The ABC of Simon Dee 

1 February 2018 tbs.pm/14662

From the TVTimes for 10-16 January 1970

Simon Dee was the original pop pirate.
But he sailed from those stormy waters to the haven
of legitimate broadcasting.
And in the process he found fame.
Next week he starts a new voyage with his own series
for Independent Television.
As he tells here, in the first of a three-part story,
it’s a far cry from the days when
travelling meant door-to-door… with vacuum cleaners

When I do my first ITV show — and it will be rather like switching schools or (heaven forbid) swapping wives — I’ll still have that feeling of being a tiny cork thrown into a vast ocean.

We all have it, The Nerves. There’s always this lurking awareness that we’re on our own, to boob or to triumph. And I hope it’s part of the reason that viewers have responded to my shows, bless their millions of beating hearts.

I think the women wish me well, or at least hope I won’t fall flat on my foulard hankie. The men watch with a mixture of envy and devilish hope, thinking, “Okay, mate. You’re paid to entertain. Get on with it.”

It’s that challenge that gives the show its tension. And I suppose if I ever approached a show as if it was all buttoned up, with nothing for me to do but chat my way through, then it would be Dee’s deadend. I still have too much ambition and too much insecurity for that: a sense of striving that comes, I suppose, from my background and haphazard past.

I don’t wish to sound Freudian, but I have this urge to be creative. Last year I cut my first disc, “Julie,” appeared in my first film (The Italian Job), and I am completing my first novel, Images. And I do want to act — I have all the Stanislavsky on my shelves to prove it.

DEE OF THE DEAD END DAYS: I was 23 when I arrived in London to find the streets were paved with asphalt. My assets: a public school education I’d run away from and…

When I have had fine actors on my show — Jack Hawkins, Eric Porter, Joanne Woodward — my admiration for them is sincere. When I talk to an historian like A. J. P. Taylor, a man with a mind that sparks like a crazy furnace, I am impressed and envious. Of course, in the space of a few minutes I can’t hope to present their talent in all its richness and variety. I can only draw out one tiny facet. But at least I am not tempted to send them up — which is the way of mediocrity when it’s faced with genius…

To explain why I am what I am, I must reveal something of my first 29 ramshackle, uncertain years—the years before I was “noticed” as one of Radio Caroline’s “pirates.”

I was, I think, the record-holding problem child of all time. A broken home had something to do with it. I was the only child of a marriage that failed when I was very young. When my parents split, I was shuffled off to boarding schools. It was a lonely, rebellious period… I was asserting my independence and personality in a remarkably objectionable way. When I went to public school — Shrewsbury — at 15, my main distinction was that I was caned by John Wolfenden (of the Report), who was then Headmaster.

…an RAF education that had ended abruptly when I biffed a flight lieutenant on the nose

If I was no academic meteor, I was good at sport. I liked a lot of things — design, painting, pop music, the radio — but they weren’t interests that would get Oxford or Cambridge sending delegations to persuade me to join… I was a drop-out before I’d dropped-in.

My misery deepened when my mother died. I had watched her showing signs of illness when I went home for holidays. Then, one summer, she was in hospital in Brighton and I was sent to stay with relations in North Wales. One night I woke up… after a dream that made me put through a phone call to the hospital. The matron said my mother had died five minutes before. I had loved her deeply… the sole permanent connection that meant anything to me had been taken away.

My father reappeared next term. We hadn’t met for ten years, and must have been a bit shocked to find the young sprig among the dunces… It was then that I ran away from school, presumably to draw attention to my mashed-up emotions, and need for domestic security.

I landed up in the R.A.F. with some faint hope that it would make a spruce law-abiding man of me. They thought it was a bit dodgy to let me pilot a jet, so they sent me to the photographic unit. I went to Cyprus, photographed crashed planes and much of the aggravation during the troubles, went on to Libya, Kenya, Iraq, India. I even won sergeant’s stripes — and lost them when I was discharged for biffing a flight lieutenant’s nose.

I was 23 when I came out and went to London to find the streets were paved with asphalt. I was naive, rootless, and felt disastrously misunderstood. I put my money into a coffee bar that failed. One evening four tearaways planning a smash-and-grab offered me £10 to drive the getaway car… It was then that I began to perceive what a fool I was, throwing my life away for kicks, denying my education and background.

JUST MARRIED AND WASHING DISHES FOR A LIVING

This was rock-bottom in the Dee fortunes, the end of a lack-of-foresight saga. My landlady turned me out of my room (in Shepherd’s Bush, not far from the BBC studios) and took my most hallowed possession, a stereo record-player, in lieu of unpaid rent. I looked around for a job. The first was in Chelsea assisting the fashion photographer Balfour de Havilland. I had, of course, picked up considerable camera knowledge from the R.A.F., and I manipulated backdrops, loaded film, and processed it.

Well, one day I set off with Balfour and a party of models to photograph a winter-coat collection against various slabs of British scenery. It was a top assignment, worth £7,000 plus expenses. When we got back to the studio I went to the dark room with the pile of slides, which I had to immerse into the three developing dishes, blue, green, and red. I did it all perfectly— but the pictures didn’t come out in their true colours. They looked a psychedelic nightmare. I then realised that I had loaded the wrong type of film, and the whole costly trip was a washout. I thought I’d better ask permission to resign. Balfour didn’t argue.

DEE OF THE WEDDING DAY: I was asked along to this Christmas party, met Bunny, chased her with a sprig of mistletoe and finally cornered her… I asked her to marry me and she said “yes” – which is a constant source of amazement to me

…If I try to count up the number of jobs I had in the next five years I’d run out of fingers. I boxed and tissued shoes in a factory. I went in and out of offices. I worked in a showroom, in a reception centre. And then I was a vacuum-cleaner salesman. And that one, I’m sure, does a little to account for my appeal to the ladies. If you’ve taken cash on the doorstep, you must have some idea how to win their goodwill…

But I recall that job because I met my wife, Bunny, while I was doing it. She was sharing a flat with some other girls, and I was asked along to a Christmas party, and I chased her with a sprig of mistletoe and finally cornered her. Several jobs later, I asked her to marry me and she said “yes”— which is a constant source of amazement to me.

We both worked — Bunny was an excellent hairdresser, and made twice as much money as I did — and we lived in a bed-sitter. For a time, I washed dishes at Joe Lyons, which is why Bunny can’t get me near a sink now. Then I swung a pick in a construction firm. I built a brick garage under the eye of a professional Irish bricklayer. I joined a design firm and did the blueprint for a very successful fan ventilator.

…And all this time, Bunny didn’t complain, but kept encouraging me to hope for the “break” that would come some day.

DEE OF THE HAPPY-END DAYS… in the large London flat that also serves as my office – so that (even though the fans will keep ringing the doorbell) I can spend some time with the Dee family: my wife Bunny, Simon junior (7) and Domino (3)

NEXT
How I got my ‘break’ on Radio Caroline…and came back to find the bailiffs in my home

Your comment

Enter it below