Sooty sweeps the board in race for rights

Children's favourites: Historic characters up for auction as technology develops multi-million pound profits
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The Independent Online
JOJO MOYES

Some of Britain's favourite platinum-selling acts are due to change hands within days, in deals worth millions of pounds in royalties and video sales.

It is not Blur or Oasis swapping record labels, but it would be fair to say these acts are popular with the young. Sales of Sooty's last two videos reached 1.3 million, Noddy has his own "fanzine" and Winnie the Pooh is a worldwide film star.

Sooty, the petulant glove puppet, is said to be "as certain as possible" to be bought out by Sooty International, his management company, in a deal rumoured to be worth pounds 4m.

This would mean the end of his association with the Corbett family, with whom he has worked hand-in-glove since 1952.

Publishers Reed Elsevier confirmed yesterday that bidding was in process for many of the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie the Pooh and Babar the Elephant, as part of the sale of its consumer books arm.

"There's an auction in place. There are a number of serious players and they are enthusiastic about the business," said a spokesman yesterday.

One of those bidders is rumoured to be Carlton Communications, who were said to be negotiating a multi-million-pound deal to buy the copyright to the Bear of Very Little Brain.

Meanwhile the copyright to Noddy, for whom the merchandising alone is worth pounds 42m, is said to be "within weeks" of changing hands.

Salar Farzad of the corporate finance arm of Price Waterhouse, which is handling the sale of all Enid Blyton's copyrights, said it was fine- tuning a deal with a "preferred purchaser".

Despite the advent of computer games, these characters - the youngest of whom is at least middle-aged - are extremely lucrative thanks to video, computer technology and merchandising.

"What's key about this industry at the moment is that technology is changing at such a rapid rate that there's all sorts of outlets," Mr Farzad said. "These are all brand names; the parents knew them and they're still popular with the children."

Sales of Enid Blyton books number more than 8 million copies a year, with translations into 27 languages. Noddy alone has sold over 100 million books since his birth in 1949.

Partly because of Noddy's huge popularity, BBC Children's Video has become the second largest video label after Walt Disney. On the back of the television series, there are 300 "licensed products".

Competition is also thought to be especially fierce for Thomas, who has grown into a pounds 2bn worldwide business since his creation by the Rev Wilbert Awdry 50 years ago.

Winnie the Pooh, meanwhile, achieved celluloid fame after Disney bought the rights to transfer the books to film and to market products based on the screen characters in the 1960s.

Sooty's likely buyer, Sooty International, has helped create a multi- million pound industry around him. Videos such as Learn to Read With Sooty and Learn Simple Arithmetic With Sooty have hit 1.3 million, grossing pounds 10m.

The sale has come about because Sooty's partner, 48-year-old Matthew Corbett, is said to be keen to retire. His late father, Harry, would no doubt be gratified at the comfortable retirement that Sooty's efforts promise for his son. Mr Corbett senior bought the puppet more than 40 years ago to amuse Matthew - for the equivalent of 37 and a half pence.

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