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How a little yellow bear bought for pennies on blackpool’s North Pier became a children’s TV legend

Sooty with Harry Corbett - From 1976
Sooty with Harry Corbett - From 1976
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In a world of fast-moving animation and computer generated children’s TV shows, in a quiet corner of our screens, there’s a little yellow bear with black ears making the same kind of mischief that he has for the past 70 years.

And today, Sooty will celebrate his landmark, platinum year, right here in his birth town Blackpool - in the very spot where he was discovered all those years ago at a novelty store on North Pier.

Sooty and Richard on the North Pier

Sooty and Richard on the North Pier

As the story goes, magician and entertainer Harry Corbett picked up the simple yellow bear hand puppet as a gift for his son Matthew.

Four years later, Harry and Sooty - with the addition of soot-stained ears and nose to show up better on black and white TV - won BBC’s Talent Night show and went on to become regulars on the BBC children’s show Saturday Special.

“Coming back to North Pier for Sooty’s birthday, it’s just right, isn’t it?” Richard Cadell said of the birthday celebrations planned at North Pier today, with a free family fun day from 2pm.

“It’s where Harry Corbett discovered him and that story is like a fairytale.

“Back in that era, Sooty was not a high tech toy, he’s just what you would get in a novelty store on a pier - and those places have long gone now everywhere.”

Harry retired in 1976, passing Sooty, as well as his friends Sweep and Soo, on to his son Matthew, who in time and turn passed the gang on to Richard.

And he’s been their faithful companion since 1998.

“I have never worked a day in my life,” Richard said of his time with Sooty and co.

“It is amazing that he is 70, but also really lovely that he has survived this long.

“Because I love it, it doesn’t mean kids necessarily will and that they will still want to watch it in the way they do.

“It’s amazing in this day and age of fast-moving crazy stuff and technology that the Sooty and Sweep show is so popular that we can’t handle the demand.”

AS POPULAR AS EVER

Part of the secret of Sooty’s on-going popularity, according to Richard is how parents and grandparents watch it to look back on their own childhoods - recalling more simple times.

“It’s genuinely very funny for everybody who watches it; there are things for the adults in it as well as the kids,” he said.

“Now because everything has become animation and CGI, it’s refreshing to have this live action puppet show.

“Parents like your kids to watch it, as it reminds them of shows from their day and it’s reassuring that it is the same as they watched - and grandparents remember it and trust it.

“I’ve never met somebody who hasn’t either had a Sooty, or Sweep or Soo toy, or played with one belonging to a friend.

“The fact you can play with it, have it on your hand and that it’s identical to the one on the telly, makes Sooty special - he can live outside the TV show.”

And while it’s fairly common place for kids’ TV shows to have their own live stage shows these days, Sooty has toured the UK with his production for decades, and as Richard points out: “It’s one of the only kids brands that exactly what they see on TV when you see it on stage - it’s not a ‘version’ of the same thing.”

With Richard the third puppeteer to look after Sooty, how has the little yellow bear changed in his care?

“He hasn’t, that’s the bottom line,” Richard said. “I bought the rights in 2008 and have complete artistic control. I loved how Harry and Matthew did it so didn’t want that to change.

“The TV shows for ITV have got faster, and we tend to bring Sooty into the real world more with real people so he’s not behind the counter so much.

“But the character has not changed at all. Sooty is still that naughty little friend we all have, while Sweep is a bit stupid and Soo is the clever girl.”

Looking back over his own 20 years with Sooty, Richard has some special memories to share.

Just this week, he and Sooty unveiled a new brass plaque at North Pier during a live broadcast on ITV’s This Morning show - and he already has a blue plaque on the Promenade’s railings just nearby.

But going back to the beginning, although he’d worked on the Sooty & Co show with Matthew Corbett - Richard wasn’t quite prepared for the reaction being Sooty’s right hand man, so to speak.

“I remember when I had first taken over from Michael Corbett and was presenting my first stage show,” he explained.

“I was behind the counter, slipping Sooty on my hand while talking to the children saying ‘If you see him, shout out’, and their reaction when he came up - they went ballistic.

“That’s when I really realised he’s not just a prop, that Sooty is like Santa Claus to these kids.

“Within a few months, we were invited to go to 10 Downing Street by Tony Blair and Cherie Blair, and ended up on the front of the News Of The World squirting Cherie Blair with a water pistol.

“And that’s the power of it.” Simple really.

“And more recently, I met Harry Corbett’s very first BBC series director Trevor Hill, who’s in his mid 90s now.

“He gave me the Sooty puppet which Harry had given him after that very first series.”

But wait a minute... I thought the first Sooty was installed in a cabinet on North Pier?

Richard puts me right: “The fact that somebody owns the very first Sooty is nonsense.

“Matthew Corbett told me. You know, Sooty was bought as a play thing for Matthew and he was worn out by the time the character was remotely of interest to anyone else.

“By the time he hit the big time, Sooty had been thrown away.

“Matthew has said his father said if only he had known what Sooty would become, he would have put him in a glass case.”

Richard actually bought one of the very early Sootys back in 2008 in an auction, having already agreed he would donate it to the town and that puppet sits on North Pier to this day.

“The council was never going to win it with a bid of £300, so I said I’d own it but donate it - and it all worked out for the good.”

And that’s the bear seen on the pier.

Sooty’s not the only national treasure celebrating 70 years this year, and he’s taken part in some of the NHS’s birthday events.

He’s not quite in the same predicament as the health service, so what’s the future for Sooty, Sweep and Soo?

“I would hope he can go on forever,” Richard said.

“When you look at how it has happened over the years; Harry Corbett fathered Sooty in every respect; he really loved him as a son.

“Matthew inherited him and was part of the family.

“I’m not a descendent but I’m a pal of the family and Matthew chose me to take Sooty on.

“I do everything like Harry did; I write it, make the props, etc, and whoever inherits it from ne has to be like that.

“And that is the only way it survives, a one-man band keeping it small and beautiful.

“I hope I’ve got a good time left... The Chuckle Brothers are back on TV and they’ve got a combined age of 147, so I’ve got at least another 20 years left in me.”

n Catch up with Sooty, Sweep and Soo - and Richard Cadell, today from 2pm at North Pier. There’s also a special edition of The Sooty Show, live on North Pier Theatre, tickets £7, with proceeds to Donna’s Dreamhouse, NHS Teaching Hospital Blackpool and Sooty’s long standing charity partner, the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Blackpool branch.