Review and tribute: The Friendly Garden was an outpouring of love
There are few radio programmes that can be described as outpourings of love but The Friendly Garden, a three-hour tribute to the late Chris Needs, presented by his friend and sometimes musical collaborator Mal Pope was just that, a show suffused with the stuff.
Chris Needs, MBE, was more than a radio presenter, he was a veritable broadcasting phenomenon. He found and then built up a dedicated audience at the fag end of the day’s schedule, creating a close-knit, mutually supportive community running into the thousands. His “Friendly Garden” alone had over fifty thousand members, with membership cards and membership numbers which created a sense of belonging, of there being someone there to keep you company at day’s close.
Sometimes when he spoke to listeners about something personal, a hurt or an aching absence, he would comfort them, moving closer to the microphone as if it really was just the two of them.
The tribute was, as befits a Welsh broadcasting legend, a star-studded affair. Gaynor Hopkins from Skewen – who later transformed into the uber-successful Bonnie Tyler – paid her respects to the man she described as the ‘Big beating heart of the friendly garden.’ She fondly recalled how the two of them had played residencies at such venues as the Sandman in Aberavon and the Townsman in Swansea in the early 70s, which led to an appearance on the TV talent show New Faces when, ‘believe it or not he used to be quite shy.’ The future million-selling voice, coupled with Chris’s innate skills on the keyboards didn’t go down too well with the judges as they came fourth!’
Dame Mandy Starr recalled a show called ‘a Summer’s Evening’ they had put on at Dyffryn Gardens in the Vale of Glamorgan. They were a bit nervous as Chris hated rain. As it happened the gods smiled on the event in ‘what felt like a Roman amphitheatre with the audience sat round in a circle, the stage made up of uneven flagstones. When it was my turn to perform in a sky-blue chiffon dress Chris said “Mand, you look lovely, I love that dress” and as I walked on the evening breeze caught it and I felt very, very grand. But as I approched the microphone my heel got stuck in a crack and I got completely stuck. So I took my foot out of the shoe and hobbled toward the microphone in a very ungainly manner before singing some arias. When I got offstage Chris had his head in his hands and he said “You walked onto that stage like a vision, an opera diva… when you came off you looked liked Dick Emery!”’
Having started his radio career with Touch AM it was Julie Barton, then editor of Radio Wales who eventually decided to give Chris more space and freedom by moving him. When he started at the station, under editor Nick Evans he had faced the constraints of an afternoon slot. Barton recalls ‘a wild show where not everybody got him…and where the shock of “Radio Bingo” straight after hard-hitting current affairs was probably a little too much for some.’
But his weeknight, three-hour-long show, offered concomitant freedoms. There he could make the airspace his own which he duly did, with typical gusto and panache, establishing his ‘garden,’ a safe space for its thousands of members and bringing pumping disco onto an otherwise sedate station playlist.
Women joined the garden in droves and men too, even though the latter could only join as “mere mortals.” Barton considers “The strength he had as a broadcaster, which he also had as a person, was that he spoke directly to you, so that listeners felt he was talking to them.’ Imagine an agony aunt who plays thumping boystown anthems and ends his show with a blast of the Village People. That just about comes near to it.
Radio Wales’ stalwart Owen Money first encountered Chris in the 1970s when he was the organist at the Taibach Workingmens’ Club, ‘one of the toughest clubs in south Wales. I remember going there once – they booed me on…‘ ‘Chris knew everybody, he was loved by everyone and touched everybody’s hearts. It was a very difficult slot, the graveyard slot really and then Chris took it on and made it popular not just in Wales but anywhere you could pick up the station.’ Football teams tuned in. Listeners in Queensland joined ones in Mountain Ash and even pets registered for the garden.
Many people know of Chris’s kindness, not least presenter Mal Pope who shared stories about receiving weekly phone calls asking if he was all right, aware of the financial hit freelance musicians had taken with the advent of Covid. The programme was studded with such recollections.
I myself am only too aware of and grateful for Chris’ kindness. I had a friend called Mair, who was born with a pre-determined lifespan. She loved Chris’s programme and once asked if I could get her invited along to the studio. Duly arranged, the first of the visits was a hoot, with a party atmosphere and the irrepressible host sharing his brimming enthusiasm along with a big bag of Pork Scratchings. That would have been enough but over the years, as Mair became poorly, she was taken into a number of hospitals from Cardiff’s Rookwood to Bristol’s Frenchay. Chris visited her wherever she was and I could view it as little short of saintly, not least when I found out he was doing the same for so many.
Needs was popular beyond but he was also a broadcaster’s broadcaster. Greg James, host of Radio 1’s Breakfast Show, openly confessed to being a long-term Needs’ fan boy. ‘He was just a brilliant broadcaster, so funny, so silly, so cheeky but so warm too. He could take the mickey out of the audience, they took the mickey out of him and it was a real community, what every radio show strives to achieve and there are few people who could do it as well as him. His is a great loss to his real-life friends and family but also to his radio family and to radio itself, as he showed how to really care about the people you’re doing a show for.’
Radio 1 stable-mate Huw Stephens found that Chris’ abilities as a broadcaster were both intimidating and inspiring in the same breath, remembering a time when they used to broadcast from adjoining studios in the BBC in Llandaff. ‘The joy he brought to both of those studios was so infectious. He would feed his team and anyone who came into contact with. I feel lucky that I go to know him because many people who felt they knew him didn’t actually get to meet him in the flesh. Musically I’ve never heard a show like it, none of us have: to go from Welsh hymns such as ‘Pantyfedwen’ to Spanish hits to disco classics to opera to all those songs he had heard over the years. It was public service broadcasting at its very best.’
Weatherwoman Sue Charles applauded the same eclectic taste in music. ‘Chris was so knowledgeable and I can’t think of anyone else who could play Ken Dodd next to the Venga Boys next to AC/DC and make it work when it really shouldn’t. It was an alchemy, and only a very special person, a one-off could do that.’
Chris also occasionally acted. Ieuan Rhys, who played Sergeant James in Pobol y Cwm for 13 years remembered at one stage an inspector coming down from London and he was played by Chris. He was in the soap for two episodes, the two sharing a dressing room. When Chris found out the programme was going out that night he panicked a bit but Ieuan reassured him by suggesting he imagine it going out in two weeks’ time. The recording went fine but Ieuan noted that not only had Chris learned his lines but he had memorised the stage directions too!
Singer Katherine Jenkins’ contribution to The Friendly Garden was a royal one. She recalled attending a function at Buckingham Palace but had arranged a 10.30 call into Chris’s show, so ‘I left early and as I stood outside it started to hammer down with rain. So I ran across the road and sheltered under a tree because I didn’t want to miss it and because I loved him that much. It was worth standing in hammering rain in my soggy ballgown just to talk to him. I just know that the garden up there is a more sparkly and fabulous place now that he is there.’
Chris was supportive to a legion of new talents. Rhondda singer Lee Gilbert met him first 16 years one of Chris’s famous Roadshows in Cwmparc, where they hit if off. Lee was subsequently invited to Chris’s 50th birthday in Cardiff where Chris was ‘seated on a throne with the word “Queen” emblazoned as a sign over his head and there were Spanish flamenco dancers everywhere and it was a massively camp, flamboyant party. The fact that Chris had been out, loud and proud for so long, as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, just brought so much acceptance, especially with an older generation. Chris and Gabe have been taken into everybody’s hearts over the past 20 years.’
Meanwhile, actor Sue Roderick recalled a road trip together to play at a concert. ‘He’d never been to north Wales before and it was quite an experience. He spent two days with me and my family and didn’t understand a word we were saying. In the concert he sang a duet with me ‘Ar Hyd y Nos.’ Chris would later learn Welsh and indeed sing in Welsh – including on stage at the National Eisteddfod, dressed all in leather – and for a brief while presented programmes on BBC Radio Cymru.
The programme also featured a wealth of songs Chris would have savoured, some of which were sung gustily by Chris himself, such as his duo with singer and songwriter Steve Balsamo as they performed the Everly Brothers hit ‘All You Have to do is Dream.’
Nikki Sue, who was often in The Friendly Garden described a friendship that went back half a century, when they met in a night club in Swansea. She was self-described loud and Bolshie but he was quite introverted, yet they got on well. Soon she was visiting him at home in Cwmafan where ‘his father Harold sitting his vest and his pants, with a little jar next to him with his teeth in and his mother Margaret Rose came in after the shop closed and one night she said “Listen if you two get married I’ll even make a jelly.” Well, that wasn’t going to happen…’
Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans avered that ‘when a Pontrhydyfen girl and a boy from Cwmafan became friends they said it would never last.’ They were were friends for 20 years and ‘I remember him coming to see me in the opera and crying like a baby when I made my first entrance because he knew I was going to die in Act Four.’
Succinctly and touchingly, West End star Peter Karrie described Chris as ‘everyone’s friend, everyone’s confessor, everyone’s companion…he had the God given natural gift to communicate, to talk and listen as a friend. He was my friend, he was everyone’s friend.’
Sian Howell, newsreader recalled fondly ‘a true original who would end each night’s broadcast with a wave through the glass.’ Even after lockdown, when the programme was being broadcast from Chris’ house the team maintained the tradition, still gathering to do the traditional wave through the window.
As one of his listeners once told him, in what might be a simple summary of his enormous, idosyncratic, audience-cwtshing gifts – ‘ You make the end of my day lovely.’
Chris’s producer for many years, Llinos Jones collated the tribute programme and fittingly the last words belong to her. After all she was married to him… in a sense…
‘Chris used to joke that I was his radio wife (though he called me some other, less repeatable, names too!) – and I think we were both as surprised as each other when BBC Radio Wales commissioned my company Terrier Radio to produce his Friendly Garden Show year after year for the last eight years. It turned out to be an easy and affectionate partnership which often happily blurred the lines between the personal and the professional. He became the beating heart of a small, close-knit team of people for whom the Garden meant much, much more than just a job. For me, it was the greatest honour and privilege of my career to have produced Chris Needs’ Friendly Garden. Many words have been spoken this week about what an incredible force for good it was, and about Chris’s extraordinary ability to connect people and foster ‘community’, but just in terms of radio alone, it was truly unique. His innate understanding of music and melody meant he brought a remarkable sensitivity the art of ‘disc-jockeying’ and turned it into so much more than that. I’ll always remember the way he’d turn the lights off in the studio and wave his phone above his head as a Disco Ball. He absolutely loved music.
‘One of the things I will miss about Chris is his daily ‘Shazam’ emails – songs he’d heard on some obscure European radio station and ‘Shazamed’ for me to find for the show. My Spotify playlist is stuffed with tracks that I love and that I would never have known about if it hadn’t been for Chris’s recommendations.
‘Chris wasn’t always an easy man. I became adept at feigning hilarity and surprise at stories I’d heard a thousand times before. But I didn’t mind in the slightest… it was the smallest of courtesies, and given in exchange for a much greater gift: his generosity and friendship.
‘I will always remember his generosity to my two little girls. Or – the ‘chirren’ as he joked – always giving me chocolate, treats and toys to take home to them, or playing ‘Lily the Pink’ and ‘Zombie Nation’ during his show for Annie to dance to before bed. She had more requests in her six years than virtually anyone else!
‘I know he enriched the lives of many thousands of listeners across the world with his unique ability to make people feel cared for – a gift in itself -, but for me on a personal level too, Chris Needs managed to make my life a whole lot brighter and definitely more vibrant. I will miss you, radio husband.’
The Friendly Garden: Mal Pope presents a special tribute was broadcast by BBC Radio Wales and can be listened to here.