The long goodbye

Simon Dee was once the biggest star on British TV - a Sixties Chris Evans with style. Then things began to slide. MI5 tapped his phone. A cartel of Swiss bankers stole his designs for the Millennium Dome. And as for David Frost...
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Boris Yeltsin's grandson and TV's Philippa Forrester are Winchester's only famous residents, according to a local taxi driver called Dave. What about Simon Dee? "I ain't never heard of him," says Dave. In media circles, people had been only slightly more clued up when I told them I was going to Winchester to meet Simon Dee. "God, I thought he was dead," said one. "Didn't he emigrate to New Zealand, or was that the Galloping Gourmet?" said another. "Ah," said a third. "Simon Dee, the locus classicus of the where-are-they-now? feature." When I reported this exchange, my wife was terribly impressed with the term locus classicus. "You must drop that into your article," she said. "But make sure you use it in the right context. Don't say that Simon Dee pulled up in his Locus Classicus."

Far from it, as it turns out. Simon Dee is skint. Worse, he is skint and unknown. Imagine if, in 2029, Chris Evans is found living anonymously in a small terraced house in deepest Hampshire. It would represent much the same 30-year fall down the rickety ladder of fortune. For, in 1969, tall, toothy Simon Dee, host of the BBC's hit chat-and-music show, Dee Time, was as big a star as there was on television.

We meet at Winchester's posh Hotel du Vin. He is still tall and toothy and, physically at least, the years have treated him fairly charitably. Later this year he will be 64. "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" Lennon and McCartney's words have acquired a poignant ring for a fellow golden boy of the Sixties.

Until 1964 he was called Nicholas Henty-Dodd. He was from a well-to-do Lancashire family and went to Shrewsbury School at around the same time as Michael Heseltine and Richard Ingrams. John Peel was there a little later and, of the broadcasters whose careers not only survived the Sixties but continued to thrive, Peel is one of the few for whom Dee admits a grudging admiration.

His own rise to fame began with Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station set up off the coast of Ireland on a retired Baltic ferry. Radio Caroline's founder was an ebullient Irishman, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose first recruit was his old drama school pal Henty-Dodd. But Henty-Dodd was no name for a pirate. So he combined his young son's name with the initial letter of Dodd to become Simon Dee.

In the Hotel du Vin - between mock-humble protestations that "it's all so very, very long ago" - Dee enthusiastically recalls the troubled launch of Radio Caroline. "We had to test the signal before we left the anchorage, so we played Ray Charles singing "Round Midnight" as a test signal. All seemed to be well, but unknown to us we hadn't quite organised the signals correctly, and on every radio and TV set within a 50-mile radius, Ray Charles suddenly interrupted the main evening news. In Dublin, everyone was crying `My God, what's going on?' and no wonder, because Ray Charles on a Hammond organ was saturating the news."

Dee roars with laughter. He is very hail-fellow-well-met, joshing loudly with the waitress and later rumbustiously defying her request not to smoke a cigar at the table. But for all the bluster, it is hard not to feel sorry for him. In 1970, following a falling-out with his then-employers London Weekend Television, he took a sabbatical. "I thought, `I'll have a rest now and take a year off'. It became two years off, then five years, then 10 years, then 20 years, then 30 years off." Again, he roars with laughter. But not, I reckon, because he thinks it's funny.

A few weeks ago, Dee wrote to Mike Leggo, BBC TV's head of light entertainment, listing all the guests he interviewed between 1967 and 1970, and suggesting that he meet them again to ask them "if their dreams came true". He would, of course, need a medium to make contact with many of them. But he sees no reason why he shouldn't make a comeback. "After all, if a racing driver stops racing for 20 or 30 years then gets back in the car, he will soon get it together. The control and co-ordination will still be there." Mike Leggo evidently does not agree. He has not replied.

But let us again wind back the years to Dee's strange sacking from Radio Caroline. "We finally anchored off the coast of Suffolk," he recalls. "One day I was doing Sunday Favourites when the technician on the other side of the glass collapsed. I found him on the floor, dying. I went to the microphone and asked for someone to send a boat. Within an hour there must have been 20 rowing boats, yachts, catamarans, and the local lifeboat. The captain later called me to the bridge and said, `By calling for assistance, you have mutinied. Get off my ship'. "

Dee was promptly hired by BBC Radio, but owed his big television break to the mother of Bill Cotton, one of the most illustrious of Leggo's predecessors as head of BBC light entertainment. As Dee tells it, Mrs Cotton - wife of the band leader Billy - saw him on the box advertising Smiths Crisps, liked what she saw, and recommended him to her son. Surprisingly, Bill Cotton confirms this.

"I think my initial reaction was `you do the cooking, let me spot the talent'. But on the way home I realised that my mother had seen more performers than I had, and that I ought to take her seriously. So we started Dee Time. He was quite difficult in that first year because it went to his head. But by the second year there's no doubt that he was one of the most powerful people on television. He had great influence on the young."

This influence was channelled partly through the Dee Code, a 1968 version of the Ten Commandments. Youngsters were asked to write in endorsing the Dee Code and, in return, were sent a weekly letter signed by Dee, which amounted to a lecture in moral rectitude.

Today, those letters make arresting reading. On the subject of race relations, for instance, one said: "An intelligent being from outer space might easily decide that the only species of mankind worth preserving was the one with the dark brown skin, the lustrous eyes, sculpted lips and natural grace in movement, and that all those other pallid, thin-lipped, pale-eyed, lank-haired creatures should be painlessly annihilated before they reduced the physical beauty of humanity any further. Think about this, especially when next you hear someone make disparaging remarks about our coloured fellow-citizens."

These were worthy enough sentiments, yet not everyone approved of the Dee Code. In the Daily Mail, Dee was criticised for "getting too big for his with-it boots". But still his career seemed gilded, especially when Dee Time replaced the ailing Juke Box Jury in the all-important Saturday early evening slot. For Dee, life got better and better. He drove an Aston Martin. At a glitzy party, he danced with Princess Margaret. And no star - not John Lennon, nor Charlton Heston, nor Michael Caine - was too big to appear on his show. Thanks to Caine, he even landed a part in The Italian Job. "Mike had been on the show and thought he'd do me a favour. I played a poofy Savile Row tailor, and I was so good that poofs started chasing me." This time he laughs so hard that a couple two tables away joins in.

In 1970, Dee was poached by LWT, reportedly for the fabulous sum of pounds 100,000 a year. The BBC could not match such a salary, but Cotton wasn't too sorry to see him go.

"It had got to the stage where his ideas of his own importance were actually quite damaging," says Cotton. He thought, as a lot of performers do, that he was bigger than the show. A TV executive has to judge when he has to live with that, and when he doesn't. In his case, I didn't want to. By the way, has he still got those fantasies about MI5?"

Yes, in a word. As lunch at the Hotel du Vin wears on, it becomes increasingly and uncomfortably clear that Dee has what appear to be paranoid delusions. In some ways they are understandable. I don't want to trespass on Anthony Clare territory here, but perhaps they are the only way in which he can make sense of the last 30 years of obscurity, following three years in which he was as famous as anyone in the land.

He is convinced, for instance, that he was drummed off television because he opposed Britain's entry into the Common Market. He thinks that the British secret service, and possibly the CIA too, tapped his phone, worried by his interest in the assassination of President Kennedy. Most bizarrely of all, he embarks on a long tale which ends with him firmly at the centre of an international conspiracy.

To cut it short, he claims that the Moroccan government commissioned him to design a dome for Casablanca. When he delivered the plans, the Moroccans wouldn't pay up, but a posse of Swiss bankers later took him for dinner at the RAC Club in Pall Mall and said they wanted to build his dome for pounds 100 million.

"I left the RAC Club rather happy. `My God,' I thought. `I've found another metier.' I wake up the next morning, phone their hotel and they've gone, without leaving any note at all. It was all some vast sting."

By now I can see where this is leading and, sure enough, Dee is certain that he has been denied the recognition he deserves, not to mention the fee, for conceiving the Millennium Dome.

But let us again return to 1970. The Simon Dee Show on London Weekend was a flop. Ever since, Dee has held on to the notion that it was sabotaged by David Frost, who had a sizeable shareholding in the company.

"He was in New York when I joined, and wasn't very pleased when he found that his biggest rival had signed to his own network." Certainly, the show was given an unsociable slot. And in due course, Dee's bubble of fame and fortune burst. How, I wonder, does he feel when he sees David Frost on television now? "I don't see David Frost on television now," he says bitterly.

And what has he done for income for the last 30 years? "I have had no income," he says. "When my father died in 1980 I inherited a vast sum of money, but it was taken from me by death duties." Financially, Dee depends on his third wife, a teacher, and spends his days looking after their four-year-old son, Cyril George.

"If you have no money," he adds, "you have to concentrate on friendships. It's not such a bad thing. You have to dwell in reality." Actually, I don't think that Simon Dee dwells anywhere near reality, but in his boots, I'm not sure I would, either.