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
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