A Little Bear Called Sooty

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Izzy wizzy, let's get busy

Teddy Bears appear to get everywhere from comic books to people's bedside. There are even famous ones such as Rupert Bear, Winnie the Pooh and Paddington. This Entry looks at how one 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 6d (37½p)1 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 to his home in Bradford with the family, Harry also went back to his second job as an entertainer playing the piano and acting as a magician. However, this time he would also be accompanied by Teddy, who although being shy and only communicating by whispering into the ears of his presenter, was also mischievous and 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, Teddy and Harry were asked by a Television Producer to put on a show for BBC North's Talent Night. As television was in black and white only 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 re-named Sooty. The double act was such a huge success that they became a regular feature on the television programme Saturday Special and they made many more stage performances.

Before long it was felt that the bear deserved his own programme called the Sooty Show which first aired on the BBC in 1955. The show devoted to Sooty is featured in the Guinness Book of Records as being one of the longest running children's television programmes ever broadcast and is still ongoing. That same year, Sooty and Harry hosted the BBC's first televised appeal to raise money for children and Harry was awarded an OBE in 1955 for his service to children's television. During the award ceremony Sooty decided that he would use his water pistol to squirt Prince Phillip, 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 that communicates by squeaking and they encountered many more puppets such as villainous Butch the bulldog, Kipper and Tigs (two cats), Enry the Robot and Scampi (Soo's cousin). However, 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 other puppets. 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, Harry suffered a heart attack and it was deemed necessary for a temporary replacement to be found. The replacement came in the form of Harry's son Matthew who also entertained children through 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 where by Harry would do some live shows with Sooty and Matthew would do the televised work. The last shows to be undertaken by Harry and his wife Marjorie took place in Weymouth, Dorset. Harry died in 1989.

Matthew continued gracing the television screens with Sooty but sold the rights to Hit Entertainment in 1996. In 1999 the show faced criticism from the ITC Television Watchdog company as it featured a sketch that showed the cast sniffing bottles and the presenter swallowing 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 and 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 been viewed in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand but it was felt that he should seek out audiences in America and the rest of Europe too.

Matthew retired in 1998, but 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 in 1985 on the show and Richard had since gone on to be a well known magician, radio presenter and children's television entertainer. Richard was thus the obvious choice to become Sooty's right hand man and after presenting the Sooty Show for ten years bought the rights to the puppets with financial help from his brother. The sale went through for around a million pounds. In an inteview with the BBC he explained why he thought Sooty had lasted for sixty 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 sixty 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!

When it was noted that the sale had gone through it was purported that Richard would be working closely with Sooty on creating future television series and stage productions. So fans watch this space.

Bye, bye, everybody, bye bye
17s 6d (37½p) is equivalent to spending about £10 on a toy today.

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