For over a staggering sixty years the anarchic antics of a little yellow bear named Sooty, brought laughter and enjoyment to whole generations of appreciative younger viewers.
Sooty's genesis occurred in 1948 when, during a family holiday in Blackpool, a Yorkshire engineer and part-time magician named Harry Corbett chanced upon a glove puppet teddy bear in a novelty shop at the end of the seaside resort's famous north pier. "I'd always had a thing about teddy bears," noted Corbett, years later. "And this one had a cheeky face. It was almost as if it was saying, 'Don't leave me here.' " So Corbett parted with the princely sum of 7s 6d (38p.) and returned to the boarding house with his new partner-to-be housed within a brown paper bag. Corbett soon set about incorporating the puppet into his magic act with immediate success. It was in 1952 that the mismatched duo made their television debut on a BBC show called Talent Night, to instant success. The TV critic of the Sunday Express newspaper writing on 4th of May commented: 'Five minutes on the television screen last night established Harry Corbett's teddy bear as a rival to Muffin the Mule.' At that point, the bear was known simply as "teddy", and due to its decidedly sharp features, appeared to look more like a rat! Acting on advice to give the puppet a more distinctive look and its own name, the Corbett's carried out many experiments until they finally dubbed it's ears and nose with soot from the chimney. The result, and the character name which the look had suggested to them, ensured their place in television history.
Totally confident of success, Corbett, at the age of just thirty-four, gave up his day job to become a full time professional entertainer. The decision was a wise one, and quickly led to an inclusion in the BBC children's series Saturday Special that starred comedy actor, Peter Butterworth, (who would later become a regular in the legendary series of 'Carry On' films).
From Saturday Special, Corbett and Sooty quickly graduated to their own show, with Corbett taking the precaution of paying £150 a year to insure the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand for £20,000, in case of accidents. As in all the great double acts, Corbett's own character was every bit as important as that of Sooty as he quickly made the role of perennial victim to the bear's unending series of messy practical jokes into an art form of understated, good humoured harassment. Although for some, the BBC wardrobe department in particular, Sooty's pranks were less of a joke, as Corbett explained: "I always used to wear a good suit, because if you wore overalls the kids would know right at the start that something messy was going to happen and it wouldn't be as funny. One time I was covered in a pound bag of flour and two eggs. My suit was in a right state but I peeled it off and took it along to wardrobe as usual. But when I returned to collect it two weeks later, it was still bundled up in a corner where I'd left it. Attached to it was a curt note, which read: 'In future please take your suits back home and clean them yourself.' After that I started taking them to a cleaner in Bradford. Every week I'd turn up with a suit plastered with raw egg and flour. The manager thought I was a raving lunatic!"
Another controversy was ignited by one of Sooty's favourite props, a harmless, puppet sized balsa wood hammer. The then head of BBC children's television, Freda Lingstrom disapproved strongly with the inclusion of the hammer, claiming it set a bad example to youngsters. This fear was borne out when the story surfaced of a man who was reading his Sunday paper at home when his son, without warning, hit him over the head with a real hammer - so forcibly that he had to go to hospital for stitches to the potentially fatal wound. When questioned by his mother over why he did such a thing, the child replied: "Well, Sooty did it."
1957 saw Sooty joined by Sweep, a wonderfully dim and endearing dog with a sausage fetish. Together they formed an immaculate double act which made them very much akin to the Morecambe and Wise of glove puppets. Seven years later, another character was introduced, Soo, a sweet little panda girlfriend for Sooty. The then staid and highly moral BBC were not amused and immediately proceeded to ban Soo on the dubious grounds that her inclusion would bring sex into children's television! Eventually, following a vocal public outcry, the corporation relented, only on the strictly understood condition that Sooty and Soo must never touch. After Soo, other new supporting characters quickly followed, including Ramsbottom, the Yorkshire snake, Kipper the cat, and Butch -a fierce dog who was the archenemy of the timid Sweep. As well as TV Corbett took the show on the road, touring large theatres to the massed delight of children and a growing number of adults everywhere.
In 1968, both Corbett and the bear's career seemed in jeopardy, when, along with fellow puppet sensations Pinky and Perky, his show was cancelled by the powers-that-were at the BBC. But a stunningly successful transfer to ITV's Thames Television ensured the character's on-going popularity. Then, at 3.3Oam on Christmas Day, 1975, Harry Corbett suffered a massive heart attack. Although he eventually made a full recovery, it was decided that he was simply too weak to carry on working full time, so the mantle of Sooty's mentor was taken up by his son Matthew. Sadly, Harry Corbett passed away in 1989. One of the keys to the magic of Sooty's total acceptance by his audience was the fact that his creator himself regarded the puppet as an almost living being. Corbett was devoted to Sooty and regarded him as a child, one of the family. This even extended to family holidays, where once Corbett actually turned the car back for home when he realised they had forgotten Sooty. In fact, when the puppet travelled it was always ensured that he was laid out reverentially on a piece of cloth -always face up - in a box with air holes, so that he could breathe properly. He would never allow Sooty to be thrown about and, even after a hard day at the studio, he didn't bully him at home. He never exacted revenge for a good soaking by using Sooty to wipe the dinner dishes. What's more, Harry always kept his nails short - much to Sooty's relief.
Across the years there have actually been in excess of 1,000 Sootys, but for Harry Corbett they were all one and the same. Shortly before he died, Corbett senior noted frankly: "I often found myself wondering what he was thinking. It was as bad as that. Before every show, I washed his face and brushed his fur. If I accidentally dropped him, I immediately apologised. I know it sounds ridiculous regarding Sooty as a person because he was really only two fingers on my right hand, but I can't help it. The worst thing was having to break in a new Sooty puppet. I used to think of it as a new partner who didn't know me yet. I got so anxious, I used to come out in beads of sweat. And I felt terrible about the one I had just discarded - I used to apologise to them and say, 'I'm sorry but I'm not using you again.' I'm so bloody soft at times."
Soft and sentimental as he undoubtedly was, it was the belief which effortlessly communicated itself to the hearts and minds of the little bear's ever growing and loyal legion of fans. This magic acceptance of Sooty's existence was tellingly illustrated when Harry Corbett was awarded the O.B.E., and a special mini award was also made for Sooty.
Bye, bye, everyone...bye, bye...
Published on January 31st, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (October 2000). "Izzy Whizzy, let's get busy" for Television Heaven.