Happy 70 th bırth­day Sooty!

As the cheeky lit­tle bear hits a very big mile­stone, he chats with Ni­cole Lam­pert – via his pal Richard – about his izzy, wizzy, busy decades de­light­ing the na­tion

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS -

He is tele­vi­sion’s most tac­i­turn star. De­spite be­ing in the pub­lic eye for most of his life, he only ever di­rectly com­mu­ni­cates with a hand­ful of peo­ple. Oth­ers, like me, have to deal with his good friend Richard Cadell, who trans­lates as he ‘whis­pers’ in their ear. So why doesn’t Sooty talk. Is he shy?

‘ No, it’s not that,’ is Sooty’s re­sponse via Richard. ‘I’ve soaked Prince Philip with a wa­ter pis­tol, much to the Queen’s amuse­ment, and squirted Cherie Blair too, which had every­one laugh­ing. They’re not the ac­tions of a shy bear. It’s just that my mouth doesn’t re­ally move. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.’

Well, that’s true. It also makes Sooty’s reign at the top of the tele­vi­sion tree – he’s in the Guin­ness World Records book for star­ring in the long­est-run­ning (non-con­sec­u­tive years) chil­dren’s TV pro­gramme – even more in­cred­i­ble.

And this month the bear, who still ap­pears on ITV, turns 70, an event he’ll be cel­e­brat­ing with a big birthday party in Black­pool. On 19 July, 1948 the lit­tle yel­low fel­low (‘I’m 20cm off the ground, which al­lows me to keep a low profile’) was bought from a nov­elty shop in the town by en­gi­neer and amateur ma­gi­cian Harry Cor­bett

for 7s 6d (about £13 to­day) to amuse his sons Matthew and David while on a fam­ily hol­i­day. Then known as Teddy, he would do lit­tle magic tricks and the chil­dren adored him. But it didn’t take long be­fore the wee chap (ap­par­ently you can’t say pup­pet in his vicin­ity, it’s a dirty word to him) be­came too big to en­ter­tain just two chil­dren. Harry ap­peared on a lo­cal BBC tal­ent show and black­ened the bear’s nose and ears with soot – which led to his name of Sooty – in 1952. He did magic tricks with his catch­phrase ‘izzy, wizzy, let’s get busy’ and squirted peo­ple with his wa­ter gun; a TV star was born and

he’s barely been off the box since – start­ing off on the BBC, then switch­ing to ITV in the late 60s.

‘My first trick was saw­ing a dolly in half,’ re­calls Sooty. ‘I called her Penny and when she was cut in two, a Half-Penny! Now I’m work­ing on a new TV se­ries, I’ve got a DVD be­ing re­leased, I’m in the mid­dle of a na­tional tour and there’s a ma­jor movie in the pipe­line. I’m hot­ter than ever.’

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Sooty on his show­biz jour­ney has been his friend Sweep, the dog with his char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘squeak’, and from 1964, con­tro­ver­sially, Soo the panda bear. When Harry first came up with the idea of a ‘girl­friend’ for Sooty there were fears it might cor­rupt the na­tion’s chil­dren. The show’s pro­ducer told Harry he was afraid that in­tro­duc­ing a girl ‘would al­low sex to creep into the pro­gramme’. Harry pre­vailed but on the pro­viso that Sooty and Soo must never touch.

Even in this era of Love Is­land, their friend­ship is pla­tonic. ‘Re­mem­ber, though I’m 70 in hu­man years I’m like Peter Pan and am forever five,’ says Sooty a touch wist­fully. ‘So I guess ro­mance is per­ma­nently off the cards.’

There have also been some high-profile spats. Basil Brush called Sooty a ‘rot­ter’, among other things. ‘Don’t talk to me about that crea­ture,’ says Sooty. ‘It still hurts.’ And over the years he could only watch as fel­low bears Padding­ton and Win­nie-the-Pooh be­came global stars. ‘They might be loved all over the world while I’m only big in the UK and Aus­tralia, but I’m the one in Guin­ness World Records. I’m the one who’s a mem­ber of The Magic Cir­cle,’ he says. ‘So they can put their mar­malade or honey on that and spread it!’

Sooty’s al­ways been much more than a toy for his hu­man friends. ‘Harry, who first bought him, was ob­sessed with Sooty,’ says Richard. ‘Matthew al­ways told me there were three kids in their fam­ily; him, his brother and Sooty. And Sooty nor­mally came first. Harry was Sooty’s fa­ther and he felt that strongly.’

When trav­el­ling with the bear, Harry would make sure his box had air­holes in it to al­low him to breathe and would apol­o­gise pro­fusely if he dropped him. Matthew later blamed Sooty for his fa­ther’s death, be­cause he be­came a worka­holic. ‘He was beSOOTYed with me,’ laughs Sooty to him­self.

In 1975 Harry suf­fered his first heart at­tack. Matthew soon took over the act, buy­ing the rights to the bear for

£27,000, a huge sum at the time, from his fa­ther. He had one stip­u­la­tion: that Harry didn’t try to take Sooty back when he was feel­ing bet­ter.

Matthew took Sooty to new heights of TV and mer­chan­dis­ing suc­cess but in 1980 Harry was feel­ing bet­ter and in­sisted he still be al­lowed to per­form with Sooty, say­ing his life wasn’t worth liv­ing if he couldn’t. A com­pro­mise was reached – Harry was al­lowed to per­form with Sooty along the south coast, and Matthew could per­form ev­ery­where else and do all the TV work. But that wasn’t enough; Harry kept on cross­ing bound­aries.

He had per­formed with Sooty ear­lier on the day he suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack in 1989. Dur­ing that show he’d said to the au­di­ence, ‘I want to get some­thing

straight. Matthew is Sooty’s very good friend, but I’m Sooty’s dad.’

Matthew never felt quite as strongly about the bear but worked just as hard as his fa­ther. Among his fans was one Richard Cadell. Aged 15, Richard won the Young Ma­gi­cian of the Year award in 1983 and as a re­sult got to ap­pear on The Sooty Show. ‘It was a dream come true, and I re­mem­ber think­ing, “I’d love to do this reg­u­larly,”’ Richard re­calls. ‘But I never thought it would hap­pen.’ In 1997, how­ever, Matthew, with his 50th birthday ap­proach­ing, got in touch. His wife wanted him to re­tire and he’d al­ready ac­cepted an of­fer for the rights to Sooty – bankers Guin­ness Ma­hon paid £1.4m for them in 1996. Now Matthew won­dered if Richard, wh o he With cur­rent as­sis­tant Richard re­mem­bered from their en­counter on the show in 1983, would be in­ter­ested in tak­ing over. Richard, who was still per­form­ing magic, jumped at the chance.

‘Sooty was a life-changer for me,’ he says. ‘I’ve been do­ing it for 20 years but I still don’t feel wor­thy.’ At first Sooty and Richard went through some dark years, the rights to the lit­tle fella be­ing sold from in­vestor to in­vestor, none of whom seemed to know what do to with this quirky, non-talk­ing yel­low bear. ‘It’s al­ways been a very Bri­tish show but they fid­dled around with it to try to give it in­ter­na­tional ap­peal,’ says Richard. ‘They lost the slap­stick and the jokes; it wasn’t Sooty any more. Matthew said to me, “If my fa­ther could see this he’d turn in his grave.”’ It didn’t work at all so it was no sur­prise when, in 2004, CITV ( ITV’s chil­dren’s chan­nel) dropped it. It seemed that might be the end of the story.

In 2007, how­ever, Richard dis­cov­ered that the rights were, once again, up for sale. He and his brother snapped them up and Richard took Sooty back to ba­sics. Pretty soon, he was back on CITV and in theatres across the land. He hasn’t looked back since.

‘To me, Sooty and Sweep are just like all the other great dou­ble acts: Lau­rel and Hardy, More­cambe and Wise, Ant and Dec,’ says Richard. ‘The com­edy is time­less. So much chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion is now very hi-tech with lots of CGI, but we’re all about low-tech pies in the face. It’s so old, it’s al­most like it’s new again.

‘And Sooty seems to res­onate with peo­ple young and old. I get lots of let­ters from kids. He’s struck a par­tic­u­lar chord with those with autism and learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.’

Sooty has also be­come a cult fig­ure in some strange places. Bee Gees star Barry Gibb takes a Sooty on stage with him when he per­forms, as does Iron Maiden drum­mer Nicko McBrain.

In the wake of the suc­cess of the Padding­ton movie, a big-bud­get Sooty film is now in the works. He’s also launch­ing his own YouTube chan­nel, while on his lat­est ITV se­ries, stars from ac­tress Lisa Ri­ley and singer Peter An­dre to Only Fools And Horses ac­tor John Chal­lis hap­pily sub­mit to be­ing pied in the face and sub­merged in wa­ter.

‘I do the same jokes and magic I did with Harry Cor­bett all those years ago and the chil­dren still laugh as hard,’ insists Sooty, who’ll throw a big 70th birthday party in Black­pool next Satur­day, per­form­ing a show with Richard and spe­cial sur­prise guests, and meet­ing his fans af­ter­wards. ‘I’ve had dif­fer­ent han­dlers, been in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. It’s felt seam­less, un­like me. My seam runs straight down my back!’ Sooty and friends ap­pear on ITV and CITV, Satur­days and Sun­days, 6am. A new se­ries will be out later this year.

‘Harry was Sooty’s fa­ther and he felt that strongly’

Sooty and Harry with the Queen in 1955

Sooty with his ca­nine co-star Sweep

Left: Harry, with Sooty and son Matthew, shows off his OBE in 1976. Above: Sweep with Soo

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