PESPECTIVES: PAUL O’GRADY ON THE QUEEN OF BURLESQUE

At the age of twelve Paul O’Grady fell in love with a stripper. He was sitting on his sofa. She was on TV, brought to life by the dark and fabulous Hollywood musical, ‘Gypsy’ – the story of a young girl’s transition from child star to Queen of American burlesque.

It was a moment that ignited a fascination for the woman whose story inspired the film. He’s watched the movie a hundred times. He’s read all there is to read. But he still has many unanswered questions. Now he’s embarking on a very personal journey, to try to complete his picture of the larger than life legend that was Gypsy Rose Lee.


BEHIND THE SCENES

I hate to burst the bubble, but not every presenter that graces your TV screen is an expert in the subject they purport to be expert in. I know. Hard to believe. But if programmes were still shot on film, cutting room floors would be littered with the hesitations, fluffs and factual inaccuracies of presenters who are still struggling to memorise research notes that were handed to them moments before the director called ‘action’.

Paul O’Grady is not one of those presenters. And I can’t imagine that any amount of money would persuade him to become one. He has a programme called ‘For the love of Dogs’. And my God, does he love dogs. He has a chat show called ‘The Paul O’Grady Show’. And my God, can he chat! But he is also, simply by virtue of being an intelligent, interesting and interested human being, an amateur expert in a staggering array of subjects. Study the photographs that form part of the background for the chat show set, and you’ll get a few clues. One of them is of Gypsy Rose Lee.

It is always a joy to work with someone who knows their stuff. But when someone knows as much as Paul, the challenge as a director is working out how to give your expert the freedom to play with their knowledge while still ensuring that we move in a semi-structured way through a narrative arc. Direct too hard and you put your presenter on the back foot, suppressing their personality and killing all spontaneity. Take too soft a line and you end up with a collection of rambling and unfocused thoughts.

Without the invisible strings that I created to gently guide Paul in a consistent direction, he might still be standing on a New York sidewalk, monologuing about Gypsy’s diet techniques. It would be enchanting, engaging and hilarious – he is far and away the most naturally funny man I have ever met. But it wouldn’t be relevant and, sadly, it would all end up on that metaphorical cutting room floor.

The strings employed were simple, but they worked. Old newspaper cuttings, an iPad loaded with images and clips that would generate appropriate talking points… Paul hated that iPad – he saw it as negatively limiting. To me it was positively limiting, and it ensured that any humorous asides (“Sacrophiliac? Is that when they bury mummies?!”) flowed out of relevant content and, therefore, could be used. It also, of course, offered cutaway options for trimming down Paul’s wonderful streams of consciousness. Placing those streams of consciousness within a taxi added to the sense of an unfolding mission and offered even more all-important options for cutting things down in the edit.

With the framework set, I felt safe in allowing Paul to be everything that he is best at – which would inevitably, regardless of anything else that I brought to the party, create a very watchable, very entertaining piece of telly. Thankfully what I was able to bring to the party (with vital help, of course, from two gifted researchers) was a support cast that allowed Paul to come face to face with some of his idols and which helped to produce a shoot with a wonderfully warm atmosphere.

Paul may be one of British television’s biggest stars but, for ten days in America, he was just an ordinary fan who had been handed a golden ticket to indulge his passion.

Under any circumstances, it would have been thrilling to inhabit the same space as Stephen Sondheim. But being there with Paul was supremely special, because it meant so much to him. Spending time with Gypsy’s son, Erik, would have been a treat for any documentary maker tasked with telling the story of his mother. But to be there with Paul, as he got to know the person who knew Gypsy better than anyone else in the world, really was a privilege.

And then there was Faith Dane. The woman who entranced twelve year old Paul through his TV screen with her flamboyant performance as Mazeppa, the world-weary, bugle-blowing stripper who persuades young Gypsy to give it a go. A performance that once seen, can not be unseen. But a performance that reveals very little about Gypsy Rose Lee and which, arguably, doesn’t really have a place in an arts documentary about Gypsy’s life. On paper, our story ends with Erik. On paper, whatever we filmed with Faith would be the first casualty of the cutting room if we had any duration issues. On paper, as the Head of Production told me, it doesn’t make any sense to extend our trip by two days and book new flights to Washington, where 89 year old Faith was now feeling well enough to meet us.

But I had been in Washington two months earlier and I had met the phenomenal Faith. I knew that, if she was up to it, she had to be a part of the film. I knew that the only place she would fit would be as an epilogue, and I knew that epilogues rarely have a place in conventional documentary. But she’s one of a kind and sometimes the television Gods throw you a gift that you just have to fight for. So I fought for it. And the Head of Production said no.

And then Paul called the Head of Production, and offered to pay for it out of his own pocket. And the Head of Production said yes.

Now, I don’t know whether Paul did end up carrying the costs or whether a pot of money was mysteriously discovered at the bottom of the budget, but I truly believe that he would have paid if it had come to that. Because much as I wanted Paul to meet Faith so that our programme would have a memorable climax, Paul wanted it even more. For him, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a genuine heroine.

When people agree to be filmed by me, I see it as my responsibility to make sure that, at the end of the process, they feel as good about life as they did at the start. Normally I’m thinking about the ordinary citizens who bravely play the part of our ‘contributors’. But on this occasion, I am in no doubt that our presenter himself also had a life affirming experience. And that’s surprising because it is a rare presenter who can find a deep-rooted emotional connection to the subject matter they are being asked to explore.

Then again, Paul is a rare presenter. And in his case I would be far more surprised if he ever took on a project where that deep-rooted connection wasn’t a given from the very outset.

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Producer/ Director/ Camera/ Edit Producer: Nic Guttridge

Duration: 1 x 60mins

Production company: Olga TV

Network: ITV1

First broadcast:  April 2013 at 10pm

 

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