It requires a certain kind of chutzpah to punctuate your memoirs with insults aimed at you at the height of your fame. Or perhaps, if you’re a TV and radio celebrity, it just takes insight into the inherent ridiculousness of your profession. Here are three that appear in My Word, Terry Christian’s account of his years fronting Channel 4’s infamous late-night show The Word, the wantonly trashy but impossible-to-ignore Friday-night series that exemplified the worst – and often the best, but we’ll come to that – of 1990s pop culture:
“Terry Christian, won’t someone smash his smug irritating little face in?” – Channel 4 viewer, from duty log
“Terry Christian, has this arsehole got sinus trouble? He is tacky, pathetic, has no interviewing style and insults his guests. When are you going to take him off?” –
Channel 4 viewer, from duty log
“Terry Christian, the most hated man on television.” – Daily Mirror, 1994
Yet here we are in the Lass O’Gowrie pub off Oxford Road in Manchester and the former most hated man on television is proving to be thoroughly likeable company. When a drinker in her thirties comes over to ask if he’s really Terry from The Word, he grins and leans in for the obligatory selfie.
Christian, now 55, is funny, engaging and more thoughtful than the caricature Mancunian motormouth who presented five series of the show between August 1990 and March 1995. He is also an incorrigible digresser, be it on the subject of childhood friends who went to school with Morrissey (“When the Smiths made it big, all my mates said, ‘It’s that weirdo you see on the 261 bus . . .’”), or collecting records on a pittance as a kid (“There was this huge warehouse called Robinson’s Records, where everything smelled of pies because they had a big pie counter in there . . .”), or his beloved Manchester United (they should have persevered with David Moyes; he never wanted Louis van Gaal; the owners, the Glazers, are destroying the club).
Reduced fame doesn’t always agree with those who were once nationally notorious but it seems to suit Christian, who downshifted to more grown-up engagements with Talksport, BBC Radio Manchester and ITV after The Word ended. He seems like a good bloke who had fame thrust upon him and wasn’t sure what to do with it. So why did everybody hate him so much?
“When The Word was going, I did use to wonder, ‘What crime have I committed?’” he admits. “I had nothing to be jealous of. I wasn’t even that well paid. Whenever I went out in Manchester or London, normal people were fine. They liked the show. But I was anything but confident and I had no control over my press. They really wanted to put the boot in. I wasn’t bothered at first,” he says, “but cumulatively, it did start to hurt.”
Two decades on, The Word has been reduced to a clip-show staple, its shock-horror moments now shorthand for the mad-for-it 1990s, when television’s current dispensation – that anything is justified as long as it gets eyeballs – was forged. Whether it was Kurt Cobain announcing that Courtney Love was “the best f*** in the world”, or Oliver Reed swaying drunkenly as guest frontman for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, or Donita Sparks of the grunge band L7 dropping her trousers, The Word’s brand of controversy was instrumental in remaking Channel 4 as TV’s edgy channel.
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No regular segment of the show contributed more to this than “The Hopefuls”, in which members of the general public would debase themselves to get on TV by French-kissing pensioners, licking false teeth or drinking their own vomit. A future in which calculated outrage would become central to entertainment and shameless self-publicity would become a marketable skill – in essence, Big Brother and the entire reality TV project – began here.
Yet, for all that, The Word was a drastic improvement on Channel 4’s stilted 1980s “yoof” shows Network 7 and Club X, neither of which had made much of an impression on actual young people. With its fluorescent acid trappings, its audience of genuine twentysomethings instead of listless dancers and its techno-house theme tune by 808 State, The Word connected with the more democratic, less uptight post-rave sentiments of the early 1990s. After a move from teatime to a late-night slot on Fridays, the show quickly became required viewing for an audience still shouldering the tyranny of pubs’ 11 o’clock closing time.
Its presenters, initially an odd couple of the working-class northerner Christian and the socialite Amanda de Cadenet, were new to television and it showed. Christian was prone to nervous laughter and his Mancunian cockiness divided the audience. Either you enjoyed his freshness and informality or he got on your nerves. Sometimes interviewees responded badly to his unpretentious approach. He tried to loosen up pompous Hollywood guest stars with a little levelling banter; Arnold Schwarzenegger glared back pitilessly and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (birthplace: Salford) doubled down on her new LA accent. Christian, not his interview subjects, caught the public blame for such frosty moments.
Watch those clips again on YouTube and it is apparent that Christian – new to TV but an experienced radio broadcaster who had won two Sony Awards for his BBC Radio Derby music show Barbed Wireless – isn’t a bad interviewer. He simply didn’t kowtow to people who were used to fawning treatment. But having fulfilled his brief to be edgy, Christian carried the can, too.
“The idea of The Word was, ‘Here’s a night out in your living room, ’cause you’re too young to go out,’” Christian says. “We wanted to bring people with us rather than saying, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re great and you’re not.’ I was pretty inexperienced but the fact was, I was holding it together. The only one who gave me any credit for that was [the second series’ producer] Sebastian Scott.” Throughout The Word’s existence, he says, he was led to believe that he was permanently on the verge of being sacked. “I thought they’d got me on board for the show because I had a background in music. Now, looking back, I think it was just because I was young and northern.”
Christian’s cheekiness and occasional rudeness to his guests were products, he tells me, of panic and insecurity. On the one hand, he was expected to control a live audience while a voice in his ear screamed at him to get to the next killer question – for instance, asking Whitney Houston if she was a lesbian or not (on that occasion, an audience member got him off the hook by asking her first). On the other hand, here was
a young, working-class man in an industry dominated by the privately educated, with their inexhaustible reserves of confidence. What else does a northerner with his back against the wall do but go on the offensive?
“I was literally out of my comfort zone,” he says, smiling grimly. “I couldn’t sleep properly, I [was] under a lot of pressure and I just couldn’t do wacky or zany. Trying to behave like someone who actually belongs where you are was weird. And hard.” Yet he managed to front it up series after series, to the extent that this insecure, self-doubting presenter was routinely criticised for being arrogant. Meanwhile, The Word grew more sensationalist, bringing in first the gross-out segment with “The Hopefuls” in 1993 and then the future Z-list celebrity Paul Ross, with his tabloid instincts, as producer.
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“That was when it went into exploitation,” Christian says. “I was against ‘The Hopefuls’ because it was a gimmick, a contrivance. Our viewing figures were going up anyway. If anything, ‘The Hopefuls’ held us back. I really think that, if not for ‘The Hopefuls’, we would have exploded over the following two years.”
Instead, by the end of the fourth series, Christian “didn’t give a shit any more, it was so stressful. I was just wondering what I could do for a living if it all went wrong.”
The surprise of Christian’s memoir may be that he wasn’t (as his critics suspected) just another middle-class lad opportunistically turning up his accent, but a genuine Mancunian of startlingly hard-up stock. The son of first-generation Irish immigrants with a seamstress mother and a father who recovered from TB-related paralysis to drive forklifts at Esso, Terry grew up in the Irish-West Indian Brooks Bar area of Old Trafford and led the life of a street kid. In Brooks Bar, you either learned to fight or you didn’t go out. Or you channelled your aggression into sarcasm.
Money was tight for the Christian family. “We were worried all the time,” he says. “I used to look forward to Christmas, knowing in my heart that I’d be disappointed.” Before he turned three, his elder sister Janet died of a burst appendix. “I was the fourth of six kids. I grew up in a house that was grieving and then another younger brother arrived. So I never got that much attention. I’d do anything to get my mum’s approval.”
Many years later, in an interview with the Daily Mail, Christian mentioned that for a time he had been on free school dinners. To his parents, who were now “dining out a bit” on his success around Old Trafford, this was an appalling embarrassment. “It was like, ‘You’re in here bragging about your kid and yet you couldn’t even afford to feed him?’” he recalls now, with obvious shame. “The worst thing was, I’d said it out of ego. I wanted to tell this interviewer, ‘You’re all posh twats and I’m different, I’m not like you.’ But the hurt it caused my mum and dad was terrible. I still think it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done.”
As a student at Thames Polytechnic, he learned to smoke weed and swapped his teenage political choice – the Socialist Workers Party – for the more (he thought) authentically proletarian Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). “I did it to wind people up,” he says. “Plus, they had Vanessa Redgrave.”
The WRP paper was marginally easier to sell on campus because it contained decadent bourgeois TV listings, which Socialist Worker did not. But the Trotskyist vanguard was not as pure as he had imagined.
“I couldn’t believe how money-orientated they were for supposedly revolutionary socialists,” says Christian. “The WRP practically got the bailiffs on to me and I only owed them about 20 f***ing quid.”
Kicked off his biology course for failing to apply himself to study, Christian returned to Manchester and found himself featuring as one of the voices of dole-bound Britain for an ITV discussion series called Devil’s Advocate, inspired by the 1981 riots and the subsequent Scarman report. (Another young guest was Johnny Marr, later of the Smiths.) The show’s producer, the future Labour grandee Gus Macdonald, identified in Christian a quickness of mind and an aptitude for presentation; he encouraged him to apply for jobs as a researcher in television.
“Gus gave me this talk about the class system in the media,” Christian recalls, “and it went right over my head. I wish I could have understood him but I was naive even for my age. He might as well have been telling your cat how to work the DVD player.” Instead, Radio Derby offered him a job presenting an issues-led show for young people (“UNEMPLOYED TERRY LANDS DREAM JOB”) and another path was set. After eight years presenting Barbed Wireless in Derby, The Word came calling.
Like anyone with an infamous moment on their CV, Christian has had to make his peace with how everyone will always be more interested in The Word than, say, It’s My Life, the high-spirited religious-moral ding-dong that he presented on ITV between 2003 and 2008. “I was really proud of that,” he says brightly, “but you can’t choose what you’re remembered for. I don’t lie awake at night weeping about it.”
Today, it’s a tough market out there for a former youth presenter. Christian would like to work more – “I’ve got a mortgage!” – but the problem is, he’s just no good at being freelance. “If I was my own boss, I’d sack me for being lazy,” he jokes, possibly without realising that he is his own boss. “My mates are always telling me that I’ve had it easy, I’ve never had to hustle, and they’re kind of right. The irony is that everything I’ve ever done on TV or radio, the ratings have gone up. Yet nobody’s falling over themselves to offer me stuff. It is kind of frustrating.”
In 2008, he lost an unfair dismissal case about his BBC Radio Manchester show after a judge ruled him a self-employed freelancer, not an employee of the BBC. He still has a show on Manchester’s Imagine FM but, ironically, one of the original northern voices in broadcasting finds that today’s stations have filled their quota for amusing provincial accents, thanks very much. “I do love radio and I miss the fact that I’ve never done a biggish national show,” he admits. Perhaps he’s just too polarising.
Instead, Christian has branched out into live performance. A few years ago, he won admiring reviews for a one-man stand-up comedy show, Naked Confessions of a Recovering Catholic. “The show boils down to: ‘I’m a bit of a twat but it’s God’s fault,’” he explains. “I suffered from a lot of Catholic guilt when I was doing The Word, feeling that I didn’t deserve any of it. But when you’re a Catholic, if you don’t feel bad, then you feel guilty that you’re not feeling guilty . . .” The show, in which he dressed as a vicar, went so well that he has another in the works. Its title is Rebel Without Applause.
Tonight, at the Dancehouse Theatre just across Oxford Road, Christian will host another instalment of what he calls his “Mad Manc Cabaret”. It’s a small-scale event, a kind of Manchester’s Got Talent without the mean judges, and the acts are entertaining. There are members of the Manchester mafia – John Bramwell from I Am Kloot, Mike Sweeney of the punk veterans the Salford Jets – and local musicians, including a 12-year-old girl, Temiah Deans-Welch, whose startlingly mature performance of Etta James’s signature song “At Last” wouldn’t disgrace Saturday-night TV. And then there’s Thick Richard, a young John Cooper Clarke in the body of Jarvis Cocker, performing the splendidly offensive “Ghost of Raoul Moat”. There are worse nights out in Manchester. I’ve been to some of them.
And between every act, Terry Christian bounds across the stage, cranking up this modest crowd as if it’s still Friday night in the 1990s on Channel 4. He’s where he wants to be. He’s among his people.
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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war