The pirate king steps ashore to find his family out on the street 

1 February 2018

From the TVTimes for 17-23 January 1970

Life as Britain’s first “floating” disc jockey had its drawbacks — and seasickness was only one of them. But soon after his debut on Radio Caroline, on Easter Saturday, 1964, Simon Dee had his first taste of fan fever… with six million people tuning in. Then one day the bailiffs moved into his flat… the pirate blew his top and his career took a big step forward.

Back in the early Sixties, while I was changing jobs more often than most people swap collars, one nagging ambition formed in my mind: I wanted to act. So, from my meagre earnings, I paid £5 a week to the Stanislavsky Studio, where I learned the technique now known as The Method. For three whole years this was the only enterprise I stuck at.

Several of us broke away to form a group called Studio 61, and we used to rant and rave in a room above a Regent Street pub. At this time I had a job with an office-equipment firm, checking and passing invoices for artwork. Well… I thought I could slip through a few advertising bills for Studio 61, and charge them to the firm’s account.

I kidded myself that Art needed subsidy, but the boss of the firm didn’t see that he should provide it. So when he found out, he both fired me and demanded £ 180. Luckily I was able to borrow an inheritance due under my grandfather’s will. Otherwise I might have had yet another job — sewing mailbags.

Although my acting bug hadn’t produced any offers to join Olivier at the Old Vic, it did bring about the “break” I was looking for.

I was now (are you still following me?) working for a West End flat-finding agency in Jermyn Street. One day in the winter of 1963 a young fellow so Irish he might have been spawned by leprechauns came in looking for accommodation. There was a great recognition scene, because we had met at Studio 61. His name was Ronan O’Rahilly, and he was incubating the idea that was to burst on the air six months later as Radio Caroline. He asked me to throw up everything and join him. I could see the risks. The whole thing — a “pirate” station operating from a ship anchored 11 miles off the Essex coast — was a bit gangsterish, rather frightening.

But I also felt in my bones that it was what I had been waiting for.

There were still problems when Simon Dee joined the “pirates” – like the three-month-long separations from his wife, Bunny, and Simon junior.

That night I went back to the small room I shared with my wife — and, now, with Simon junior, all of one year old. “I must do it,” I said, hoping that Bunny would agree. “Of course you must,” she said. Without her quiet confidence, I don’t think I would have gone through with it, and maybe Dee would never have had his Time.

I was auditioned by Ronan’s assistant, Chris Moore, and he thought I was fairly good. All those hours of listening to the radio at school when I should have been mugging up algebra had paid off. I was enlisted as a disc jockey — a vocation, I can tell you, I’d never planned.

It wasn’t an easy job, putting on records, ad-libbing the links, keeping a bucket handy in case my landlubber’s stomach took steps to separate itself from the rest of me. But it was exhilarating — there was the feeling of being a pioneer and the response was fantastic. In the first three weeks, we had an audience of more than seven million. Already I was getting loads of fan letters — delivered by tender — and jerseys, ski hats, coffee, cigarettes. And when I came ashore for the first time after nine weeks on Caroline I could see hundreds of people waving on the quayside at Harwich. It took me almost an hour to sign the autograph books. This, I thought to myself, must be the beginning of something.

But those early weeks on Caroline put a terrible strain on Bunny. We couldn’t phone each other, and for almost three months she and the baby had only themselves for company.

“Should I stifle my pride… and go back?”

She was anxious about me, afraid I might be arrested. I tried to calm her mind by letter, but she was lonely and depressed and sometimes thought of packing up and going home to her parents. And she was very short of money. I was only getting £15 a week, and it became impossible to make ends meet.

One day she found bailiffs in the flat, and the furniture on the pavement. I arrived back off the ship and really blew my top. I went storming down to the Caroline London office and demanded a rise, threatening to leave if they didn’t take care of the debts. I used a bit of weight. Caroline had become so popular that they needed me. So they agreed to my terms, with just a few murmurs. And I began to realise that things had started to happen for me.

First of all we got a decent place to live, and switched to a two-weeks-on-board, one-week-on-shore stint so that I could spend more time with Bunny and the baby. But then I began to have rows about what records I should play (I refused to spin trash) and was finally moved off the ship to an administrative job at the London office.

I’d also quarrelled with Caroline’s Dutch captain. One of the dee-jays was taken seriously ill during an afternoon programme. I put through my own S.O.S. Within 15 minutes, there was a rescue flotilla of motor boats and yachts steaming our way. The captain got very uptight, refused to have me on his ship. So I made a dignified exit.

The christening of the Dee offspring at St. Albans Church, Wood Street, Guildford

It had been great, invaluable experience. I must have broadcast more than 1,600 hours of unscripted programmes. And I was being paid, at the end, the princely sum of £23 a week.

The final bust-up came one Friday when I walked out of the London office after a silly quarrel about a tape-recorder. I knew that Bunny’s unspoken thought would be “Oh, God, not all that moving around again!” I wondered whether I shouldn’t stifle my pride and go back. I still wasn’t really aware of the impact that those programmes had made.

Anyway, I sat down in a cafe in Shepherd’s Market, had a coffee, and started to think it out. I had, of course, made contacts in the music business, and one of them was Donald MacLean, who worked for the BBC’s Light Programme. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to walk round to his office and have a natter.

He didn’t really believe that I had left Caroline: I’d cried wolf several times in the past and always pocketed my pride and gone back. But I convinced him that this time it was for real. He told me that he was putting together a disc programme to be called “Swing into Summer” — and I could do it.

The ex-pirate relaxes… surrounded by records and tapes in the hi-fi den that serves as an office at his London home

I emerged from his office like a fellow who’d lost a sixpence and found a half-crown. Now I had something positive to tell Bunny. Instead of going home with news of unemployment — and she’d got pretty used to that — I had something to crow about.

And it was about this time that I began to think of a show of my own on television.

NEXT: My diabolical TV debut… and the man who ‘saved’ me

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