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Sooty and Richard Cadell – Oldie hand-in-glove bear of the year. By Roger Lewis

Blog | By Roger Lewis | Nov 23, 2023

Sooty, Oldie hand-in-glove of the year (Neil Spence photography)

As Sooty and Richard Cadell received our Oldie hand-in-glove bear of the year, Richard said, 'I'm used to playing to children of six, so Oldie of the Year is a different crowd. But it's OK. Sooty has been taking his CRT - Cliff Richard Tablets. He's 75 this year but has never had Botox and has never smiled or frowned.'

Sooty and Richard Cadell – Oldie hand-in-glove of the year. By Roger Lewis

The place: a penthouse flat in Frognal Lane, Hampstead, sometime in 1963. Those present include Stanley Kubrick, Sterling Hayden, Thora Hird’s daughter, Janette Scott, and their host, Peter Sellers. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny,’ said the Goon, ‘if Sooty went mad and tried to strangle Harry Corbett?’

Thus was born the idea of Dr Strangelove’s false arm, which has a mind of its own and tries to throw Nazi salutes and throttle its owner. The real Sooty, as I well remember from my childhood viewing, was similarly mischievous. Harry had to endure constant attacks, as Sooty wielded custard pies, watering cans, teapots and oil canisters. Should there be a scene set in a bathroom, it was as inevitable as night following day that Sooty would squeeze toothpaste into Harry’s eye.

I grew up with puppets: Pinky and Perky; Andy Pandy. You could always see the strings or wires glinting in the light, as the figures floated slightly above the ground. Nor were glove puppets any more real – not even Basil Brush, the chortling, vulpine version of Terry-Thomas. I dreaded the idea that Shari Lewis, who manipulated Lamb Chop, would be revealed as a relative.

Yet children, in my day, and in the name of entertainment, were frequently confronted with these non-human figures, which was just as well – when human children’s personalities included Jimmy Savile. And it never crossed my mind that Sooty was fully independent of Harry, who loomed above him, now and again awkwardly adjusting props and costumes with his free hand.

The semi-make-believe was part of the charm – and the success. There were 403 episodes of The Sooty Show between 1968 and 1992, which is remarkable when you think Harry died in 1989. Some 91episodes, in black and white, from the fifties, have been lost. But there’s plenty left and to spare in the archives to show that Sooty, as silent as Chaplin, had a gift for gentle mayhem.

When coming across a potter’s wheel or if entering a paint shop or finding himself in a tool-shed, Sooty will without ado take aim at Harry with anything singularly messy. Guest stars making career highlights on the programmes included Gareth Hunt, Jim Bowen and Brian Blessed.

Sooty, a child surrogate armed with a water pistol, was aided by Sweep, the squawking delinquent with flapping ears. The squeaks were made by Harry’s brother Leslie, a saxophonist. Then there was Soo, anxious-voiced and seemingly menopausal, as if on tranquillisers. I never did fully work out the dynamics of this ménage. Was Soo a wife, girlfriend, mother-in-law? It’s like something out of François Truffaut.

Harry himself was born in Bradford in 1918, a scion of the Harry Ramsden fish-and-chip-shop empire. Harry began his career playing the piano in a fish-and-chips café but, half deaf, he could not make music his profession. Instead, he tried magic – and (‘Izzy whizzy, let’s get busy!’) Sooty, the custard-yellow glove puppet bought in Blackpool, himself often waves a wand, when not banging a glockenspiel with a rubber hammer.

Today, as masterminded by Richard Cadell, Sooty is a franchise, and turns up with Sweep and Soo doing summer shows and pantos, on cruise ships and in circuses. Sooty Land may be found at Crealy Theme Park in Devon.

My son Tristan, the professional clown, was on the bill recently with Sooty. In show-business circles, that’s like sharing the bill with Lord Olivier.

Harry Corbett received the OBE. Though the medal was probably intended for Harry H Corbett of Steptoe fame, the Queen declined to rectify the error.

By Roger Lewis