Who killed Simon Dee?
6 Apr 2015 4 comments. tbs.pm/6321
In 1969 there wasn’t a bigger name in showbiz than that of Simon Dee. He was everywhere: a successful BBC chat show, advertisements and voiceovers galore, newspaper columns and even a book of his thoughts crammed with pictures of his life – simply entitled The Simon Dee Book.
A year later and he was gone, never to make a successful return.
Dee had started his media career on Radio Caroline South, where he was the first live voice to be heard when the station began transmissions on 28 March 1964. From there he moved to Radio Caroline North and did stints on Radio Luxembourg and the BBC Light Programme. He was a launch voice of one of the Light Programme’s replacements, BBC Radio 1, and broke into television by hosting BBC-1’s Top of the Pops.
He was already gaining a reputation for being ‘difficult’, clashing with management at Caroline and at Radio 1 – a reputation that would only get worse as his life moved towards stardom and his lifestyle followed.
That stardom came in 1967 when the BBC did one of its periodic relaunches of BBC-1, adding a 45 minute twice-weekly chat show called Dee Time to the schedules (it later moved to once a week on Saturdays – at that time, the BBC owned Saturdays). The show was immensely popular, bringing in audiences of 18 million to a previously quiet time on the network. The popularity became a virtuous circle – the biggest stars were queuing up to appear on the show due to the huge audience figures, while the audience figures were huge due to the biggest stars appearing on the show.
Everybody who was anybody appeared on Dee Time. Lulu, Val Doonican, Marty Feldman, Sandie Shaw, The Bee Gees, Jimmy Hendrix, Matt Monro, Stanley Baker, Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Spike Milligan… the list goes on. If you can name a star of the 1960s, you can place a safe bet that they appeared with Simon Dee on Dee Time.
As Dee’s fame grew, so did his ego. The closing title sequence of Dee Time featured him speeding around in an open-top Jaguar E-type with a busty blonde model beside him. The reality wasn’t too far behind – while he was married with two children at the time, he spent lavishly on expensive cars and maintaining a top star’s lifestyle and a man-about-town image. While people who worked on the shop floor with him rarely have stories about him being a prima donna with them, those who employed him and produced him had a different view. He threw his weight as a star around, attempting to dictate what guests he would interview and what hours he would work, what expenses he would claim and what advice he would accept.
In 1969, the still-new London Weekend Television was in deep trouble. Their plans for the weekends in London had been simple. Audiences of 15 million and more routinely tuned in to watch the light, fluffy, common programming ATV had previously put out. Those 15+ million would be given good, wholesome programming instead – arts and drama and ballet and opera and all the things that the management of the station longed for on the weekend. LWT would make huge piles of money from those 15 million or so viewers and enlighten their lives at the same time.
The viewers en masse switched to BBC-1.
To get them back, LWT repeatedly tried tricks and stunts designed to cause the public to tune in to the heavyweight weekend programming (lightening the programming itself never occurred to them – it would take the arrival of Rupert Murdoch to teach them that lesson). One of these was to poach Simon Dee from the BBC.
Dee used the opportunity to play the BBC off against LWT, seeking more money and more power from the Corporation now that he was in demand by the competition. One imagines that he was surprised when the BBC management seemed very happy to let him go. One story, possibly apocryphal, is that Dee confronted Bill Cotton, asking for more than £1000 a show. Cotton suggested his existing £250 a show should fall by 20% instead. Whatever the truth, Dee left the BBC and joined LWT.
It was a disaster for Simon Dee.
The conventional story is that Dee immediately started to clash with David Frost, the driving force behind the new contractor, over who should get the best guests for their respective shows. No doubt there’s some truth in this – it would be a wrenching break with his previous character for Dee not to have swung his ego around LWT in the same way as he had at the BBC.
But LWT’s highbrow programming policy did most to destroy him. His programme was badly placed late on a Sunday, compared to primetime on Saturday. It followed Frost on Sunday, which provided LWT’s few viewers with a good piece of television punctuation – watch Frost, then switch off for the night.
Above all, the caliber of the guests was changed by LWT. Movie stars and pop singers were reduced, while ballet dancers, conceptual artists and surrealist painters were added. Dee, always happy to keep his finger on the pulse of pop culture, was clearly out of his depth with such people, unable to ask his trademark fluffy, amusing questions to draw them out, unable to produce anecdotes and witty asides about knowing them ‘in real life’. And the guests themselves were audience poison: who wants to wind down towards bed with an in-depth interview with some vorticist painter babbling about the cubist fragmentation of reality and the hard-edged imagery that is derived from machines and the urban environment to produce a radical electrifying full force of… whatever?
Within months, The Simon Dee Show was cancelled, Dee himself was let go by LWT and the dream had ended. There was no chance of going back to the BBC. No other ITV company wanted to touch such a diva, especially one with such a flop to his name.
With a lavish lifestyle, Dee was soon heavily in debt. He signed on for Unemployment Benefit and became a driver for London Buses. His debts caught up with him and he got 28 days in prison for non-payment of rates. His life spiralled out of control and his only public presence was the occasional “where are they now?” and “do you remember…?” filler pieces in the newspapers. He even faced the ultimate humiliation of being sent to prison (for vandalism) by his old nemesis Bill Cotton, a part-time magistrate (although how this was allowed, given Cotton’s huge conflict of interest in anything to do with Dee, is not clear).
So who killed Simon Dee’s career? The conventional wisdom is that it was suicide – Dee destroyed himself and his career with his giant ego. The reality is that LWT must shoulder some – if not most – of the blame. Dee was a victim of a new television contractor that had no idea how to make television. This is not an unusual situation – Carlton, over 25 years later, would debut in London without a single clue on how to make TV – but that it dragged down such a star with it is something to remember.
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