Lil' Chris was only 15 when he became the focus of the second series of the Channel 4 reality show Rock School as it began airing in January 2006. The programme featured Gene Simmons, the fire-breathing, blood-spitting bassist with the US rock band KISS, trying to assemble a five-piece group drawn from the ranks of the pupils from year 11 at Kirkley High School in the Suffolk town of Lowestoft.
Born Chris Hardman, at 4ft 11in he was the shortest boy at his school, looked younger than his age but could sing, drum and play guitar. He proved such a TV natural that the series concentrated on him at the expense of the ever-changing line-up of mostly female bandmates around him. Simmons mentored them and described Lil' Chris as "a David in a Goliath world. He has the heart of a lion, charisma and delusional self-confidence."
Thanks to the Svengali-like Simmons, who named the teenage group Hoax UK after a slogan on a cap worn by Hardman, they met the Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and the 1970s glitter rock star Suzi Quatro, routined a version of the Who's anthem "My Generation", and travelled to California to open for Judas Priest, Rob Zombie and Anthrax at the Long Beach Arena. Following the final episode he was approached by the record producers Ray Hedges and Nigel Butler, who had already given him songwriting tips on Rock School, and secured him a record deal with RCA.
Together with Gary Osborne, the lyricist best known for collaborating with Elton John and Jeff Wayne, they came up with the catchy, stuttering, punk-pop single "Checkin' It Out", which made the Top 5 in September 2006. "I just thought here's a kid full of promise, full of life, full of charisma, who's really going to go places," said Osborne.
A follow-up, composed by Hardman, Butler and Hedges, "Gettin' Enough??", made the Top 20 in December 2006 but the teenager's eponymous debut album, issued at the same time, failed to set the Christmas charts alight. When the subsequent single "Figure It Out" and an ill-advised cover of Jermaine Stewart's '80s soul sizzler "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" also underperformed, the writing was on the wall for Hardman, even if, in 2008, RCA released a second album, What's It All About, containing six new tracks and seven selections from his debut, to capitalise on the fact that he was hosting Everybody Loves Lil' Chris, which aired on Channel 4 on Saturday mornings as part of the T4 strand.
"I don't think the music industry treated Lil' Chris very well," said Osborne. "People lost interest, he'd had his moment. He didn't get the second bite. He was a very sweet soul and he deserved better. I thought, this kid's going to go all the way. And, it wasn't to be, it's sad."
Born in 1990, Hardman was the middle of three siblings who attended the same comprehensive school as the boxer Anthony Ogogo and Justin and Dan Hawkins of local rock heroes The Darkness, whom he worshipped. "They were the first people who made me think, if they can do it, then I can do it, so they gave me an incentive to try," he said.
He was a typical teenager, keen on skateboarding and X-Box gaming as well as music. "This is cool. I've always wanted to be a rock star; somebody instead of nobody, to show the bullies I'll come out top," he wrote in his diary when he began filming Rock School. He later told the CBBC website, "If you really want it bad enough you've got to keep trying at it, try your best all the time and never give up."
A hyperactive performer, he proved a natural and logical support act for McFly in 2007, and made the transition to TV with appearances on BBC Three's Celebrity Scissorhands and CBBC's SMart and TMi, as well as The Weakest Link, Dani's House and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2012 he starred in Loserville: The Musical, written by Elliot Davis and Busted's James Bourne, first at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and then at the Garrick Theatre in the West End. Towards the end of 2013, he embarked on the Lil' Christ-mas Tour to promote the self-released single "Christmas Number One" but, behind the brave front, he was suffering from depression and trying to come to terms with his diminishing status.
Reviewing Hardman at Camden's Barfly for The Independent in 2006, I wrote, "the story of pop is littered with teenagers who burnt brightly then disappeared or struggled to make the transition to adulthood." Sadly, this turned out to be prescient. Hardman's death at an address in Lowestoft is not being treated as suspicious.
Christopher James Hardman, singer, songwriter, guitarist and television presenter: born Lowestoft 26 August 1990; died Lowestoft c. 23 March 2015.Reuse content