Years ago, my Aunty Norma ran a stall on Birkenhead market. The stall next door was owned by the O’Grady family.

In the 1970s, Aunty Norma dressed exactly like Lily Savage – peroxide beehive, animal print, gold jewellery clanging from every part of her. She sounded just like her, too. I like to think she was young Paul’s inspiration but I’ve no idea if it was the same O’Grady family.

Many years later, in around 1991, I took my best friend Ciarain to Blackpool for his 21st birthday. We had tickets to see Lily Savage. We’d seen her loads of times already in the Manchester gay clubs, burping halfway through the act because of an undigested meat pie she’d wolfed down on the train over from Liverpool, but she was making it big now and doing theatres. So we booked into the less-than-prestigious Highlands Hotel (£15 for a room for two, breakfast included), drank half a bottle of vodka each, and made our way to the show.

Robert Martin in Blackpool

Having been used to seeing Lily in dingy clubs like Manchester’s No 1, it was strange being in a mixed audience. Respectable-looking people, dressed up for a night at the theatre, were taking their seats next to drag queens, leather clones, you name it. I wondered if success and a new fan base would tame the biting wit and filthy mouth of Birkenhead’s finest. It did not.

You know when you think back to some of the best nights out you’ve ever had? This was one of them. A bellyaching, laugh-out-loud, tear-stained couple of hours of absolute joy. At one point, Lily told the story of getting the runs as she headed for a wild night out, dolled up to the nines, while the overhead cistern collapsed and drenched her. When she explained how the rollers in her hair expanded and what she looked like afterwards, it was a comic masterpiece of language, mime and performance. Ciarain laughed so hard he actually slipped off his seat. He didn’t fall. He slipped, slowly, so weak from laughter that he could no longer compete with gravity.

Lily was the creation of a genius. Knowing, generous, wise, inclusive, warm and dangerous all at the same time.

A nice surprise was Lily’s support act: Caroline Aherne‘s Sister Mary Immaculate. I knew Caroline a little bit. She was friends with a good pal of mine because they worked together at the BBC. She spent a lot of time in the café at Manchester’s Cornerhouse with the likes of Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, before any of them were someone to know. I worked on the box office there and Ciarain was the chef, so we were all on chatting terms.

After the show, Ciarain and I headed to the Flamingo nightclub. Caroline was there and ran over and I told her we’d been in the audience. She grabbed us, led us through the crowd to the back of the room, and suddenly we found ourselves behind a velvet rope. And there was Paul O’Grady.

Ciarain in Blackpool

Caroline introduced us and the four of us chatted and laughed and drank. At first, Ciarain could barely move or speak in the presence of the great Paul O’Grady. But Paul was a master of making you feel welcome, comfortable and, well, normal. Before long, we were chatting, drinking and laughing like we all were great pals.

We spent about half an hour in his company and then carried on drinking with Caroline and the rest of her showbiz chums before the night led us off to adventures in Blackpool. In that short time, he made us feel special. What a lovely, kind, generous man. 

If you ever see me out, I’ll tell you about what happened the next day. It has nothing to do with Paul or Caroline but it’s a cracker of a story.

Caroline, Ciarain and Paul are all gone now. There were many, many nights out when Ciarain and I used to LOVE telling the story of our night out with Paul and Caroline to anyone who would listen. There’s only me left to recount it. It’s terribly sad that such dreadful news allows me to tell it one more time.

By Robert Martin