Sooty at 70: Magic, water pistols and enduring popularity

By Chris Long
BBC News Online

Published
image copyrightGetty Images/PA
image captionSooty has appeared in numerous shows for both the BBC and ITV

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.

image copyrightJack Hulme
image captionBefore TV, Sooty did not have black ears - they were added so he could be seen on screen
image copyrightPA
image captionSooty with Harry Corbett and his sons David, nine (left) and Peter, six (centre), in 1955. Peter would go on to be better known as Matthew Corbett
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe pairing of Sooty and Harry Corbett was an instant hit, winning a public vote to take a BBC talent show title. And they knew a good place to buy musical instruments...

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".

image captionFamilies helped Sooty celebrate his 70th birthday at a party in Blackpool
image captionIn 1965 Harry and Sooty appeared on Desert Island Discs. Their luxury item was a trumpet, while songs included My Favourite Things by Julie Andrews
image captionBears go to school and wear glasses too, you know
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWill there be a cake to rival this one for Sooty's 70th birthday?

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.

image captionSooty was handed from father to son in 1976, when Harry retired and Matthew took up the reins
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe bear's madcap antics saw Matthew Corbett end most shows with a good soaking

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

image copyrightKPPR
image captionCouples were getting together in front of the TV cameras long before Love Island

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.

image copyrightPA
image captionSooty has had a myriad of co-stars, but the best known is the cheeky dog Sweep. Here they are in their smartest winter attire
image copyrightPA
image captionSuch has been Sooty's fame that he and his friends have also been immortalised in animation

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.

image copyrightPA
image captionSooty has returned before to the spot where he met his mentor
image copyrightSteve Ullathorne
image captionRichard Cadell joined the Sooty Show in the 80s and took charge in 1998

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."

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