A Friend in Needs…Chris Needs.

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.

17 thoughts on “A Friend in Needs…Chris Needs.”

  1. I joined the Garden some years ago, like thousands of others. We loved Chris’s trio of Country songs at 11.30 pm every night, and indeed on a couple of occasions Chris played my trio. One night, and like on many others, I knew the answer to one of his questions. My Maggie said “go on phone the studio”. So I did. I gave the answer to the quiz question, and the studio technician (or it might have been Gabe!) said Chris might speak with you later. We went to bed and at about 12.15 am the phone rang. I answered and of course it was the studio. I eventually got to speak with the legend that he was, and as a Crooner I was so chuffed when he said “I’ve heard you on Social Media”.
    We spoke on air for about 12 minutes and Chris made the conversation so friendly it was as if we’d known each other for years. By the way I had guessed correctly and was proud to receive a signed photo, the magical tea-towel, a fridge magnet and 2 Chris Needs pens (and they still work!!)
    God Bless you Chris and our thoughts go to Gabe annd both families.

  2. stephen archer

    Hi Mal
    I tried emailing the show Monday but the email kept bouncing back. I 1st meet chris in Dylans cwmavon where I was DJing. He came with a lady comedian who was performing at the club. He was so funny . I then got invited to sing at a charity event at which he was presenting . He sent me a lovely text the next day which I’ve just found . It ment the world to me . You did a fantastic job but like you said no one could replace such a great man.

  3. Oh Mal that was so emotional to read, but so good too. Thank you for sharing it’s so good to hear words from someone who knew Chris well.
    Thank you also for the lovely week sitting in Chris’ Friendly Garden seat you did him proud. Cariad Mawr from Teresa Owen inSt Clears xxxx

    1. Absolutely spot on here Mal. Chris was not just another radio presenter he was a genuinely amazing person.
      His unique way he could connect to his audience young or elder was truly inspirational. I will miss him and the Garden rip Chris Needs

  4. This brought tears to my eyes reading this to my wife, a wonderful tribute. When my boys were in school we used to travel down to our Caravan in Newquay and would listen to Chris en route. The boys wee in their teens and loved his sense of humour. I was always amazed at the way he was able to empathise with his callers and seemed to really care, which has been confirmed by your words today. Thoughts and prayers to you and all of Chris’s family and friends.

    1. Chris knew what he was doing when he chise you to cover for him. You did an incredible job.
      Chris would have been very proud of you . xxxx

  5. Hi Mal, just wanted to say you have done a fantastic job this past week, under very difficult circumstances, unexpectedly taking the helm of the Chris Needs radio programme. You have done him proud; playing an eclectic mix of music so enjoyed by Chris Needs and all his listeners on his programmes. But more than that, you handled every ’emotionally charged’ caller gently, and with sincere empathy, allowing them to have as much time as they needed to tell their individual stories of how they knew Chris and what he meant to them. I never knew him personally, but felt after listening to the stories, that the world is a sadder place without him.

  6. Malcolm Williams

    Hi Mal, I was interviewed by Chris and Lisa Barsi on his daytime show in 1996 as the chairman of the Welsh Edward’s family history group. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Edward’s Millions story, but it concerns the Welsh family who once owned the land that Manhattan is now built on. For many years people have derided and mocked family members when they tell the story, and I was nervous going on the show. It was tense as the media had portrayed us as deluded loons,and I was very defensive. Chris was his usual jokey self, but I had never listened to his show so did not know what to expect. Within five minutes, he had won me over, and being a total pro he made me feel that he was genuinely listening and appreciated what I was saying. I was also interviewed that year by Sir David Frost, who was also a brilliant interviewer, and I feel privileged to have been interviewed by two of the very best.

  7. Spent years listening at night and all through the lockdown can’t believe Chris has gone such a big loss thank you for your giving over the years Chris sleep tight until we all meet again condolences to Gabe and family’s.

  8. Hi I joined the Garden 11 years ago when my wife passed away ,I was feeling so lonely then and spoke to Chris he was fantastic with me i have listened quite a lot since then he was a lovely man and a fantastic person I will realy miss him and thousands of others will rest in peace Chris rise in glory .

  9. HI Mal when I heard the news about Chris needs last Monday i didn’t want to believe it, I’ve been in the garden since the beginning my number is 103 i joined the garden when i visited his shop in Cwmavon and the first thing Chris done was to have a cup of tea and a cake on his patio with me. I will never forget him. Well done MAL your a good man.

  10. Steven Andrew Hassall

    I was so sad to hear the devastating news about Chris’s passing I didn’t pluck up the courage to ring in unfortunately but I came across Chris needs back in 2008 on my way home from work and I have listened to the program whenever I could and he will be so sadly missed by everyone who listened to the program he was a legend and can never be replaced all my condolences to his husband Gabe and buster and Gabes and Chris,s family RIP Chris from Steve in Gloucestershire

  11. Hi Mal
    What a beautiful tribute to Chris, no one could have done better. It was such a shock to hear that Chris has passed. My condolences go to Gabe and all their families and friends, not to mention Buster. Chris will be such a big loss to Radio Wales and to The Garden. He helped so many people. I admire the way you presented the shows last week when, in no way, could it have been easy, and handling those who contacted the show. It is a big ask for anyone to step into that slot but for me you would be the one to do so, if you are able to do so with any plans you have. Take care Mal

  12. Beautiful words Mal!
    I found Chris Needs by accident one night but was immediately hooked by his quirkiness and obvious warmth and care! We attended an open air show in Duffryn several years ago! We met him and chatted!
    He is irreplaceable but you did a wonderful job last week! I missed the weekday shows are they on catch up? Or BBC Sounds?
    All the very best to you!
    God bless

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