As Sooty celebrates his 75th birthday, we sat down for a video call with his third and current right-hand man, Richard Cadell, about magic, nostalgia and keeping Sooty on the right hands...
Before we get into Sooty, you took part in the X-Treme Magic tour last year and received many plaudits for your vanishing motorbike illusion. Is it important sometimes for you to flex the magician side of you away from the puppets?
That's an interesting question. Yes, because I love doing Sooty, it's my passion and I get a great deal of joy out of doing it. But I always was a magician. I got rid of all those big box illusions. I once sold the motorcycle vanish, and that was my baby, in order to do The Sooty Show. Because I'm basically a fan of The Sooty Show as well as a presenter, I always feel slightly as though I'm doing someone else's act. It was Harry Corbett's then Matthew Corbett's. I know it's mine now, and twenty five years down the line I should be able to say it's mine.
I started doing pantomimes with Sooty, and the producers of the pantomime asked me if I could do any illusions, so it was an excuse for me to do some big stuff. I suddenly got a whiff of what it was like to get applause for me rather than for what I do with Sooty. They're clapping me - some of those tricks are my invention - and I enjoyed that. Then they asked me to be in a magic show and I said 'Oh no, I'm too old' and all this, but it got me all revved up and I went and bought a whole lorry load of equipment. I adored it, and we're going to do X-Treme Magic again next year, but we're staying in venues for a week at a time instead of one nighters, for logistical reasons. So yes, I love being able to do my illusions without Sooty, but saying that, my knowledge of magic has been of great benefit to the material I've been able to write and produce for Sooty.
You once met David Copperfield in Las Vegas, what was that experience like?
That was incredible! It actually happened because of my rekindled love of illusions, and when I wanted to do some with Sooty in the pantomime I knew that the best props were built in Las Vegas. I phoned up some of the best illusion builders in the world to make some of the props and went over to meet with the guy, who was a great friend anyway. He said 'I want you to meet David Copperfield', because he builds props for Copperfield too, and then he said 'David knows who Sooty is', which is ridiculous! Sure enough, after the show, the first thing David Copperfield said to me was 'have you got Sooty?'. So I had to rush up to my hotel room and get him so we could take a picture together. If I hadn't revisited my illusions, I would never have had that connection.
He is the world's best magician without any doubt, and he was the most humble man. He'd taken the time to find out a bit about me and, more importantly, Sooty, and it was quite a humbling experience.
You worked in stage shows with The Chuckle Brothers in the 1990s. Did that experience prepare you for a career in children's entertainment?
That's absolutely right. I did a few tours with them and a summer season at the Blackpool Grand Theatre, which was an incredible, sell out season with The Chuckle Brothers! I've never seen myself as a children's entertainer: what you see me do in X-Treme Magic, with the motorcycle vanish and everything, is how I perceive myself.
I would watch The Chuckle Brothers from the side of the stage and be in a few of the sketches, so I learnt a lot by watching them, but the most important thing I learnt, which I didn't know at the time, was that after every single performance Paul and Barry would go out into the foyer and sit and sign autographs, meeting every single child who wanted to meet them. And this wasn't a quick meet and greet, they'd sometimes be there for two or three hours after the show until they'd talked to every child who waited to meet them. I said to Paul Chuckle, who is still a great friend after all these years, I said to him once 'Paul, aren't you absolutely knackered after sitting there for two hours?', and I'll never forget what he said, which was "If you have children who allow you into their homes on their television screen, into their lives, they will want to meet you, and that's part of it, and if you don't want to do that part of it then you shouldn't be in the business" and it was one of the best lessons I ever got. I thought, 'that's professionalism'.
I never thought I'd be in a position where I would also get to say 'we are going to meet every single child after the show who wants to meet Sooty', and I do that after every live show. Not the pantomimes, sadly, because the turnaround is so tight, but every Sooty live show, you can meet Sooty. So that was what I learnt from The Chuckle Brothers.
It must be lovely to know that you can make pretty much any adult instantly regress into childhood when you get Sooty out, and make children and adults alike feel complete, unabashed joy?
Well bless you for saying that, but here's the thing - I don't do that, Sooty does. Here he is - [Sooty comes into frame and he and Richard do a bit of comedy business. Interviewer drops any artifice of professionalism, grins and waves at Sooty]
There you go, you see? It's not me, it's him! And let me tell you, I have several what I call satellite shows that play the holiday parks and Sooty Land at Crealy, and they have different presenters because I can't be everywhere at the same time. And it doesn't matter who is presenting, the other presenters have just as much success with it, the audience always relives their childhood. So it's not me, it's Sooty who does that, I'm just the facilitator of it. What I suppose I do is I authenticate it because I'm the guy on the telly, they know it's the real Sooty. I perceive it as a great privilege. But it comes back to what I said earlier - it was Harry Corbett's child, he invented this little thing. He treated him like his son, unequivocally, and I feel very privileged and humbled that I am able to show his creation. I'm very much aware that it's not mine, I get as starstruck over Sooty as anyone else, I grew up watching him so I'm aware it's a privilege.
Sooty Land at Crealy Theme Park in Exeter is an amazing achievement. Now that it's been open for a year, what has the response been like?
It's been fantastic. I let the people at Crealy, who are experts at operating theme parks, drive it. They came to me and asked whether they could build it and I said 'my goodness, yes of course!'. I had some say in what they were going to do, what rides they were going to have and how the shows would work, but other than that, they've got on with it.
They've done a phenomenal job and it's delivered not only an increase in attendance, but what it has done - and this is what I love about the whole Sooty experience at Crealy - is that in today's world of television, kids don't watch TV in the same way I did, where you came home from school and had a choice of four or five channels and either you watched it then or you didn't. Now they're watching YouTube any hour of the day or night there's hours and hours of content. They have to look and find Sooty almost by accident - the way they find any other kids' show. So what you have now is a percentage of kids who come to Crealy who don't necessarily know who Sooty is - the TV show is still on every day, but there's so much out there for kids to do now that not everybody stumbles across these characters immediately.
The parents, who of course know who Sooty is, take the kids on a day out to Crealy and they get to Sooty Land and they say 'we remember this' and the kids go 'who the hell's this?', and by the end of the day they're walking out of Sooty Land, they've bought a puppet, watched the show and they know who Sooty is, so I'm very proud that it's continually introducing a new audience to Sooty.
Has there been any progress on the long-mooted Sooty feature film?
Well, what I've learned about the Sooty feature film is 'don't believe anybody!'. I've met with loads of people who all say they're going to do it and get right down to the last minute, we're going to start filming and suddenly something happens, or the money disappears, or they didn't have any in the first place. To make a movie, you need millions of pounds - I do not have millions of pounds to make a movie! I have a tiny bit of money to help start making a movie, but I don't have the rest of it. However, the script exists, it's an amazing script, and because there have been lots of false starts, it's enabled the script to be refined, honed and fine-tuned. At the moment, I have somebody else who says they're going to make it, so I'm going 'Great!'. Watch this space. The creation of that script took many years, I know it's a banging story and I really enjoyed writing it. If it ever happens, it will be so much more than an extended version of the TV show, it's a completely different world for Sooty to live in.
Fingers crossed! One thing that is definitely happening is the 75th anniversary tour, which begins in October and runs all the way into April 2024. What can people expect?
Because it's seventy five years I didn't want it to be an ordinary show with a story, I want it to be like a big party. I want the audience to feel as though they've been invited to Sooty's birthday party. There will be silly games and dances to join in with prizes. There will be people coming in and out of the party, including old favourites we haven't seen for a while including Little Cousin Scampi, Butch the Bulldog and Ramsbottom the Snake. I've got a few of my great speciality acts coming in to do some really 'wow!' stuff as well, so there are some big show elements to it. So that's the difference with this show, it's all about celebrating and being together. I'll do some classic Harry Corbett routines, a little nod to the past. The great thing about those routines is that they still work brilliantly today. Nothing old fashioned about it, but there will be moments where we acknowledge the fact that this little bear has entertained virtually every generation in this country.
You've also filmed a new television series...
I'm told it will be ready for October. This is the first time I have not produced the series myself - this is industry talk now - you have to understand that the world of children's television has changed greatly. As I touched on, they get things from YouTube, their own channels, not commercially produced shows. A law passed a few years ago restricted the amount of advertising that can be placed around kids TV shows that relates to children's products and toys. You can't do that, because it's considered 'pester power'. All this has meant that there aren't the budgets for children's television in the way that there was a few years back. So I made the decision to allow somebody else to produce it. We still wrote the scripts and had control over it, but I'm slightly beholden to them. But they're a great firm and they've got great ideas. It's a slightly different format, we're not at Mr Slater's Holiday Park anymore, we're back in the house, like in the Matthew Corbett era, with a bit of a twist. It's all done and in the can, so they will see the light of day soon.
Harry Corbett made some Sooty films for Disney in America and there was a report last year of Sooty possibly going Stateside again, is that something that could happen?
You're absolutely right, I have copies of those films that Harry made. I released them on DVD and they're on YouTube as The Classic Sooty Show. Those were the films that Harry produced and, you're right, they did go to Disney. A deal has been done for the existing Sooty television series to be shown in American territories, that will start in a few months. What they'll make of it, I don't know!
The silence of Sooty is a universal language!
Yeah, they love the British humour over there, all the slapstick like Mr Bean and Benny Hill, and basically we're a slapstick show. I have no intention of going to America and touring a stage show, I'm very happy where I am, but it's great that they've shown an interest.
You've spoken in other interviews about how you felt when you got the call saying you were Sooty's new right hand man. Do you remember much about what it was like directly after that, presumably having to get a new series, a new stage show on the go, all the responsibility?
Well, the first few years, I didn't own the rights so I was working for the company that did. I had very little creative control, I was given the scripts, told what to say. And some of those episodes, I'm going to say, aren't very good at all. It was only when I bought the rights with my brother in 2008 [that I gained control]. It wasn't a nervous feeling, it was 'Right. I know how NOT to do it, because I've just spent a few years being shown how not to do it. All that time I thought I knew how to do it, so I'm going to have a go at doing it exactly how I think it should be done, which was basically to flip it back to how Harry and Matthew did it.
The new guys had tried to change it, make it worldwide, do this, that and the other. I just wanted to pull it all back, for me it was a no brainer. So I went to ITV and they asked what I was going to do with it. I said 'I don't think it was ever broken'. They asked for a pilot, which I called The Big Day Out (you can see it on YouTube). They watched it, chuckling away, and then said 'can you make twenty six?'. I said 'yep!'. I sat down with a pal of mine and we wrote twenty six ideas, then we wrote another twenty six. I look back and think 'how did we come up with all that material?', but it all seemed so easy at the time. I still write down ideas, if I see a situation I think would be funny for Sooty.
I asked [co-writer] Wink Taylor about the writing and how you came up with ideas after so many episodes, and he agreed about going back to the Corbett style.
My best episodes were with Wink. My pal I referred to, that is Wink. Me and Wink would literally roll around on the floor in hysterics. I can't write very well by myself, because I don't have the confidence to think my writing is funny. But if you can bounce it off somebody and they laugh, and then he'll top it. There's another guy I write with called Alex Skerratt, and it's the same thing where we bounce it all around. I think it's always best to write comedy in pairs. Wink does his own brilliant show of course, The Theo The Mouse Show - great fun.
Being the 75th anniversary I think it's important to acknowledge people like Brenda Longman, voice of Soo, and Brian Sandford, puppeteer of Sweep, who are as integral to the series as anything. It must have helped to have that level of experience on hand when you started?
They're my friends. When we started, we were all working for somebody else. It helped to have the whole Corbett team, we just had to say the words, they did a lot of the work. They bring a level of consistency to it. Brian is by far the best Sweep. There have been other people who have done it, I've done it, Phil Fletcher's done it, but we don't quite have that Brian magic. What's interesting about Brian as a character is that personally, he's very shy and a quiet person. He's a bit of a wallflower, you wouldn't necessarily notice him in a room. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense, he's a dear friend, but what I mean is that once he puts that dog on his hand, out comes his inner monster, this extrovert, and you think, 'how does he do that, with that?'. He's not one to crack a joke at a party, but once he puts Sweep on, away he goes.
Brenda is a joy, and again she brings lots of stories of her time with Matthew, and she knows all the episodes and things that have been done, because Brian hasn't been there as long as Brenda. She's been there forever [Brenda Longman has voiced Soo since 1981, while Brian Sandford has been Sweep since 1987], and she'll often say 'Oh we did that' or 'Soo should say that', so she brings a lot of knowledge to the table.
We're great friends and I talk to him regularly. We don't often talk very much about Sooty. He's retired and watches from afar, he's thrilled that it's carrying on and is very supportive, but no. You know what, he grew up with Sooty looking over his cot. His childhood was dominated by Sooty, to the point that he sometimes thought that Sooty was more important than he was. As kids, they didn't see their dad a lot, because he was off working with Sooty, so there's a bit of a love/hate relationship. Of course, Matthew loves Sooty, but it's all he's ever known. It's like, imagine, let's think of something I really like, imagine being brought up in a fish and chip shop, and someone says 'why don't you like fish and chips', you'd go 'because I've had it for every meal since the year dot, why would I want to eat it for the rest of my life?'. With Matthew, when he retired, he felt he'd done his bit, he went 'Off you go Richard, have fun!', and that was him done. He came back for the Chocco Chimp episode because I wanted him to. I said 'Matt, please come back'. Also, I wanted the fans to know that he was on board with what we were doing. He wouldn't have rocked up for that if he didn't support what we were doing, and that was important to me.
But other than that, he's done with it all, and people have to understand that he's retired. He's not even known as Matthew anymore [Peter is his real name]. People say Matthew and he has to double take, 'Oh, me'. He enjoys the time with his wife, probably time that he never had because he was working all the time. When I speak to him, we speak about loads of stuff, but we very rarely touch on the show.
Will there ever be home media releases of shows like Sooty Heights?
Well I don't own the rights to that, well, I probably do own a part of it in some contract or other, but I don't know where the master tapes are. Also, commercially, I don't think it would be worth it. I think they're on YouTube, and I've let that roll because I couldn't put them on officially, because I think some of the rights are still tied up with Granada.
Also, the format back in Sooty Heights, it was better than what it became in the last Sooty series before I bought the rights, it went a bit off-piste with all those bright colours and Sooty changed, which was all a bit odd.
But I enjoyed doing Sooty Heights with Liana Bridges.
Being Sooty's right hand man has to be one of the most unique jobs in showbusiness, because you have to be so many things at once - writer, director, actor, comedian, straight man, and that's before all the behind the scenes work. How do you balance it all?
Well, I still have other business interests outside of Sooty, so I suppose I've had a good grounding. Before I started on Sooty, I owned a theme park, which is featured in some of the early episodes, I had a theatrical production company in London, produced a pantomime, tours and shows, so it didn't feel difficult to me. But I always looked on Sooty, I still do, it's not what I do all of the year. I do a lot of it, but for me it's like a hobby I get paid for. I have a bread and butter business in the theme park industry that pays my bills, and then I get to do The Sooty Show and get paid for doing something I love.
A friend of mine coined a brilliant phrase the other day - "The fee is getting to do it", and that's how I feel about Sooty, I love it.
Sooty Land is now open at Crealy Theme Park in Devon. Find out more
See also: 75 years of Sooty article