Sooty: his place in history
He was bought last week for £1m. But did you know his birthday tribute to Nelson Mandela is the most popular? Or that he always has a hand in the key moments in our national life? By Cole Moreton
Sunday 29 June 2008
Of all the birthday tributes received by Nelson Mandela over the past few days, perhaps the one most likely to bring tears to his eyes was from Sooty. You can see it on YouTube, alongside those from the Clintons and the Blairs. The accomplished magician, one of Britain's best-loved entertainers, waves a wand over a pair of cakes and transforms them into the number 90 – the birthday celebrated by Mandela with the stars at Hyde Park on Friday.
"Sooty was deeply honoured to be asked to record a message," said his latest spokesman yesterday. There are many other tributes available online, from some of the biggest stars in the world, but the one by Sooty is the most watched. This should be no surprise. Critics may call him soft, and there have long been Tom Cruise-style rumours that his life is controlled by unseen forces, but a close look at his career reveals Sooty to have been at the heart of British life for the past six decades.
He's even bigger than Brucie, but it goes way beyond showbiz. Like Woody Allen's fictional creation Zelig, the real-life Sooty has an uncanny knack of surfing the ebb and flow of our culture and popping up at key moments. Whenever something really important happens, Sooty is there with his water pistol and rubber hammer, bending history into shape. It started back in July 1948, when he was discovered on a stall on the North Pier in Blackpool, working under the name of Teddy. A star was born – in exactly the same month as that other great British institution, the National Health Service. Can it really have been a coincidence?
The cakes in the Mandela video say 60 before they say 90, because both Sooty and the NHS are celebrating their 60th year this month. Both have had to adapt to survive: Sooty has reinvented himself many times in the face of sex and drugs scandals, and big money deals; while the NHS has been through countless reorganisations and crises. But both still provide a reassuring presence in these difficult times. You can still see a GP for free, and Sooty is still working his magic, most recently for Mandela.
"Izzy wizzy," says his handler on the video, invoking a catchphrase familiar to all, "let's get busy!" Richard Cadell is a fellow magician who has been helping to host his friend's television shows for a decade and who acquired the worldwide rights to Sooty's image and name on Thursday. He paid between £500,000 and a million to wrest them from Hit Entertainment, the consortium that owns Bob the Builder. "Recording a public tribute like this is something out of character for Sooty," says Cadell, the Alastair Campbell to the star's Tony Blair. Coincidentally, they happen to share the same management company as the organisers of the Hyde Park festivities. Spookily, Mandela was born on 18 July and Sooty on the 19th. Still intensely shy despite his years of stardom, Sooty's preferred method of communication is to whisper in Cadell's ear. He was persuaded to come to the phone, briefly, from what sounded like the poolside of a luxury hotel, but all that could be heard was the lapping of water.
If Sooty is Blair, then Sweep is his Gordon Brown. For years, this colleague and sidekick has longed to take over as leader, making it obvious with increasing manic irritability. Now is his chance, at last. "What's that you're doing?" asks Cadell in the Mandela video, and in a sign that Sooty has other, more pressing international affairs of state to worry about these days – the Middle East crisis, for example – Sweep is allowed to do all the talking. Or squeaking.
"You're texting Nelson Mandela?" says Cadell, surprised. "Do you know who Nelson Mandela is?" Sweep certainly does. As a person of colour (grey), he identifies with Mandela's struggle against apartheid. "He's a charismatic and inspirational world leader," he says, in squeaks translated by Cadell. Surely yet another case of a high-profile figure paying tribute to another in words he wishes were used of him. But Sweep's attempt at leadership very quickly descends into farce. He just doesn't have Sooty's magic.
Viewers are urged to text Mandela themselves, as the proceeds will go to charities. But where, they may ask, is Soo? This young Asian woman is the Cherie Booth of the partnership, out there working the circuit to bring home the bacon. Or bamboo, in her case. She recently appeared on a special edition of Anne Robinson's TV quiz, beating streetwise Roland Rat in the sudden-death round. Soo is not, by any means, "The Weakest Link".
She has, however, been responsible for much of the scandal surrounding Sooty, from the moment their (g)love story began in 1964. Harry Corbett, who discovered Sooty and co-hosted his TV series, was accused of introducing an unwelcome sexual element into children's entertainment. Sooty and Soo were banned from touching on screen. London may have been swinging, but the BBC was not ready for a cross-cultural relationship (Sooty is no panda) without a wedding ring. (Where would she put it?) Sue did appear pregnant, years later, but this turned out to be a practical joke involving a cushion up her dress.
What is no joke is Soo's place in the feminist pantheon, up there with Andrea Dworkin. She was, after all, the first of Sooty's peers to have an actual voice. For saying lines like, "You make the fairy cakes, Sooty, while I fix this motorbike." She keeps quiet, however, about the nature of her relationship with Sweep, who is well known to friends as a bit of a dog. Are they more than just pedigree chums? Sooty seems to hint at the long-speculated ménage à trois on his new website, describing the start of his perfect day as when "Soo and Sweep bring me breakfast in bed". Sweep has made several statements on the subject, but unfortunately his squeak is intelligible only to the Corbett family and its friends.
It was Harry Corbett, an engineer and amateur magician from Guisley, West Yorkshire, who first came across Sooty while he was walking on the North Pier in Blackpool in 1948 with his wife Marjorie and their young children, David and Matthew. When Corbett appeared on a BBC North talent show four years later, he gave his friend a black mouth and nose, used soot to darken his ears, then suggested a new name.
Sweep joined them in 1957, and Soo seven years later – although they had to move from the disapproving BBC to ITV in order for Sooty and Soo to express their love openly. Is it really pushing things too far to suggest that their free and easy public lifestyle was a catalyst for the hippie era and the Summer of Love? Or even that this example of different talents working together for the good of the team could have been a major inspiration for England's World Cup victory of 1966? They stayed closely in touch with the times: in 1976, just as young punks such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols were taking over from the old guard of rock, Matthew Corbett succeeded his father as the host of The Sooty Show.
He gave way, in turn, to the young magician Richard Cadell in 1998. Sooty needed to get down with the youth again after failing to be invited to the infamous Cool Britannia parties at 10 Downing Street. Sooty had made his name in the Fifties by shooting the Duke of Edinburgh in the face with a water pistol, and Tony Blair might have been tempted to enlist his anarchic help with cutting the Royal Family down to size again. He would been able to count on Sooty the compulsive whisperer not to blab. But the death of Diana changed everything. Soon the Blairs fell for the earthier charms of Johnny Vegas's friend Monkeh.
Like Blair, Sooty sought help from big business. His rights were sold to Britt Allcroft, who had turned Thomas the Tank Engine into the Elvis of railway-based infant merchandise, and later on to Hit Entertainment. But now Cadell, Sooty's loyal friend, has bought back his independence. He plans more shows, to replace the ones currently being repeated on CITV, and will also take the old team back to theatres next year. The Corbett family endorse it all, with Matthew saying last week, "Richard Cadell is as close to a Corbett as you can get."
Belatedly, it seems Sooty, the wild man of teatime telly, has also acquired a conscience. Like almost every ageing rebel around, he is now expressing his love for Mandela. The message was recorded as part of an attempt to set the world record for the biggest birthday card ever. As we went to press, the country that had sent the most messages was Tanzania, with nearly 30,000. There were only six from Zimbabwe. On Thursday Mandela accused that country's President Mugabe of "a tragic failure of leadership".
There are calls for him to go further. Now that the personal connection with Sooty has been revealed, perhaps Mandela will appeal to Mugabe in the words of the legendary madcap entertainer himself. It is time, he could suggest, to say to the people of Zimbabwe what Sooty's friends say to the world at the end of each broadcast: "Bye bye, everybody, bye bye!"
We did ask Sooty to comment on this. As ever, he was saying nothing.
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