TRCH Ranulph

Chris Needham Interview

1 January 09 words: Al Needham

"We were all teenagers who thought we had all the answers to the world, and we all knew less than jack shit"

If you've never seen In Bed With Chris Needham, I feel both sorry and jealous of you. The former because it is unquestionably the greatest TV programme ever, and the latter because one day you will see it with fresh eyes. It's the kind of programme that makes you want to club yourself into amnesia so you can see it for the first time again and again.

The plot; Chris Needham, a 17 year-old Thrash Metal fan from Loughbrough who has been absolutely lacerated by the puberty stick, is about to play his first gig with his band, Manslaughter. The problem is, they’re complete rammell. Between their first painful attempts to stand musically upright and their debut gig, Chris takes the time to defend Metal and Youth, unleashes torrents of adolescent venom upon the Green movement, 'old bastards', vegetarians, ‘Chart Music’, organised religion, teachers, and Neighbours, conducts a relationship with his girlfriend in excruciatingly painful silence, gets hassled by Mr Taggart and His Amazing Shirt, and goes fishing.

By the end, when a bare-chested Chris performs I Don't Want To Save The World on a video that resembles something one could imitate in the Trocadero for a tenner, you realise that you have just witnessed the definitive statement on how rubbish it is to be an English teenager.

In an age where 'Cult TV' is shorthand for 'Not Good Enough For Proper Telly', In Bed With Chris Needham is the realest of deals. Only screened twice on BBC2 (and the last time was 16 years ago), never put out on video or DVD, its legacy has been kept alive on third-generation VHS copies and the internet, circulated by an ever-growing band of obsessives who wonder what happened to their wispy-'tached Metal Overlord, who would occasionally pop up on where-are-they-now slots on clip shows and the internet, only to disappear again.

Well, wonder no more. One e-mail on the off-chance and a couple of phone calls later, I was on my way to Loughborough in pursuit of the full story of Chris Needham. I got that. And I got more. So all you fogies out there - all you old bastards - should learn something from this, and if you don’t want to know, just turn the internet over now...

 

So, let’s go back to 1991: Communism was falling, Nelson Mandela was out of prison…
 
…Wind Of Change was playing on Radio One non-stop…
 
…and you did a video diary. How did it all begin?
 
The idea was all mine, really. I’d watched the first series of Video Diaries - the one that really grabbed me was the Italia ’90 one, where an England fan took along a camera. A week later they published an advert in the TV Times, which wasn’t really done then. It said the BBC Community Programmes department were looking for people to film a video diary for a second series. And I thought; “I could do that”. So I got all my song lyrics, poems, stories – all the things you do when you’re a teenager – put them in an envelope, and attached a note that said “If you want a no-bullshit TV programme about the life of a teenage Heavy Metal fan, give me the camera and I will give you the programme”. So I sent that off, thinking nothing more would happen.
 
About 3 weeks later, I got a letter from Steve Pope at the BBC saying “We’re interested in your ideas – if you want to film a video diary, please get in touch and we’ll chat”. I thought it was a wind-up at first - I knew what kind of devious bastards my mates were…
 
Your application must have really stood out.
 
Well, this is the weird thing. Apparently 600 people applied for that series of Video Diaries, which is nothing compared to what Big Brother gets, but back then it was huge. And we were in the top seven. At the same time as that happened, various teenagers had applied, so they decided to turn it into Teenage Video Diaries.
 
So how long did it take to make In Bed With Chris Needham?
 
We started at the end of October ’91, and finished on the second week in February ’92. Three and a half months. And we filmed everything. Steve came up from London with the camera, showed us how to work it, gave us a contact number and a load of tapes, and said “Go and film, and let’s see what happens”. I’ve got 53 hours of videotape at home. And if you think that’s bad, we were the second shortest. There was a Jewish lad in the series, and his took 120 hours. Ours seemed to develop organically – I asked Steve how he managed to plan it out, and he said he had to fill a book with timecoded details of every tape, and he underlined every major plot development. He was the storyteller, and I provided the raw material.
 
What was going through your mind when you started filming?
 
When I initially got that letter, the first thought was; “I’m going to be on the telly”. The strange thing was, cameras had only just come out then. I’d had a go on one at school, and that, but people were still reticent around them. I often think that if I’d made it today, the attitude off people would be a lot different. That’s what makes it a bit more natural.
 
How easy was it to rope other people into the video diary?
 
It was easy to get me friends in, eventually. They didn’t believe it was actually happening at first. We were all mental anyway – we used to record our own comedy shows on audiotape when we were kids, and we were into the Goons and Victor Lewis-Smith.
 
So what did you expect from the diary?
 
No expectations whatsoever. I was 17 years old, for fuck’s sake!

Part 2: 'To play an instrument that fast'

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