Due to Sooty’s lack of opposable thumbs and his penchant for communicating via the medium of whispering into someone’s ear, when I called him it was Richard Cadell – Sooty’s right hand man – who answered the phone. Sooty was busy having a wash and blow dry as well as some stray hairs plucked so Cadell and Northern Soul chatted while we waited for the ursine megastar.
So, Sooty’s been in showbiz now for 65 years, even longer than Cliff Richard, that could go to a bear’s head. Is he difficult to work with?
“Well… there’s a joke coming up, he’s a handful. No, he’s great, as long as I keep my fingernails trimmed he never gives me any problem. It’s an absolute joy to work with Sooty, Sweep and Soo. They are legends. Everyone grew up watching them so it’s great to be part of that nonsense, to be privileged to listen to what Sooty whispers into my ear, to listen to the inane squeaking from that dog and understand it.”
For those of you wondering what happened to Matthew Corbett, or even his Dad, Harry, Cadell took over the Corbetts’ family firm back in 1999 when Matthew retired. Cadell had worked alongside Matthew in his final series with Sooty and, although he wasn’t family, Cadell’s love of The Sooty Show had been noted many years earlier.
“When I was 15, I was Young Magician of the Year, the Magic Circle’s annual competition, and as a result of that Matthew Corbett invited me on to The Sooty Show as a guest. So I was only 15 when I first met Sooty, Sweep, Soo and Matthew and it was a profound moment because I was always a fan of the show – and so then to suddenly be a guest on it and seeing how it all works I became even more of a fan. I just loved the mechanics of it and I appreciated it on a whole new level. I think that registered with Matthew and the team because when he announced his retirement they remembered me and that’s how I was asked to replace him.”
Finally Sooty appears but it turns out that he is a little phone shy. “I can get him to come over here but I don’t think you’re going to be able to hear him, it’s not the best scenario…”
There are some rustling noises, then crashing. “No! come up here, oh no we’ve got everything everywhere now! He’s knocked everything over the floor! Really!”, exclaims an exasperated Cadell.
Oh dear. It goes all quiet for a moment then Cadell’s back on the line. “Sooty’s waving down the line at you with a sheepish look on his face.”
I’m waving back.
“You’re waving back? Sooty says you should get out more.”
Yeah, my cat’s looking me as if I’m slightly mad now too.
“Sooty’s looking at you like you’re slightly mad.”
Then he’s talking to Sooty again, “No! Come back with that!
“He’s just ran off with a coffee cup. Sorry, carry on.”
He’s obviously very lively, which is surprising considering he’s been in the business 65 years. How does he keep interested? “Well he’s eternally five, so he’ll always keep going with the magic spring in his step. But I think as long as there are kids who enjoy him then he’s one of those magical characters that will carry on. As long as he gets the laughs and applause he’ll hang around. A bit like Bruce Forsyth, he’s 20 years ahead of Sooty and Sooty brushes up a lot better than ole Brucey does.”
Unlike Forsyth, Sooty was discovered on a stall in Blackpool by Harry Corbett back in 1948. Corbett brought Sooty home to Bradford as a companion for his son Matthew but Sooty was also to accompany Harry in his act on stage and TV. A few years later he was joined by his friends Sweep and Soo. That must be a pretty tight team now after all these years, or are there rifts? Like a puppet version of ABBA. Or Pink Floyd?
“Sweep’s one of Sooty’s best friends. You’re very lucky that Sweep’s not around actually, there really would be trouble. Soo is always the slightly more sensible one of the trio; the slightly bossy one that we all remember starting her career making tea for Mr Corbett. She doesn’t do that so much these days for me. She does more boyish things like stripping down engines and mending motorcycles.”
Can she do bicycles? “She can do all sorts, she’s a very clever little panda actually.”
Can I wheel mine over while she’s in Manchester? “Do.”
Talking about Manchester, Sooty and the gang are appearing in the Winter Wonderland Christmas extravaganza at EventCity – which also includes a circus, games, stalls and rides as well as two Sooty shows per day.
“I love big events like that,” notes Cadell. “I love doing theatres but they’re very disciplined, everybody’s sitting in rows, all very polite, but I like stuff that’s much more buzzing and all the parents and adults are there. Theatre tends to be the Grandmas bringing the kids along; we’re going to get a nice cross section of people at Winter Wonderland so it’s going to be fun for Sooty to interact and he brings his big water pistol along. For his stage show he has a huge water pistol that he always aims at the adults. The kids love that so we’re going to have a right old giggle.”
Yes that infamous water pistol, has it ever got you into trouble?
“I think the worst experience that I had with my time with Sooty was when I was doing the Belfast Opera House and Sooty appeared from up in one of the boxes and he’d squirt the whole audience from the box with this hose. The rig that they used to do this was a garden sprayer attached to the hose pipe and the guy that was setting it up hadn’t changed the water in it since they’d done it four months previous. So when the water came out the whole auditorium stank with the most horrendous stagnant cabbage smell. But that wasn’t Sooty’s fault, he just pulled the trigger, you can’t blame Sooty. That was about eight years ago and I never admitted to it before, it’s too late now to claim. I think you’ve got three years to lodge a claim!”
Let’s hope so. We’re sure that it will only be the purest, ultra-filtered water aimed at Manchester audiences this Christmas. After all, Sooty is going to be back in his native north. “Yes, Sooty’s very much a Northern bear, born in Blackpool, lived in Bradford. He has quite a lot of Northern connections so it’s quite fitting that he should come to Manchester. Sooty’s going to be very much at home at Winter Wonderland.”