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A Little Bear Called Sooty

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Matthew Corbett and Sooty the bear.
Izzy wizzy, let's get busy

Teddy bears appear to get everywhere from comic books to people's bedsides. There are even famous ones such as Rupert Bear, Winnie the Pooh and Paddington. This Entry looks at how a bear named Sooty came to fame.

On Finding a Little Yellow Bear

On 19 July, 1948, an engineer called Harry Corbett was looking for something with which to entertain his children, David and Matthew, while on holiday. He was browsing the seaside shops that graced the North Pier in Blackpool when he came across a yellow hand puppet in the form of a bear. He bought it for 7s 6d1 and soon started entertaining his two sons with the puppet, whom he affectionately called Teddy.

You can imagine what it was like having a dad who wanted to keep you amused all the time... my friends were pretty jealous.
- Matthew Corbett

On returning with the family to his home in Bradford, Corbett went back to his second job as an entertainer, playing the piano and acting as a magician. However, he’d now be accompanied by Teddy, who, though shy and only communicating by whispering into the ears of his presenter, was mischievous. Teddy got up to tricks like squirting people with a water guns, hitting things with hammers, throwing custard pies, using a magic wand and playing the xylophone and organ.

Screen and Stage Delight

In 1952, Corbett was asked by a television producer to put on a show for BBC North's Talent Night. As television was in black and white at that time, it was felt necessary for Teddy to undergo a slight transformation, making his features more distinguishable. Some soot was added to his ears, and from then on Teddy was renamed Sooty. The double act was such a huge success it became a regular feature on the television programme Saturday Special, and they made many more stage performances, too.

Before long, it was felt the bear deserved his own programme called the Sooty Show, which first aired on the BBC in 1955. It is featured in the Guinness Book of Records as one of the longest running children's television programmes ever, and it is still ongoing.

That same year, Sooty and Corbett hosted the BBC's first televised appeal to raise money for children.

Harry was awarded an OBE in 1955 for his service to children's television. During the ceremony, Sooty used his water pistol to squirt Prince Philip, which caused the Queen to laugh.

Naturally, I had the water-pistol handy and I was trying to pluck up courage to squirt the Queen, but she was wearing velvet so I thought perhaps I'd better not. Instead I swung round and let Prince Philip have it - straight in the face! The Queen really howled with laughter.
- from The Secret Life of Sooty by Geoff Tibballs

In 1957, Sooty was joined by Sweep, a dim but loyal companion dog puppet who communicates by squeaking. They encountered many more puppets such as the villainous Butch (the bulldog), Kipper and Tigs (two cats), 'Enry the Robot, and Scampi (Soo's cousin). It was Soo, a sensible, audible, talking black-and-white panda puppet that swept Sooty off his paws and has stayed with him longer than many others. The decision to have a love interest in Sooty's life prompted a move to Thames Television in 1968, where the gang have been ever since.

Keeping it in the Family

In 1975, Corbett suffered a heart attack and a temporary replacement was sought. They came in the form of his son Matthew, who also entertained children in the television programme Rainbow. Matthew bought the rights to the Sooty Company, but when his father became well again and tried to return to Sooty a row ensued. In the end a compromise was made whereby Harry would do some live shows with Sooty while Matthew would do the televised work. The last shows by Harry and his wife Marjorie took place in Weymouth, Dorset. Harry died in 1989.

Matthew continued to grace television screens with Sooty, but sold the rights to the show to Hit Entertainment in 1996.

Matthew retired in 1998. With nobody from Harry's family willing to step forward to be Sooty's right-hand man or woman, it was deemed the right time for Sooty to leave home.

Sooty Leaves Home

Matthew recalled meeting a young puppeteer and magician called Richard Cadell on the show in 1985. Cadell went on to be a well-known magician, radio presenter and children's television entertainer. He was the obvious choice to become Sooty's right-hand man, and took up the reins in 1998.

In 1999 the show faced criticism from the Independent Television Commission for featuring a sketch in which the cast sniffed bottles and the presenter swallowed a pill. The ITC said it was unwise to show this sketch to children for fear that they may try sniffing various bottles and taking pills. A spokeswoman for the company Sooty & Co said: 'The intention had been to introduce children to fragrances, not to encourage them to play with bottles. But we accept the ITC's findings.'

That same year, Britt Allcroft and Sooty International Limited collaborated to create Bridgefilms, and soon started making plans to market Sooty worldwide through cartoon strips, videos, toys and books. Sooty had already appeared on screen in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It was now felt he should seek out audiences in the USA and rest of Europe.

After presenting the Sooty Show for ten years, Cadell bought the rights to the puppets in June 2008, with financial help from his brother. The sale went through for around £1 million. In an interview with the BBC, he explained why he thought Sooty had lasted 60 years:

His essence hasn't changed. In an era when people say tastes have changed and become more sophisticated, it's re-assuring that children still laugh at the same jokes they've laughed at for the past 60 years. Sooty's also had such staying power because he's a teddy bear, and the first toy a child always gets is a teddy bear. Here's a teddy who looks just like theirs, and yet this one moves around and plays tricks!

At the time of the sale Cadell was purported to be working closely with Sooty on creating future television series and stage productions. So, fans, watch this space.

Bye, bye, everybody, bye bye
1Although this literally converts to 37½p, taking inflation into account, it was the equivalent of spending about £10 on a toy today.

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