made me laugh in a way that I can’t think of anything else that made me laugh. Everybody loved Lily, and everyone wanted Lily, it was a big, bold move.”

Meanwhile, Clary, a close friend for years, recalls: “I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than Lily’s beady eye landing on you if you were in the audience. She could control a whole room with charisma but also with that kind of aggression. The genius of Lily, and of Paul, which is very difficult to do, is to be real all the time, and it comes across as genuine.”

O’Grady – who was born in Birkenhead but moved to London in his 20s – was working for Camden Social Services in his early days of performing as Lily until he was eventually able to focus on entertainment work full time.

For those close to the star, Savage and O’Grady were in many ways the same person. As Sir Ian McKellen says in the ITV special: “I first met him as Lily, not Paul. It was in Edinburgh and we were both doing publicity for our shows. Paul was already there dressed as Lily. We were friends thereafter… When he was talking away, I thought, ‘was it Paul talking or was it Lily?’ I couldn’t tell the difference.”

However, the character of Lily did perhaps allow O’Grady more scope in what he said, as his daughter adds: “Lily had an evil tongue, didn’t she?… He’d say things that he couldn’t say as Paul, so Lily got away with murder!”

While much-loved as an entertainer and presenter, the anniversary documentary also hears from people who recall O’Grady’s deep care for others and natural ability to connect, whether as himself or as Lily Savage.

Clary says: “I didn’t know anyone else like Paul. I mean, obviously very funny and unique, but did actually really care about injustices in the world and did a lot of kind things that no-one knows about.

“Lily could communicate with people… it was like talking to someone on the top of the bus, or at the bus stop. She was very down to earth.”

Lily Savage’s move from the underground gay scene to mainstream TV was monumental at the time. This was a period when Section 28 was in full force – a law that banned local authorities and schools from “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality” (which was only removed in 2003) – as well as the Aids crisis, which not only cost the lives of many gay men, but saw the community treated appallingly, with the media dubbing HIV ‘the gay plague’ and the powers that be doing little to help.

O’Grady, who like many others lost a generation of friends to the disease, visited an Aids ward as Lily Savage. The documentary also weaves in recordings of O’Grady himself recounting pivotal moments in his life. He has previously recalled police raiding London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern while he was on stage as Lily during his eight-year residency at the landmark venue in the 1980s and 90s).

But in 2004, Lily Savage disappeared. O’Grady retired the much-loved character, deciding instead to focus on continuing his career under his own name. With a legion of fans and prime-time TV work right up until his death, it’s fair to say he was loved with and without the curly peroxide wig.

The Life And Death Of Lily Savage airs on ITV1, ITVX and STV on Friday March 29 at 9pm.