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All You Old Bastards Should LEARN Something From This - The Cult Of Chris Needham
Taylor Parkes , June 4th, 2008 10:32

Taylor Parkes gets to grips with Chris Needham of Manslorter (né Manslaughter)

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In the old days, when ordinary people got on TV, it was as murder victims or game show contestants. Humiliated by circumstance, or by some wig-wearing mansion-dweller. After a decade of docusoaps and dubious reality shows, little has changed: the general public are interchangeable (except for those whose mental problems might amuse you), there to be sniggered at by gutter-press gutbuckets, sworn at by jumped-up cooks, exposed in the limelight as peons who don't know their place. It's always been the way.

Except that in 1992, there was a series called Teenage Diaries. The BBC handed high-end video cameras to mouthy adolescents, told them to film their lives, then edited the results into 45-minute shows, each subject getting final approval of the finished product. No one was dropped into some contrived situation and poked until they cried, although some cried anyway; Teenage Diaries lurked in the everyday lives of averagely-extraordinary young people and just... watched. The results were painfully real - that is, hilarious, touching, absurd, worthwhile. There was, however, only one star: the unforgettable Chris Needham, whose astonishing programme passed instantly into legend. If anything better has been on TV - ever - I must have missed it.

Everyone between the ages of 14 and 25 watched In Bed With Chris Needham, or that's how it seemed at the time (when the BBC repeated the show shortly afterwards, heavily trailed, anyone who'd missed out caught up). We all recognised Chris, or thought we did, the heavy metal freak in wire-rimmed specs, skinny jeans and jumbo trainers, taking A/S levels in Loughborough and struggling to put a band together with his loyal, hapless mates. Of course, it was easy to laugh. That hair, hanging in clumps like spaniel ears; the proto-moustache, frothy and diaphanous. The callow pomposity and self-importance of youth. The fact that every second of In Bed With Chris Needham was breathtakingly, painfully funny.

But Needham fans, those of us who've kept the faith for the last decade and a half, wearing out VHS tapes and passing on the legend to new generations, haven't curated this cult because we like to snigger at awkward kids. In Bed With is better than that. It doesn't just reconnect us with our past – because we were all Chris Needham once, to some extent, except for the bastards – it nails the tragi-comedy of British adolescence better than anything, fact or fiction, before or since. And just as you can't disown your former self, it's impossible not to like Chris Needham, even as your eyes bulge out and your jaw hangs open and stays there. Some of this is down to the superb editing, which sharpens the hilarity without scoring too many cheap points at Chris' expense, but it couldn't have worked without a subject so improbably charismatic, so perfectly imperfect. “I guess I'm just a bit angry,” sniffs Needham, playing air guitar in his darkened cellar. “I'm a bit of an angry young man.” Years pass, and In Bed With Chris Needham just gets better and better.

It's beautifully, brutally authentic. Flat light brings out bad skin and hair grease; wintry-pale on unprocessed video, Loughborough looks like Krakow in the Seventies. Chris lopes through a hideous shopping precinct, under skies the colour of a switched-off TV screen. He sits in a Wimpy bar and thrusts a floppy burger at the camera, crumbs falling out of the side of his mouth: “Hey vegetarians – cop this!” He swaggers up to the front window of a terraced house, his nan's face peers out from the murk of her front room and barks back at him: “What about that bloody fish?” It's set in those last few years before the internet left us over-informed and immobile, before cocaine orgies for musclebound 14- year-olds; the last time everyone smoked with the windows closed and tried to be self-effacing. A different Britain, just prior to the simultaneous buffing and cheapening of British culture (achieved, in part, through reality TV) - a place where young people still respond to the sight of a video camera by covering their faces in embarrassment. It already looks like another age.

Chris' band are called Manslaughter - later changed to Manslorter, because of persistent mispronunciation. They're truly horrible and utterly unaffected. The songs he writes are beautifully generic substandard metal, their ambition undermined, tragically, by this and that: being young and powerless, being a product of the English class system, being no good at music. “Feel sudden death... from my guitar,” growls Chris on 'Hate Song', raising his Woolworths Strat copy and launching into a riff so tinny it wouldn't fell a gerbil. When they finally perform, at a lunchtime gig in the college hall with the curtains drawn, they're simultaneously an utter shambles and the ultimate perfection of rock & roll. As they plough through the opening bars of 'You Shook Me All Night Long', Gav Skinner leans into the camera and gives it the finger. The index finger.

Half the people I've lured into the Needham cult have at first refused to believe that the programme wasn't scripted, and what's convinced them otherwise is the fact that, clearly, it's just too good. The scene where Chris and girlfriend Jane perch on his narrow bed, exchanging Christmas cards under the Artex ceiling, is an odyssey of strain and discomfort: that flurry of awkward glances could never have been choreographed. Slumped against a chest of drawers, Chris addresses the camera on the subject of climate change: “There are times, and I will say it now... look, you can burn this planet, it's your fault. With any luck, we won't be havin' another generation, OK? I'd rather have the planet burnt, and all you Greens burnt with it... Don't think I don't understand it. Indeed, there are solutions I've come up with myself. But I don't see why I should share these ideas, for the simple reason, impracticality one, and two...” - a slight shrug - “nobody's liable to listen to me.”

Quoting this stuff does not do it justice - you really have to watch. The magic only works in context: the scrawny, strange-smelling world of teenage boys, that tangle of hope and hopelessness, heartfelt doziness and buggered ambition, flashing between a howl and a horse-laugh. All the shabbiness, hilarity and genuine hurt, the absolute lack of glamour - In Bed With Chris Needham is the only authentic document of the British teenage experience, and we can all learn something from it. Because unlike you or I, this 17-year-old was not a twat. He was a twat savant.

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