'Cilla and me always got into trouble... and I got the blame'
In the wake of the deaths of his close friends Cilla Black and Jackie Collins, work has been Paul O'Grady's salvation. And he'd love to write a book about the laughs he had with the late singer, he tells Hannah Stephenson
Paul O'Grady is covered in mosquito bites - but, he explains, he at least managed to extract the leeches from his legs following a trip to the rainforests of Borneo, where he befriended orang-utans for a new series of ITV's Animal Orphans.
"We had to wear face masks, rubber gloves and wellies in case we gave the orang-utans any human diseases, because they can't cope - and the heat was unbelievable," the comedian, presenter and author recalls.
It's just one of the projects he's thrown himself into since the death of his close pals Cilla Black - and more recently Jackie Collins - and, indeed, work has been the best distraction from grief.
"What with Cilla going and then Jackie, I'm just hanging on in there. The effect has been terrible, shocking.
"I still haven't got to grips with Cilla going. When I came back from Borneo, I said, 'I must ring Cilla', and then I thought, 'What am I talking about?' You just forget they're not there anymore. And I only spoke to Jackie just before I went.
"It hasn't really sunk in. I haven't had time to breathe, because we were haring around Borneo with all manner of critters. I haven't had time to sit and dwell on it."
"Work always helps," he adds. "It takes your mind off everything. I'm a great believer in that. When you're working, you're preoccupied, so you have to focus all your attention on your work and you forget everything else for a few hours."
He is now promoting his latest memoir, Open The Cage, Murphy - the fourth instalment in his life story - which charts more hilarious adventures during his time as Lily Savage, an eventful Australian tour, his foray into Blankety Blank and, away from the camera, his then-partner Brendan Murphy's battle with cancer. But O'Grady still has some way to go to bring his story to the present day.
"It's worse than Harry Potter, this saga," he jokes. "I don't think War And Peace is this long."
No sooner is this book out than he's considering writing another - about his long friendship with Cilla Black and their many escapades.
"There's a book there with me and Cilla, there's probably a couple. If I do write another memoir I will intertwine that with Cilla. We had so many laughs. We had such a good time. Me and Cilla always got into trouble - and I always got the blame.
"She wasn't scared of anything and she was up for anything. I used to take her to these dog-rough Puerto Rican clubs in New York, where the taxi driver would say, 'Are you sure you want me to drop you off here?' But they played fabulous music.
"I'd say to Cilla, 'Give us your jewellery', so off would come the diamond ring and the necklace, I'd put them in my pocket and then we'd go in and have a ball. They were working-class clubs, but there was never any trouble, even though they'd be in the parts of town where you wouldn't dare tread. But she would always say she felt safe with me."
He's kept in touch with her sons, Robert, Ben and Jack. "They are still stunned by it all. It's so sad. She was such a powerful influence over them."
How would they feel about him writing a book about their mother?
"Well, they know with me, she'd be safe. They'd rather me do it than anyone else. It would just be about two people having fun and what we got up to.
"I've got a great memory for conversations and situations. People say my memory's scary. There's loads of material. I would never be disrespectful to her."
Despite death all around him, O'Grady hasn't lost his mojo and his conversation is peppered with acerbic wit, although he realises that for work, he adopts a different persona.
"You switch on, whether it's with dogs, or a baboon, or if you're interviewing someone," he says. "You get respite from it. All the world's normal."
He's now filming a documentary about the Salvation Army, meeting people the organisation helps, including ex-gang members, the homeless and those who are dying in hospices.
O'Grady, a former care officer for Camden Council in London (his job before he developed his drag act and eventually got into TV), seems to be drawn to the waifs and strays of this world. He lives in Kent with five dogs and says if he could have brought an orang-utan back from Borneo, he would have done.
"I could probably have a nice job in a clean studio where they press a suit, put make-up on me and make me look vaguely human, or I can go out and crawl around a kennel or be with sick people."
Viewers can also see him in the new series of ITV's For The Love Of Dogs.
"I'm always getting involved," he reflects. "I mean, I've got five dogs because I got involved. Two of them are epileptic, one's got cancer, one's crippled with arthritis and has an ulcer in his eye and one's got personality defects. I can't walk away at five o'clock and forget about my job. That doesn't happen."
As well as filming documentaries, he's writing a children's book called Eddie's Elephant, the royalties of which will go to an elephant orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia, and will be starring in panto - playing the fairy godfather in Cinderella - at Birmingham's Barclaycard Arena at Christmas.
The deaths of close friends have made O'Grady consider his own mortality. He's had two heart attacks in the past, and recently turned 60.
"My doctor says, 'Oh God, you're held together with gaffer tape and staples. You're indestructible. But I read that Graham Norton said he was going to retire early, because he'd like to be able to do things he wanted to do. I actually thought, 'Well, the things I want to do, now I can't be bothered doing'.
"The things I wanted to do as a teenager I'd be appalled at now. Well, I've done most of them and you get a bit world-weary.
"I've no time for sickness and I've no time for people who enjoy being sick - you know the type. I only go to the doctor's if I need to go.
"Last time my doctor rang me, he said, 'I told you to take it easy, then I turned the telly on and there you are, fire-eating with McFly.'"
Open The Cage, Murphy by Paul O'Grady is published by Bantam ,£20