Simon Dee -- Britain's equivalent of Dick Cavett -- for a heartbeat in the Sixties -- till he self-destructed... Dee died of bone cancer on Sunday August 30th
It was London in the autumn of 1968. The world premiere of the film version of The Killing Of Sister George. Taking place in a cinema in Kensington or Chelsea. I was barely 16. I had no right whatsoever to be there. But in my modus operandi of that era, I had bullshitted my way into being invited as a student journalist. The fact that I was not a student (having been expelled from the last school I ever attended at the age of 14) and not a journalist -- were minor details that were overlooked. If memory serves, in common with most premieres, the seating was dictated by the tickets. It was not open-seating. So it was pre-ordained by the fates that I would be seated immediately behind the man who at that time was probably the most famous TV host in Britain -- Simon Dee. Though it could not be known at that time, on that night he was at the exact mid-way point of his meteoric TV career that lasted an entire three years. His rapid ascent into the stratosphere only being exceeded in velocity by the warp-speed of his descent into notoriety and subsequent obscurity.
I recall being quite excited to be seated in such proximity to a star I had seen on TV. Apart from a few autograph seeking encounters at celebrity cricket games at the age of 7 with stars such as Ian Carmichael (at the height of his fame as BBC TV's Bertie Wooster in the 1960s - long before the foppish cartoon version trotted out by Hugh Laurie in the 1980s) - I had not found myself breathing the same air as TV personalities before. Certainly not since I had assumed the almost-grown-up role of faux journalist.
What I recall most about Simon Dee that night was his exceptionally loud reaction to a line in the script that apparently tickled his funny-bone more effectively than anything else in the film.
The film cast Beryl Reid as a feisty lesbian actress in a TV soap opera who comes into conflict with her BBC bosses. As the story unfolds we see the renegade character in increasingly rancorous disputes with the suits at the network. At a crucial point in the film she flees into a public bathroom and locks the closet door. Her lover -- played by a ravishingly delectable Susannah York -- becomes alarmed at the amount of time Reid is in the stall. "What are you doing in there?" she asks through the door. "I'm writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation" replies her partner.
This line elicited a gale of laughter from the premiere crowd, which obviously included a lot of entertainment and media types. But the eruption of laughter that was the loudest to my ears came from the famous frame directly in front of me. It obviously touched Dee in a very personal way. He rocked back and forth in merriment -- cackling, whooping and hollering at the line. Since such disputes as he was having at the BBC were completely unknown to me at that time -- I just assumed that everyone who worked at the BBC had disputes of the ilk shown in the film. And it was that that had amused Dee.
In hindsight -- and with full knowledge of the clashes between Dee and the BBC that contributed to his downfall -- one can see the catharsis that that line offered the 33-year-old Dee.
Reading the obits of the flaming star that was Simon Dee - and the downfall that was alas almost entirely his fault -- the recollection of this brief encounter came back to me. And the parallels with the character of the actress who played "Sister George" are altogether too painful. Like June -- the actress who portrays Sister George -- Simon Dee was a victim of his own personality. The very attributes that made him so likable as a radio deejay then TV host -- also contained the seeds of his self-destruction. Hubris, arrogance, delusions of grandeur... All were present in Simon Dee. And yet... his natural charm was greater and less transparent than that of David Frost. But Frost knew how to play the game. And Simon Dee was clueless in that regard.
What we witnessed in those halcyon years between 1967 and 1970 was the Self-Killing of Brother Dee. But rather as we imagine the experiences of the leggy blonde in the E-type Jag who accompanied Dee as he sped away in the signature film clip that ended every episode of his short-lived weekly talk show -- it was a lovely ride...
So thank you Cyril Henty-Dodd -- alias Simon Dee. Dee Time turned out to be a lot shorter than any of us could imagine. But no less memorable for its brevity.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more