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Simon Dee: Broadcaster who made his name on pirate radio and epitomised the Swinging Sixties

Wednesday 02 September 2009 00:00 BST

With his lanky frame, blond fringe, cheeky smile and floral shirts and ties, Simon Dee was among the most recognisable faces of the Swinging Sixties. His combination of lighthearted banter and music was a winning combination for both his radio programmes and his television series, Dee Time. However his fall from grace, which was largely of his own making, was spectacular and he never regained his popularity.

Simon Dee was born Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd in Manchester in July 1935. His father owned a cotton mill and was reasonably prosperous, but he divorced his wife after finding her in bed with two men. Dee was a boarder at Shrewsbury public school and made his first stage appearance in a school production of The Pirates of Penzance.

After his mother died of cancer in 1952, Dee lived with his father and joined the RAF. He took aerial photographs at the time of the Suez crisis, and, through his work with British Forces Radio, discovered a love for broadcasting.

Dee was demobbed in 1958 and opened a coffee bar, which cost him his savings. He undertook several jobs, with varying success, but was earning £25 a week plus commission as an estate agent when his friend the entrepreneur Ronan O'Rahilly offered him work on pirate radio, an exciting prospect but only paying £15 a week.

At the time, the Beatles had spearheaded a huge interest in British beat music and yet little of it was heard on the BBC's Light Programme. O'Rahilly decided to moor a boat three miles off the Essex coast – and hence outside territorial waters – in order to broadcast "pirate" radio.

Dee embarked in a deserted port in Dublin and likened the experience to being in a thriller. The station, known as Radio Caroline, began broadcasting on Easter Saturday 1964, and Dee presented the first programme. In fact, he presented most of the early programmes, and was on air for 50 hours a week. He used the name Simon Dee, which he came up with by combining his son's name with the first letter of his surname.

Dee was an all-purpose broadcaster, prepared to play whatever was requested, but he had a taste for the Big Band music of the Forties. His signature tune was "On the Sunny Side of the Street" by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra.

Pirate radio soon became a phenomenon and Dee was one of its leading DJs. On a visit ashore, he made his TV debut on ITV's Ready Steady Go! Soon, though, he was arguing with O'Rahilly and in July 1965 he became the first pirate DJ to work for the BBC, hosting Midday Spin. He also hosted Simon's Scene for Radio Luxembourg.

The mother of the BBC producer Bill Cotton Jr saw Dee on a commercial and recommended him as a potential TV host. Cotton agreed and the twice-weekly Dee Time, broadcast live from Manchester, was inaugurated. The guests on the first programme, shown on 4 April 1967, were Cat Stevens and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

After pirate radio had been curbed by legislation, the BBC fell in with modern trends and established Radio 1 in September 1967 with a mixture of BBC personalities and pirate DJs; Dee was a key figure. Dee Time also moved to London and replaced Juke Box Jury on early Saturday evenings.

By now Dee was being paid £250 a programme and, despite hosting famous guests such as Sammy Davis Jr and Zsa Zsa Gabor, he was promoted as the star. The elongated introduction ("It's Si-i-i-i-mon Dee") became an impersonator's dream and he would drive away with a blonde model in an E-type Jag during the end credits. However, he was a feeble interviewer, rarely drawing out his guests and often looking as though he didn't know what to ask next. After the slickness of programmes like Tonight, many viewers, including myself, found it endearing. That same manner and appeal is seen today in Jools Holland.

Because of his celebrity status, Dee's self-confidence was turning to arrogance. In November 1967, the new DJ team at Radio 1 had been told that Scott Walker's first solo single, "Jackie", had restricted airplay, and Dee knew that the references to opium dens and bordellos were not appropriate for Midday Spin. Nevertheless, he defied the management by playing "Jackie" and was dropped from the programme.

Dee Time continued to do well, drawing an audience of 10m on a good week, a similar figure to when he presented Miss United Kingdom and then Miss World. This show was in keeping with the playboy lifestyle and by then the press was full of stories about his profligacy and his affairs with models and actresses. When he drove Joanna Lumley to the Montreux television festival in 1968, he crashed his Aston Martin and ended up in hospital.

At the start of 1969, Dee Time was switched to Monday nights, an indication that the show was losing support, but Dee wanted a higher salary. Rather than dealing through an agent, he argued personally with Bill Cotton and said that he had had a better offer from London Weekend Television. Cotton told him to go.

The Sunday evening Simon Dee Show began in February 1970 with the presenter securing £1,000 for each appearance. As David Frost had blurred the boundary between news and entertainment, Dee was encouraged to have all manner of guests on the programme and to discuss whatever was relevant. This misfired on 8 February 1970 when the guest list featured John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Diana Rigg and the new James Bond, George Lazenby. Lazenby named some American senators whom he felt were involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Dee admitted to knowing nothing about the subject and asked Diana Rigg what she thought. This feeble response to a potentially libellous remark enraged the management, and he was told he would be sacked if there was another incident. As it turned out, LWT had lost confidence in the show as the viewing figures were poor, especially in comparison to Frost, then in his ascendancy.

Dee left LWT feeling that he had been victimised and he became paranoid, believing that his phone had been tapped because of his opposition to the Common Market. He had alienated both the BBC and ITV, and doors were closing. A single, "Julie", failed to sell and his cameos in The Italian Job (1969) and Doctor in Trouble (1970) did not lead to further film work. He signed on at the Labour Exchange in Fulham Road; presumably it was he who tipped the press off to this.

Although Dee made sporadic attempts to return to the public eye (including one in Australia), he became famous for losing his fame. He was often in court and he was jailed in 1974 for non-payment of rates. In 1979, he was arrested for stealing from Woolworth's and found that the magistrate was Bill Cotton, who fined him £25.

In 1980 Dee inherited money from his father, but he squandered it. In 1988 he returned to the BBC, presenting Sounds of the Sixties on Radio 2. His three-month stint passed by uneventfully, but the regular presenting job went to Brian Matthew. In 2003, Channel 4 brought back Dee Time for one programme and broadcast a documentary, DeeConstruction. The reviews were poor, and compared his interviewing technique to that of Alan Partridge. The spoof Sixties movie Austin Powers certainly owes something to Simon Dee.

In 2006 Richard Wiseman wrote the biography Whatever Happened To Simon Dee?; within a couple of months it could be found on sale in remainder shops.

Spencer Leigh

Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd (Simon Dee), broadcaster: born Manchester 28 July 1935; married firstly Beryl Cooper (one son, one daughter, marriage dissolved), secondly Sarah Terry (one son, divorced 1985), thirdly Judith Wilson (one son, divorced 2004); died Winchester 29 August 2009.

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