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The little orange bear with the sooty ears and nose has been a British TV tradition since his TV debut on BBC TV Talent Night in 1952.
The Head of BBC Children’s Television, Freda Lingstrom, contacted Harry Corbett and offered Corbett and Sooty (who was originally called ‘Teddy’) more work. Thus they became regular guests on a children’s variety show called Saturday Special (1951 – 1953), starring comedian Peter Butterworth.
Sooty was every child’s hero – able to misbehave with impunity and torment the life of poor old Harry Corbett. The mischievous little glove puppet delighted in squirting his master with a water pistol or covering him in flour.
But Sooty was born in unlikely circumstances. The original puppet was bought by Harry (then a Bradford businessman with an engineering degree), at the end of Blackpool North Pier for 7s 6d in July 1948.
By 1955 Sooty had his own series – The Sooty Show – and the naughty bear was a firm fixture of the BBC’s schedules.
On one show, Sooty – aiming for Harry – squirted Janet Brown with black water paint. Not only was Janet wearing a light coloured gown which she had bought for £100 especially for the programme, but she was just about to sing her solo number and had no option but to warble in a paint-spattered dress.
Sooty also risked royal wrath by squirting Prince Philip with his water pistol at a trade show. He was probably only spared a night in the Tower because Princess Anne was said to be a big Sooty fan.
He was joined in 1957 by his (equally as naughty) sausage-obsessed squeaky dog friend Sweep, and by Soo (Sooty’s cute panda girlfriend) in 1964. Because Harry Corbett had to keep at least one hand free, his brother Leslie operated Sweep.
Annoyingly voiced by Corbett’s wife Marjorie, Sooty’s little panda girlfriend, Soo set about declaring herself the standard-bearer of bear morality – although the ever-vigilant BBC producers insisted that Sooty and Soo should never touch.
Meanwhile, the bear and the dog made a great double-act – the Morecambe and Wise of glove puppets – with Sooty’s “oofle dust”, magic wand and xylophone and Sweep with his endless strings of sausages and supplies of bones.
Other characters followed, such as Kipper the cat; Butch the fierce bulldog who made a rottweiler look like a toy poodle; and Ramsbottom – a snake with a broad northern accent – and after many years appearing on the BBC, Sooty and Corbett moved over to Thames Television in 1968 for a long-running half-hour series with ITV.
Suffering from ill-health (he suffered a near-fatal heart attack on Christmas Day 1975), Corbett handed the show over to his son Peter (stage name, Matthew) who, born in 1948, was the same age as Sooty.
Soo changed her voice twice, but each new actress somehow managed to be as monotonous as the last.
After more than a quarter of a century as the popular and jovial recipient of Sooty’s flour-bag, water hose and hammer assaults, Harry Corbett died in 1989. His widow, Marjorie, commented that he was the only man who could “stick his hand up a bear’s backside, wiggle its ears and make money”.
The Sooty Show came to an end in 1992 when Thames Television lost their ITV franchise. The puppet was resurrected the following year in Sooty & Co which ran until 1998 and introduced Sooty’s naughty cousin Scampi – a schoolboy bear with a love of catapults.
In 1998, Sooty inherited a new “right-hand man” in the shape of magician Richard Cadell who led Sooty & Co on ITV. Sooty has also been seen as an animated cartoon on TV in the UK and in a sitcom called Sooty Heights, about the hotel management industry.
There is a Sooty museum in Shipley, Yorkshire.