(Photo: ITV)

When Paul O’Grady looked around his dressing room as he waited to take the stage at the launch of his latest pantomime, everything seemed in place.

The garish make-up he’d need for his role as the wicked stepmother in Cinderella was there. The outlandish costumes, too.

But something was missing.

Paul sighs as he admits that the start of the panto season is a poignant time for him. It reminds him of the loss of his close pal Cilla Black .

“On the first night, Cilla would usually send me an orchid with ‘sing out, Louise!’ written on it,” he says.

“When I didn’t get one this year… those small touches, well, you miss people. I think of her absence and say, ‘thinking of you girl’.”

Paul is also saddened that Cilla – who died last year after suffering a stroke – wasn’t around to see their mutual friend Sir Cliff Richard vindicated on accusations of child abuse.

The singer, 76, found out this year that he would not face charges over allegations of abuse against four boys, all of which were from more than 30 years ago.

Cilla Black with friend Sir Cliff Richard (Photo: Getty Images)

Paul agreed it was a shame pop and TV legend Cilla had died without hearing the news, adding: “I know it worried her.”

Cliff was at Wednesday’s Cinderella launch night at the London Palladium and smiled for the cameras in a smart grey blazer and jeans, much to Paul’s delight.

“Cliff was looking a lot better than when I last saw him, he was on fine form,” he says.

“I knew Cliff through Cilla as she was a great friend of his. I have seen him quite a lot over the years.”

Paul, 61, misses Cilla as a drinking partner, laughing: “Cilla and I could drink anyone under the table, but now I’m a lousy, cheap date. A couple of drinks and that is me finished.

“I have a few at awards dos as they make me a bit nervous, but then I’m squiffy.

"And hangovers, they cripple me for three days – it’s shocking."

It’s not just alcohol Paul has cut down on.

From his nights on the cabaret circuit, through to infamous Green Room parties, he has always been known as the life and soul, but it seems he is finally calming things down.

“Years ago I was always out clubbing, but now I’d only be sat in the club like Gollum, surrounded by children,” he says.

Paul O’Grady on stage in "Cinderella" at London Palladium (Photo: Getty Images Europe)

“Oh my God, get me out quick! Besides, all the fun people are outside, smoking.”

Not that Paul is much of a smoker these days. The former 40-a-day man has had quite the lifestyle overhaul since suffering various heart problems.

“I have the odd ciggy, but I don’t smoke like I used to,” he says. “I used to wake in the morning and smoke heavily, but the thought of that now, well I’d just throw up. Forget it!

“I tried those awful vape things, but you feel such a fool stood there in a street like a kettle billowing smoke, I had one that was like the exhaust of a car.

“I am healthier now. I have changed my lifestyle and I take vitamins – I’m rattling right now with the vitamins I’ve taken to get through panto season.”

Paul is playing his role twice a day until January 15 at the Palladium, alongside a star-filled cast that includes Julian Clary, Amanda Holden , Lee Mead and Nigel Havers.

The panto has had great reviews apart from the odd accusation that it is too smutty.

Paul is having none of it. “Nonsense,” he retorts. “The cheeky bits are to keep the adults entertained. After all, they paid to be there too. It goes over the kids’ heads so it’s harmless.

“Bawdy humour, double entendre, slapstick and a bit of filth is what we used to be well known for in the UK. And now we’ve gone all so bloody PC.”

In his role Paul has to get into dresses, heels and make-up. But he is adamant that there is no chance of resurrecting his alter ego Lily Savage, despite having all her outfits in storage.

Paul has no plans to bring back Lily Savage (Photo: Daily Record)

“I forgot how painful it all is,” he says.

“The panto costumes are skintight, but I have padded hips and bum. I forgot about my bum one night and it was only when I was getting a shower I was like what the hell is that?

"A vaguely obscene bum fell on my floor. I was horrified.

“The heels are no problem, but the make-up I loathe. I don’t know how women can wear it. I detest putting it on and I hate eating in it, especially as they put it on me with a trowel.

“If I was a woman I’d never put a scrap of make-up on or wear a bra or a corset. I’d go round in flats permanently and not give a damn what anyone else thought.

“There’s a lot of pressure on women. You only have to go in a newsagent and look at the magazines and every single cover has an airbrushed stunner on it.

"Then again, we have Men’s Health with some musclebound god on the cover. I look at it and think: ‘Sorry, that boat has sailed.’ I’m a burnt-out wreck of a once glorious disco, and it’s getting worse.”

Even if Paul was having a day when he thought he was looking good, you wouldn’t catch this keen avoider of social media taking any selfies.

He says: “The self-obsession now, my God! When people keep fit it is not really about that, it’s can I wear this skintight T-shirt? Get a life. And get out and live it, instead of taking pictures of your dinner.”

And Twitter? “Too many people take too much notice about what the morons on Twitter say. I’m not interested in some no-mark’s opinion in their bedroom in the middle of bloody nowhere.”

Paul’s own life is pretty full. His hour-long special of For The Love of Dogs will be on ITV on Christmas Day.

And a documentary, Paul O’Grady’s Favourite Fairy Tales, is on screen next week.

He has also just finished filming in India for a show about elephants called Animal Orphans, although he admits he kept getting sidetracked, feeding the street dogs.

Paul on For The Love of Dogs at Christmas (Photo: ITV)

“We went to the Taj Mahal, I took one look, ‘very nice’, then turned round to feed biscuits to the dogs,” he says.

“I can’t help it. I am still haunted by what I saw, though. The things that some humans do to animals is beyond my comprehension at times.”

Paul is working on his next book, looking at the good and the bad of life in the countryside, and including some of his own baking recipes.

But despite the success of his previous four autobiographies we won’t be seeing any of them turned into biopics.

“I remember Cilla saying to me about her biopic when she saw it, ‘I feel like it’s an obituary’. And then she was dead the year after. So I think I’ll leave that alone.

“Besides, after my first book a film studio in the States got in touch wanting to buy it, but they said I had to do a happy ending. They didn’t want my mum to die at the end. I said, ‘It’s not Harry Potter. She did die.’”

  • Cinderella is at the London Palladium until January 15. Tickets available at www.reallyusefultheatres.co.uk