Twenty years ago, when Paul O’Grady was dominating the comedy circuit as the blonde bombshell that was Lily Savage, you’d never have believed that one day he’d be travelling to sunnier climes presenting animal documentaries.
By Matthew Gormley @MatthewPGormley
Twenty years ago, when Paul O’Grady was dominating the comedy circuit as the blonde bombshell that was Lily Savage, you’d never have believed that one day he’d be travelling to sunnier climes presenting animal documentaries. His behind-the-scenes canine series For The Love Of Dogs, which sees him volunteering at Battersea Dogs Home, was a surprise hit when it launched back in 2012 and, five series and as many Christmas specials later, it’s one of televisions highest rated programmes.
Three series of Animal Orphans have seen him travelling to South Africa, Zambia and Borneo, looking after elephants and orang-utans that have had to be hand-reared by dedicated professionals and volunteers. Tragically, but unsurprisingly, the deaths of their mothers has often been the fault of human beings.
This time, they’re not all orphans, which is where the clumsy title Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Animals – India comes from. Let’s face it, in 2017, there’d have been uproar if they dared use a title that wasn’t 100% accurate. I’m sure they could have thought of a better alternative though, or at least something without both a colon and a hyphen. What’s wrong with ‘Paul O’Grady’s Animals of India’?
Title aside, this new two-parter was a fascinating insight into India’s wildlife, expertly delivered by Paul, with several moving moments intertwined with his unique brand of irrepressible humour. In the first episode, we saw Paul visit an animal sanctuary in Delhi, where he immersed himself in helping to care for several old and rather decrepit elephants who, sadly, had been tortured throughout their lives in the name of entertainment. It wasn’t long before he was soaked as he hosed down Lakshmi, a hideously overweight elephant who had been fed all the wrong foods whilst being forced to beg outside local temples. When he did his first African series, Paul admitted that he was no David Attenborough, but his down-to-earth nature and willingness to get stuck in, demonstrating his genuine passion for the animals, makes his programmes more appealing.
Even during his animal volunteer shifts, Paul likes to maintain his hard exterior, never shedding a tear on camera no matter how emotional, or angry he becomes. On this, his first trip to India, he made an exception. He was overwhelmed by the tale of Mohan, the elderly elephant who had spent 50 years of his life entrenched in chains. When he witnessed a solitary tear rolling down Mohan’s papery cheek, he couldn’t hold back his emotions any longer and his voice audibly cracked. Later, he wasn’t afraid to admit that, off-screen, he sobbed. Famed for his no-nonsense attitude, he may have a big mouth, but he has an even bigger heart.
During his second week, we saw him visit the Wildlife S.O.S. in Agra, where he made porridge for the curious yet aptly named sloth bears (with the aesthetics and the brutality of a bear and the long, sharp, nail-like claws of a sloth) and attempt to herd goats across a busy road in the centre of a bustling town. It was rather chaotic and provided some welcome light relief.
In contrast to Paul’s previous escapades with the animal kingdom, this series wasn’t just about the animals. He took time out to go tea picking, silk weaving and even learnt a traditional Natamese dance, the Bayou, harking back to the days of his hugely successful teatime show. You can’t go sight-seeing in India without stopping by the Taj Mahal. O’Grady’s verdict on the magnificent tomb: ‘Westminster Cathedral is nicer’. He never was one to mince his words, our Paul.
I enjoyed the cultural side, it was a welcome break from the animals, although many would argue that wasn’t really what the programme was supposed to be about. Paul crammed so much into his two weeks in India that there simply wasn’t enough airtime to do it all justice. It could easily have been a much longer series, part animal documentary, part travelogue. During a promotional interview, Paul admitted that he regretted not staying longer, so here’s hoping we’ll see a follow up.
Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Animals – India might not always have been feel-good telly, but it was heart-warming, educational and thoroughly entertaining. O’Grady is the king of reinvention, smashing everything that he turns his hand too. Shortly after filming this series last November, he packed out the London Palladium for five weeks over Christmas, headlining the first pantomime that has been performed in the iconic venue for 30 years.
O’Grady’s animal documentaries are so popular because they’re real. They’re not pretentious, they’re made for the public. It may not be what the critics like to call ‘ground-breaking’, but he knows how to make excellent television.
Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Animals – India is available to watch on ITV Player.