So who was your favourite? The quiet, slightly enigmatic Sooty or the squeaky, slightly more emotional Sweep? There was a third main character in The Sooty Show of course but, personally, I always found Soo to be a little bit too much of a know-it-all to really bond with her.
Generations of children have grown up with those mischievous furry glove puppets; Harry Corbett (not to be confused with Steptoe & Son actor Harry H. Corbett) created Sooty way back in 1948. And we are lucky to have had Sooty really. Harry was the nephew of fish and chip entrepreneur Harry Ramsden so his career could have easily taken a more salt and vinegar-y path. Or Sooty could have been a fish instead of a bear…
Having purchased a yellow glove puppet to keep his children amused on holiday, he realised the potential of it as an act and took it on the BBC programme Talent Show in 1952. He darkened the bear’s nose and ears with soot (I’ll leave it to you, then, to make the leap to how the name of the puppet came about) and had Sooty doing a bit of slapstick (splashing Corbett with water etc.) and magic tricks (Sooty had a wand for this purpose, which he used along with Corbett’s phrase ‘Izzy Whizzy, let’s get busy!’). Corbett kept Sooty as a silent sidekick; leaning down to the bear to allow him to ‘whisper’ into his master’s ear, adding to the comedic value.
Following this appearance, Corbett was invited to perform on Saturday Special, a fortnightly children’s programme hosted by Peter Butterworth (of the Carry On films fame) and his wife Janet Brown (later to become famous for her impressions of Margaret Thatcher). It didn’t take long for the BBC to offer Corbett his own show, which began in July 1955 and ran until it was cancelled in 1967.
The show involved Harry interacting with the puppets – Sweep, a light grey and not too bright dog, arrived in 1957 and Soo, a panda, was introduced in 1964 – in sketches and various hijinks. Sweep communicated through a series of squeaks (made with the reed from a saxophone); when he was incensed about something his squeaks came thick and fast. When Soo came along she was the voice of reason between the three of them (she spoke in a human voice, brought to life by Brenda Longman); she always knew the right thing to do or the calming thing to say to sort out the situation they were in. Interestingly, she was also often found wearing a red gingham dress, which seemed a little unnecessary as the boys (not including Harry obviously) didn’t wear anything at all.
After leaving the BBC, Corbett took The Sooty Show to the newly formed Thames Television, where it went out on ITV until 1992, when Thames lost its ITV franchise.
Harry’s son Matthew took over The Sooty Show in 1976 after Harry suffered a heart attack and retired from television. Most of the episodes from 1981 onwards took place in Matthew and his little friends’ house and were more like a sitcom than a sketch show. They generally included some kind of moral or life lesson - e.g. telling the truth – and there would be many occasions where Matthew would boast that he was fantastic at some particular activity and then amusingly mess up his attempt at it. A friend of the Corbett family, Connie Creighton, would also make guest appearances from time to time and she also helped present the Sooty stage shows (which I went to once as a birthday present when I was little – it was very good) which tours the country to this day.
Running alongside The Sooty Show for three years from 1989 to 1991 was Learn with Sooty! - educational videos that helped teach children about reading, numbers, science, animals and safety, featuring the same team of Matthew, Sooty, Sweep and Soo.
When The Sooty Show left Thames, with 45 series under its belt at that point, Matthew Corbett took the programme to Granada and it was relaunched as Sooty & Co. This ran for another six series, from September 1993 until December 1998 and was set in a Manchester junk shop (obviously); the gang ran the store with the help of Sooty’s scampy cousin Scampi – a school boy, sorry, school bear, who also did not speak out loud.
In 1996 CITV (the children’s ITV channel) also broadcast 16 animated episodes featuring the furry crew. Called Sooty’s Amazing Adventures it involved just that: Sooty, Soo and Sweep heading off on lots of amusing escapades. Along the way they meet the Scottish branch of their family: McSooty, McSweep, McSoo and McScampi.
Matthew Corbett retired from his public life with Sooty etc. in 1998, after 22 years of having his ear tickled by Sooty’s whispering habit, irritated by Sweep’s high pitched squeaking and aggravated by Soo’s lecturing. Sooty et al, however, continued to perform and Corbett personally chose the next human that would take charge of the chaos. Richard Cadell was already familiar with the fuzzy gang: he’d been one of the employees of the junk shop in Sooty & Co.
Cadell’s first outing as main presenter began with Sooty Heights in September 1999: a two series Sooty programme which saw them all trying to run a hotel. Liana Bridges (who had also worked in the Sooty & Co. shop) helped him out. In 2001 the show was renamed simply as ‘Sooty’ and went out on CITV for another three series, with Vicki Lee Taylor replacing Bridges. Butch the dog (similar in appearance to Sweep, except he was dark brown, had a bright red nose and could speak) and Miki, a Brazilian chef…oh, and who was a cat as well, were also in residence.
Hotel Sooty finally closed its doors in January 2004 and the stars took a well-earned break. Richard Cadell bought the rights to the Sooty empire from Matthew Corbett in 2008 and in 2011 CITV revealed his new position as ‘Mr Fix-It’ at a holiday park near the sea. Sooty, Sweep and Soo were on hand, of course, to help him out with any tricky jobs and occasional guest ‘stars’ (Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, Frank Bruno, Anne Widdecombe, Keith Chegwin anyone?) popped in as well. A second series began in the autumn of 2013 with another one planned for after they’d finished touring their stage show in 2015.
Sooty is quite definitely a national treasure. This loveable, cheeky fuzzball has brought fun to many, many children over the years and for a bear who is nearly 70, he’s not looking half-bad either.