When Harry Corbett bought a bear glove puppet on Blackpool’s North Pier in 1948 to entertain his children, he could surely not have realised he was teaming up with a future TV icon.
Sooty, who turned 70 on Thursday, cost the then-engineer 7s 6d (about £11.50 in today’s money) but proved a bargain as he grew from those humble beginnings into a star of stage and screen, delighting generations of children on both the BBC and ITV.
Although he whispers into his co-stars’ ears, the rest of us have never heard him speak a word, as he prefers to let his wand and water pistol do the talking. And yet the “magical” bear has still managed to have a catchphrase – “Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy” – which his human companions have uttered to accompany his tricks.
Richard Cadell, who has been keeping Sooty in check since 1998, said it was “an amazing achievement that Sooty is so popular after 70 years”.
But for him, the “secret is absolutely the simplicity of it all – everybody knows The Sooty Show”.
Sooty shot to fame four years after he and Corbett teamed up in the Lancashire resort, winning the BBC’s Talent Night programme in 1952 and bagging themselves a series shortly after.
TV also gave Sooty his black ears and nose, as Corbett decided to cover them with soot so they would show up on black and white transmissions – the colouring also gave the bear his name.
Since then, Sooty has barely been off the screen, appearing in shows that have seen him show off his magic and comedy skills, run a hotel, work as a shop assistant and entertain several generations of children.
And he’s taken all his antics on to the stage too, appearing in pantomimes and Christmas shows for decades.
The controversy of Soo
- Speaking on Wogan in the 1980s, Harry Corbett said when he first introduced the idea of Soo as Sooty’s girlfriend, he was told by a producer that she could not be included as “it’s sex creeping into the programme”
- The story was covered in the national press, with one headline reading “No sex for Sooty”
- BBC bosses relented, but Harry was told that while Sooty could have a girlfriend, they “must not touch”
- There have been other Sooty controversies too – in 2001 the government was accused of using the popular bear to promote the census without seeking permission from his owners
Corbett retired in 1976, shortly after moving to ITV, and Sooty was passed to his son, Matthew, who found equal success and an even wider cast of friends.
Most passing fans will know Sweep, a dog, and Soo, a panda, but they are far from the only pals to have appeared on screen with the bear.
There has also been air-time for Sooty’s cousin Scampi, Butch the dog, Sweep’s parents, two cats called Kipper and Miki, Soo’s Australian cousin Soola and a snake called Ramsbottom.
Since Matthew Corbett’s retirement in 1998, it has been down to his Sooty Show co-star Richard Cadell to try and keep on top of the little bear’s antics.
He has taken Sooty back to Blackpool to celebrate his birthday with the unveiling of a plaque and a special day of celebration.
For him, Sooty’s enduring appeal is in his familiarity.
“Parents trust it and they know what they’re going to get,” he said.
“It’s good simple slapstick family friendly laughs from one of the most adorable characters in television history.”