Starting life as a simple holiday purchase in Blackpool, the little yellow hand puppet became a national treasure. By Rachael Rowe
Sooty and Sweep entertained thousands of children (and more than a few adults) during the 1950s and 60s, and probably millions more through the 70s, 80s, 90s and the new century. The delightful puppets are still recognisable today.
Unbelievably, it’s 75 years since Sooty first took a bow. But did you know he had a Blackmore Vale connection?
The beginning of Sooty
When the 30-year-old Harry Corbett was on holiday in Blackpool with his family in 1948, he bought a yellow glove puppet for 7/6 (37.5p in ‘new money’) to entertain his children.
As a part-time conjurer, he practised magic tricks with the bear, but little did anyone know how famous that puppet would become.
Originally called Teddy, the bear appeared with Harry on the BBC’s Talent Night programme in 1952. To make the puppet more distinctive on black and white television, Harry blackened his ears with soot. The ear makeover also gave Teddy a new name – and forever after he was known as Sooty.
When Sooty won the Talent Night programme, he was given a regular slot on the Saturday Special in the 1950s. In July 1955, Sooty got his own TV show, based on a series of sketches. Harry Corbett did the voiceover and created Sooty’s famous catchphrase: ‘Bye-bye, everybody. Bye-bye.’
Sooty rarely said anything, preferring to whisper mischievously in Harry’s ear.
A family of voices
But Sooty was lonely on his own, and soon he had a best friend, a grey-haired dog called Sweep, whose distinctive squeak was created by Harry Corbett’s brother, Leslie, blowing through a saxophone reed! Another chum, Soo the panda, joined the family in 1964. Her motherly tone was voiced by Harry’s wife, Marjorie. The Sooty Show – later becoming just ‘Sooty’ – ran from 1952 until 2004 and was then relaunched in 2011. It remains the longest-running non-consecutive children’s show, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
The Child Okeford Connection
Born in Bradford, Harry Corbett – and, of course, Sooty, Sweep and Soo – lived with his family in Child Okeford, for most of his life. Behind the house on Station Road was an outhouse where Harry created the sketches and filmed the puppets in action.
In 1962, an article in The Stage described their home as ‘a lovely old farmhouse in Dorset with a large paddock that housed the cavalcade of three Sooty cars, all emblazoned with an emblem of the puppet’.
There was a caravan as well. According to the Kent and Sussex Courier in 1972, Harry disliked hotels and preferred a caravan when touring. At the time, Marjorie remarked: ‘The only thing I miss is the garden. We popped in recently, and the bulbs were just coming through.’
Although the Corbett family no longer lives in the village, they are remembered with fondness by local people.
Gary Ridout remembers the Corbett household: ‘He (Harry) had brick stables at the back, which he turned into a small studio where he made props and did some filming. My claim to fame is I own one of the aluminium lighting poles that ran across the ceiling! I bought it when they were moving house to use as a mount for a CB radio aerial. I once delivered a bed to them and was very surprised when the woman’s voice who opened the door was the voice of Soo.’
The Corbetts were very much part of the village. Sara Crane recalls: ‘He used to come into the pub opposite [the Union Arms, now a private home] with his missus. She was lovely.’
The pub was the Union Arms, now a private home. On New Year’s Day 1976, Harry was awarded the OBE – but the award was actually intended for the Steptoe and Son star Harry H Corbett, who was an avid Labour supporter. Someone had left the middle H out of the recommendation by Harold Wilson!
In the end, both Corbetts were awarded OBEs – on the same day – and there was a miniature medal for Sooty at the investiture.
In 1976, Harry retired following a hearth attack, and Sooty and Sweep were taken over by his younger son, Matthew. However, Harry found it difficult to let go, and even after Matthew Corbett bought his father out for £35,000, Harry continued touring with his one-man stage show. In 1989, Harry Corbett and Sooty played to a packed-out audience in Weymouth before returning home to Child Okeford. He died in his sleep that night.
There is still one small reminder of the Corbetts’ time in Child Okeford today. The house where they lived and created Sooty sketches is a private home.
But, as you walk by, take a look at the upstairs window. You will see three distinctive figures – Sooty, Sweep and Soo are gazing out at the street below as the owners’ lovely nod to their connections with both the house and this Dorset village.