Television icon Sooty is now headlining his very own theme park, Sooty Land - British Comedy Guide went along to see the new attraction and chat to Sooty's right hand man Richard Cadell about television's most famous yellow bear.
The Sooty Show is the longest running children's television programme not just in the UK, but in the world. Entertaining families for seventy four years to date, the mute yellow bear's appeal is as wide as ever. Created by Harry Corbett in 1948, Sooty first appeared on television in BBC's Talent Night in 1952 before getting his own series, The Sooty Show, in 1955 and quickly established himself as a firm favourite, spawning a plethora of live shows and merchandise.
Harry presented The Sooty Show until 1976, when his son, Matthew Corbett, took over. Matthew, whilst retaining Sooty's trademark magic and slapstick humour, augmented the show into what it is now - a sitcom in which he, Sooty, Sweep, Soo and, later, Little Cousin Scampi, live together and have to overcome different dilemmas each week, usually resulting in chaos and calamity.
Richard Cadell, a member of the Inner Magic Circle, first appeared alongside Matthew as a guest, performing magic in the 1985 Christmas special. Matthew remembered him, and invited him back, alongside Liana Bridges, in the final series of Sooty & Co. in 1998, after which he gifted Sooty to Richard.
After taking on the mantle full time in 1999, Cadell and Bridges presented two series of Sooty Heights, but after three years of sequel series Sooty, which began in 2001 and saw Bridges replaced by Vicki Lee Taylor, the show went on hiatus. In flux and with no new series or shows on the horizon, when the rights to Sooty went up for sale in 2008. Cadell snapped them up and set about building Sooty back up to take his place at the apex of children's television.
Cadell's version of Sooty has been playing continuously on CITV since 2011. With the live stage shows also being hugely popular, the only way is up - and now Sooty is headlining his very own theme park.
Although the most recent iteration of Sooty was filmed at Brean Leisure Park in Somerset, Sooty Land has opened a few miles away at Crealy in Devon.
Featuring entertainment for all ages, the park contains four specially built brand new rides:
The wonderfully named Izzy Wizzy, Let's Get Dizzy takes guests on a whirlwind of a ride, whizzing them round and round.
Sooty's Magic Bus is a gentle ride that takes guests up and around, giving brilliant views of the park.
Soo's Sweet Balloon Ride is akin to the teacups, in which the rider can choose how fast they spin.
Last, but by no means least, is Sweep's Flying Circus, in which the rider boards their own plane and zooms around, with buttons to make various silly noises.
The park also features daily performances of The Sooty Show live for kids and adults alike to enjoy. Taking on the classic formula of Sooty, Sweep and Soo causing chaos for the poor presenter trying to keep a handle on things, performances take place throughout the day in Sooty's Big Top Showtime Arena. Expect generous doses of slapstick, songs and not forgetting Sooty's water pistol!
One of the most delightful things about the press day was seeing how the appeal of Sooty continues to span generations, with everybody from toddlers to grandparents enchanted by the exploits of Sooty, Sweep and Soo.
In a heartfelt speech, Cadell explained the ethos behind the park and why he is determined to keep the magic of Sooty alive for generations to come "This really is such an exciting new chapter for Sooty. As I live close to Exeter myself, I've always admired all that they do at Crealy, so to be opening up Sooty Land in partnership with the team there is a real honour. Live daily theatre performances, Sweep selling hot dogs, amazing rides and Sooty's very own magic shop; there's going to be so much fun to be had for families and fans of Sooty across the country visiting Devon in 2022."
While everything points to Sooty's future being in (or rather, on) safe hands, his legacy is very much a part of the attraction. Cadell explained that the park has the full blessing of Matthew Corbett, who told him that, had his father Harry been alive to see Sooty Land, it would have made him cry with joy.
Sooty's Hall Of Fame expounds on this, as guests can explore Sooty's history via an exhibition that houses a wide variety of rarities, original props that were used in all iterations of the television series and merchandise that is long since out of print. Information about Harry, Matthew and Richard's exploits with the trio is printed around the exhibition, and even the most ardent Sooty fan will be surprised with the number of interesting factoids on offer.
Of course no visit would be complete without a going away with some Sooty goodies, which are available at The Sooty Store. You can own your very own Sooty, Sweep and Soo puppets, learn the secrets of Sooty's magic with a selection of magician kits, take home episodes of Sooty on DVD and much more.
We had the opportunity to chat to Richard about all things Sooty, including why he thinks the yellow bear is such an enduring character and his future plans.
People may not know that, away from Sooty, you have been in the theme park business yourself. Has it always been a long term goal of yours to have Sooty headline his own theme park?
You're absolutely right, I am heavily steeped in the amusement park business, but when I acquired the rights to Sooty, it wasn't really to develop it into a theme park, the priority was to bring the television series and stage shows back. But knowing what I know about this industry, it became an idea. Owning the rights, I don't have to ask anyone, I can just have a go.
I never thought anybody would see the potential of Sooty, they tend to get caught up in what's popular in the moment, so you get Peppa Pig or Thomas the Tank Engine, really high profile kid's characters, whereas Sooty's never really been in fashion, but equally he's never been out of fashion. Crealy could have picked anything, but they came to me. They wanted something the grandparents would know as much as the kids, and there's nothing else on television that has that appeal quite like Sooty, so here we are!
Sooty is going to be seventy five next year, though I have to say he doesn't look a day over seventy. Do you think it's important to find ways of innovating, in so far as you can innovate something with humour as timeless as Sooty, to move him forward?
It is, and this is a wonderful opportunity because things have changed so much even in the last ten years, particularly the way children watch television. Just yesterday, we learnt that CBBC is going online, which is quite surprising really. So the old days of kids sitting down to watch CITV relentlessly and discovering Sooty have kind of gone, so we're always looking for different ways to raise his profile. That's why Sooty Land is incredible, because we've got kids coming here who have never heard of Sooty, but by the time they leave Crealy, they'll know who he is, so it's a wonderful way of keeping him alive in tandem with the stage shows and television shows we still make.
You pre-empted one of my questions during your opening speech, when you talked about Matthew Corbett's reaction to the park. It must be a great relief knowing that you have his blessing?
Yeah, Matthew's always been incredibly supportive of everything I've ever done. Sooty has always been a family business, it started at Harry Corbett's kitchen table, so when it got into the hands of the corporate people after Matthew left, I think it altered a little. Once we got it back round the kitchen table, I think Matthew was very relieved 'Great, this is how it should be'.
He's been a guest on one of my TV episodes (Chocco Chimp from Series 1 of Sooty in 2011), and he's done some of the stage shows with me, so he's very supportive. In his era, they didn't have theme parks that adopted characters in this style, so he's hugely proud.
We've got homages to him and Harry in the Hall of Fame, showing their videos, so it's a way of Harry and Matthew to be recognised. Harry's the creator, all he wanted was for his characters to be loved and here they are, almost seventy five years on and, my goodness we lost Harry in 1989, here we are almost forty years later and the love for his characters is as strong as ever.
We understand there have been plans for a Sooty feature film for some time, can you shed any light on what stage of development it is at?
Oh my goodness, we've been in and out of meetings about this movie for the last six years and it's always 'just about to happen', but because of the millions of pounds involved in making a movie, it only takes one person to say 'hang on, I haven't got my little chunk of money' and everybody else scuttles off into the woodwork and reallocates their money, so it's been on and off and on and off more times than I care to mention.
All I can say is I had a wonderful director who worked very hard to try and get it greenlit, as they say. The script is incredible, it's been honed over many years and I live in hope that one day, someone will say 'Yes, let's make it', but it's going to take somebody with deep pockets and a lot of belief. But having something like Sooty Land is another great reason for people to say 'hang on, maybe a Sooty movie might work'. We hope so. Matthew read the script and went 'Oh my goodness', it's a wonderful story, makes you laugh and cry.
That's the brilliant thing about the writing of Sooty, you haven't deviated from Harry's initial setup of a naughty teddy bear and his friends, you've really kept to that ethos and unlike some other children's television characters, that's why Sooty can go on and on.
Yeah I think people like that. Also, I never did it with any kind of calculation. I'm a big kid you know? I think most people are big kids at heart.
Exactly! So I just write the show that I remember, I'm very indulgent and I've been allowed to get away with doing that. I write what I remember as a kid, and I think you're right, so many children's characters get changed or pushed in different directions and in doing so, they lose some of their magic.
We understand you're shooting a new series. Can you tell us anything else about what's in the pipeline for Sooty?
Yes, we're shooting a new series and it's going to be a little bit different than what we've done before, it's aimed slightly more at a pre-school audience, which has been asked of us and I think is right. The same Sooty magic, the same humour, but there is an element to it which is slightly experimental.
I think, like we're doing with the theme park, you have to look to the future and look at what modern children want and expect, so we start filming that in a few weeks. I then have a huge pantomime...
Oh no you don't!
[Laughs] Yeah, with Jason Donovan this year, back in Southampton and then a huge tour booked for 2023-24. It was very difficult because after Covid, all the theatres were booked out and we had our 2020 tour dates pushed back to this year, so everything's booking a long way ahead. So that will start in autumn 2023 and run right the way into 2024.
Will that be Sooty's Magic Show?
No, it's going to be a new Sooty show, we toured the Magic Show everywhere and now we're just calling this one The Sooty Show. The premise is that we're putting on a show, believe it or not! It'll be a great show, lots of magic, special guests and all the usual fun you'd expect from Sooty.
Richard Cadell, thank you very much!
Sooty Land can be found at Crealy Theme Park, Sidmouth Road, Exeter, Devon, EX5 1DR. For more information and a full list of attractions, visit crealy.co.uk/sootyland