Blond(e) bombshell Lily Savage got into drag by accident and has never looked back. As she hits town in a bizarre adaptation of a tacky Australian soap, Graham Bell learns about the origins of a TV star.
Lily Savage is a drag terrorist. After inﬁltrating the media and boldly taking drag where it’s never been before. she‘s wound up behind bars. This fortnight. she returns to Edinburgh in Prisoner Cell Block H. a stage musical based on the cult Australian soap set in a women‘s prison. The cast includes Terry Neason. Bella Emberg (of Russ Abbot fame) and Maggie Kirkpatrick. who revives the role she played in the original series - the psychotic warder known as The Freak.
in her dressing room in Swansea — an earlier stop on the show's national tour - Lily explains her unconventional approach to working from someone else's script. 'Everything I say. I did.‘ she says in a broad Liverpudlian accent. ‘Therc was an original script and it was dreadful. I said. “I ain‘t doin' it!" So i wrote all my own bits and all the stuff between me and Maggie.‘
In the series. The Freak deals drugs and tortures the prisoners; but the actress who created her proved much less nightmarish. ‘She was fabulous to work with.‘ conﬁrms Lily. ‘They all say we‘d make a good double act. 'cause we do stuff together — ad-lib and go off at tangents. It’s quite free. And I get to show a more vulnerable side. Lily is a bit vulnerable and I've made her even more so. It’s a side most people haven‘t seen before but the audiences love it.‘
Lily is easily the most successful drag artist currently working in Britain. perhaps because she empathises so much with her creation. As it happens. behind bars was where it all began. ‘I was working in a pub in South London and they had a comperc who was crap.’ recalls Paul O‘Grady, the man beneath the foundation make-up. .‘I kept sayin‘ i could do better than that. Back then all the queens were into sequins and feathers. and I hate all that. So when the compere left they said. “Go on. then." I was shittin’ myself and I just went the other way — skin up round me arse and a wig with roots. talking about getting pissed. signing on . . . people were shocked at ﬁrst.’
Strangely enough. O'Grady had had no taste for drag before. ‘l was never that keen on watching lorry drivers dressed up as Liza Minnelli - it never appealed to me. Then I moved to London and saw Rex Jameson. He did a little old woman in the Variety. He only had four monologues but you didn't care. It was fab — rock ’ard.‘
Drag has been a television staple since the 1970s. but the images were always part of a comedian’s act.
and the portrayals were stereotyped. In contrast. Lily is more like a real person — foul-mouthed at times. but a whole character with more dimensions than a pantomime dame.
‘I always treat Lily as a she. I never take the wig off.‘ says ()‘Grady. ‘F.\'erybody knows I‘m a bloke ~ you don‘t get many on 9m women with peroxide hair. I don't try sailin‘ out saying. “I am a beautiful woman." I try to create a fantasy ﬁgure. Lily can do
‘I was never that keen on watching lorry drivers dressed up as liza Minnelli - it never appealed to me.’
anything whatsoever. She could go to the moon and come back in a day. it's like having a big Sindy doll you can dress up. it‘s good fun.”
That's a fair summary of the drag ethos. but given the rigid gender roles in our society. it can be a radical business. ‘I think lying on the bed ﬂirting
with Patrick Swayze is very subversive.‘ agrees Lily.
bringing up the subject of her Big Bren/gust routine. ‘Far more subversive than standing up in a gay bar preaching to the converted. I can come out with all
Lily Savage: ‘everybody knows I’m a bloke’
sorts — you can do gay material and it's accepted. That's breaking down barriers. getting it away from Danny La Rue. l used to ﬁnd that misogynistic. ‘cause women for him were always “birds” and he was forever goin’ on about his‘bristles. And telly and the theatre are so homophobic. They never take you seriously. Because you do drag they instantly dismiss you. And they‘re never really interested in what you have to say.‘
Humour is a coping mechanism people use to dismiss things that they're uncomfortable with. That may be why drag is usually seen as a comedy act. But Lily uses comedy to target hypocrisy with her outspoken views on drugs. sexual prorniscuity. shoplifting. She belongs to the radical drag tradition that started the Stonewall riots and is more common in America. lt‘s loud. it’s outrageous. and it doesn‘t make apologies for being different —- which a few gay activists would like it to do.
So laugh at Lily Savage ifyou like. but just make sure the joke isn't on you. Because everybody's got a little TV in them and she's here to remind you that the sun always shines there.
Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical. Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Mon l—Sur 6 July.
5‘ The List 28 Jun-ll Jul I996