Sooty: Inside The Mind Of TV's Tortured Bear

Sooty has entertained kids for the last 60 years, but has he still got what it takes? I went to meet the notoriously shy teddy bear...
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Sooty has entertained kids for the last 60 years, but has he still got what it takes? I went to meet the notoriously shy teddy bear...

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Sweep is on holiday and Soo doesn’t live in London, Sooty’s PR tells me via e-mail - puppets that don’t exist have a better quality of life than me. Two years ago, Mathew Corbett (son of Harry Corbett, creator of Sooty) had to sell off the Sooty franchise when crippling arthritis left him unable to operate his beloved bear, a puppet that has been in the Corbett family for over 60 years. They sold the franchise to a young Leicester resident called Richard Cadell. I went to check on Sooty’s welfare under new ownership.

“I’ve come to see Sooty”, I say to a voice over an intercom in London’s Oxford Street. “Oh, you better come in.” As a child,I would go to see Sooty every year at the Mayfair theatre. I’d sit in awe as these simple glove puppets would bicker, cause mischief, and go on numerous adventures. It was simple but utterly hilarious. I always dreamt that I would be called up onstage to be squirted by Sooty’s legendary water pistol. This was 20 years ago - little did I know that, as opposed to a desperate child, the best way to achieve this was as a 26-year old man who runs his own comedy magazine.

Richard Cadell, current employee of Sooty, greets me in his office where the walls are adorned with Sooty memorabilia and posters of the pantomimes that he produces - Brian Blessed, Leticia Dean, and Bobby Davro look at me from the walls. In anticipation, I ask Richard where Sooty is. Richard makes out that I’m the mental one for pretending Sooty is real. “He’s in his box”, he replies. “Shall we get him out?” “You mean wake him up, right?” I say. “Yes, yes, wake him up.”

I think that in order for this to work it would be best if we immerse ourselves in Sooty’s world rather than just getting him out of the box like a lifeless glove puppet. Richard agrees, but in practice this is harder for him to get his head round. Sooty emerges from his box, magic wand in tow, to shake my hand and slap me five. Richard looks into the beaming eyes of a bearded 26-year old man and stares into the middle distance, pontificating on the situation. “I’m buying into the whole experience of sitting in an office in the middle of Oxford Street with you, Harry, and you, Sooty, and wondering quite how my career reached these dizzy heights.” Sooty looks worried for Richard’s well-being. I wonder who’s controlling who.

I have to admit that this is a weird situation, but fuck it. I got into journalism to experience unique situations like this, but just as I begin to make some headway into what lies beneath Sooty’s famously shy persona, my dictaphone runs out of batteries. Sooty whispers to Richard how unprofessional I am, and laughs a laugh that only an imaginary bear can laugh. Degraded by a puppet, I feel like I’ve let the readers down, Richard down, but - more importantly – I feel like I’ve let Sooty down. Luckily, Sooty has some spare batteries in his box and we are able to continue the interview.

“Sooty says he is quite surprised that you didn’t bring any batteries, and that this is the most unprofessional interview he has ever done”, gloats Richard. Not for the first time in the interview there is an awkward silence, as I ponder whether it’s really Sooty or Richard who thinks I’m unprofessional. As does Richard. Do I remember the magic spell? Of course I remember the magic spell. Sooty chastises me for being sad. I’m not the one who tours round provincial theatres with my hand up an orange teddy bear doing magic tricks for children, I think.

I always dreamt that I would be called up onstage to be squirted by Sooty’s legendary water pistol.

I say the spell: “Izzy wizzy, lets get busy”. Nothing happens. I say it again. Just as I begin to have a go at Sooty for his unprofessionalism, a puff of fire blasts out of Sooty’s box, which distracts temporarily from the awkwardness of two grown men pretending a puppet is real. Sooty squirts me in the face with a water pistol, rupturing my train of thought. This is how he controls his interviewers and stops them from prying into his personal life…stops them finding out who Sooty really is. Who is the real puppet, Richard or Sooty? It’s hard to tell. I look deep into Sooty’s eyes. Sooty looks back in mine.

“Sooty has got to do some paperwork for his upcoming tour”, Richard explains. “Do you mind?”

Do I mind that a puppet is making an excuse so we don’t have to continue the interview? “No”, I lie. Richard shuts the box. “That was weird. Me and Sooty were talking about Emu the other day, and about how he always pecked his interviewers and Sooty squirts his”. Yes, that is weird. As soon as you put Sooty away in a box, you are perfectly content to talk about him as a real person; you have conversations with him when nobody’s here.

“Would you like to meet Sweep?”

Sweep is Sooty’s partner in crime. They met at a bus stop 54 years ago, and have been friends ever since. As soon as his grey puppy face appears with his hangdog ears and high pitched squeak, the awkward tension from what went before disappears. Sweep is a charmer! Yapping away, I could talk to Sweep all day. It feels like we have a lot in common – our awkward relationship with Sooty for starters. Sweep admits that Sooty can be difficult - he is often distant and reserved, preferring to speak by whispering in Richard’s ear, but once you get to know the real Sooty, you have a friend for life.

I ask Sweep how it’s been working with Richard since he took over the Corbett dynasty. Sweep says that Richard has been great taking the franchise to a new level. I ask him how come all three puppets are single, and if there has ever been any inter-puppet relationships “ We’ve always tried to keep our relationship professional within the troupe, we are here to entertain the kids. That’s our job, and we wouldn’t want to let anything get in the way of that”, Sweep squeaks. What does he do to relax? “Chew a bone. Play with a ball in the garden.”

After an hour of talking to two puppets I used to idolise as child, I think it is probably best if we wind the interview up. Like a child I’ve had a little too much excitement for one day. So what have I learned from chatting to Richard and the boys? Richard is doing a great job and is looking after the franchise well; Sweep is a great guy really - good company, a bon vivant. As I step out on to Oxford Street, I think about Sooty. He’s a deeply troubled puppet, his chronic shyness masking deep-rooted insecurities. But that’s what I guess makes him so interesting, and perhaps that’s why he has been around so long: we like our stars complex and troubled. Maybe he should get help. Though if there’s one person in this story who needs psychiatric help after talking to two puppets for the last two hours, that’s me.

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