I think it’s safe to say we have all struggled in various different ways during this lockdown. One of the things I have found uplifting and reassuring has been the unexpected calls or messages from people just checking in. Maybe a text telling you that someone is thinking of you or a phone call from a familiar, friendly voice ringing up for a bit of a chat and to ask if there was anything that they could do to help.
During every week of lockdown, at least once sometimes twice I would get a call from a friend and colleague Chris Needs. I’ve known Chris for years. I remember him from the days when he was Chris Needs the keyboard player. Even back then you knew Chris could talk and he was always funny, usually naughty, sometimes shocking but always funny. It was no surprise when I heard he had a radio show on a local station in Cardiff and I was delighted when he became a regular on BBC Radio Wales.
Over the years Chris’s late night show on Radio Wales has become essential listening for musicians and comedians travelling back home after a late night gig. Because people knew he was my friend they would honestly ask me did Chris have a team of writers coming up with his material nightly. They wanted to know if the people who called in were actors reading a well-crafted script. It always gave me great pleasure to tell them, no, that was just Chris being Chris.
As well as that group of late night entertainers Chris slowly but surely gathered a whole community of shift workers, taxi drivers, the lost and the lonely who all found a safe place with Chris. In the end he turned them into a club by forming the Friendly Garden. Each new member was given a membership number. Over the years Chris would hand out honorary titles, with long serving Garden members becoming Dame Christine or Sir Joseph.
A couple of weeks ago Chris had had a ‘bit of a pull’ and had taken a couple of days off. He said it was nothing but for Chris to take any time off, except when he went on holiday to Spain, well it meant that he really wasn’t quite himself. He told me he would like me to look after the show for a few days while he got back on his feet. Not long after Chris put the phone down I got a call from his producer asking if I would look after the show for a week.
Chris Needs and Mal Pope backstage at the Swansea Grand Theatre 2019
Last Sunday afternoon my mobile rang. It was Chris. ‘Hello Flower’, was the way he always started our chats. If I’m honest he sounded tired. He wanted to know how I was doing and as always asked if I needed anything. Chris knew that I, like a lot of his friends in the world of show business, had lost all of their work overnight and had little prospect of gigs or tours returning anytime soon. For the last few months, he has tried to give me a gift to tied me over as he would say. I didn’t take the gift and at one stage after he had badgered me for ten minutes to get my bank details he called back half an hour later to apologise and to ask had he offended me by the offer. I told him he would never know how much his offer of kindness and support would always mean to me.
At the end of our call he said he might take a couple of days off again and asked if I would look after the show again if that happened. I told him I’d be delighted and that with a bit of rest and TLC he would be back fitter than ever. We always ended our chats in the same way. ‘Lots of love’ said Chris and I would reply ‘Love you loads’ Chris Needs.
It came as no surprise when I received a text form Chris’s producer asking me to call her. I replied that I was just watching the post-match analysis of the Swansea Brentford game and could I call in half an hour. When I called her back she asked how I was? I told her I was exhausted after watching the game, but pleased Swansea had won.
I was expecting her to say Chris is taking some time off and could I look after the show for a couple of days. Then she said it, ‘Mal I’m sorry to say Chris Needs passed away this afternoon’. It was like I’d been hit by a large double decker bus. I might even have said he can’t have; I spoke to him this afternoon. The rest of the conversation is still a blur, but she then asked the question I was expecting, could I look after the show the following week. It’s what Chris would have wanted.
So began the most difficult week I have ever experienced as a broadcaster. I’ve broadcast when there have been world disasters, momentous moments in history and somehow a professional skin somehow manages to keep you detached from any real feelings. Sometimes this week it’s been red raw.
The listeners to The Chris Needs Friendly Garden feel they are a family, so do the production team. Some have been with him on the night shift for 20 years. Each has a story of personal kindness from Chris. The little gifts, sweets, food, cakes, surprise presents; a birthday, an anniversary all remembered by their ’boss’.
I started the show on Monday with a short eulogy and then we opened the phonelines. None of us were prepared for the numbers of calls, and texts and emails. We tried to choose music that Chris liked. With such an eclectic taste in music we really did play everything from Eurovision to AC/DC, but it was the stories I will never forget. Like the man from Port Talbot who had been suffering from cancer. Chris would take him to his appointments in hospital and always bring him an egg McMuffin. With Chris there was always food.
One by one stories emerged of Chris calling people after a show to see if they were alright after they had shared some sad news. He and his husband Gabe had talked to some people all night as they tried to stop them doing to harm themselves. Every call and message told of the difference one man in a little radio studio, playing records and talking directly to them had made in their lives.
Somehow we got through Monday’s show. Tuesday and the calls kept coming, Wednesday and Thursday too. We decided that as we couldn’t get together to open a book of condolences this week’s programmes would be an audio book of condolences. We would package them together and give them to Chris’s partner Gabe.
Last night was a special tribute show with contributions from Bonnie Tyler, Jason Mohammed, Greg James, Katherine Jenkins, Steve Balsamo and Rhod Gilbert to name just a few. Chris would have loved it.
Now we have the job of trying to work out where we go next. No one could ever be Chris Needs but what he created is so special we have to find a way to keep the Garden alive. From a personal point of view, I will treasure the friendship and the memories of a unique man, a unique broadcaster. Let me finish the way I did after a chat with Chris, ‘Love you Chris Needs’… and I always will.