Some characters that emanated from the pages of children’s literature during the medium’s century-long reign as the prime launch-pad for the imagination appear to be in possession of a remarkable durability that enables them to charm successive generations of young readers. The anthropomorphic animals from ‘The Wind in the Willows’, the cast of surreal eccentrics from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Winnie the Pooh and his engaging sidekicks, Peter Pan and his nocturnal Neverland – all continue to sprinkle the same stardust onto the children of today as they sprinkled onto their parents, grandparents and so on. Most of these success stories have, of course, had their lives extended by being reimagined in other mediums that arrived later – primarily cinema and television; and the latter not only adapted these established franchises for a fresh audience, but eventually created franchises of its own. Some had impressive longevity, whereas others remain known only to those who watched with mother at the time. There are, however, a select few who have continued to wave their magic wands throughout the decades – and once even extended their omnipotence to the breakfast table.
Not only are the plastic mouldings posing as free gifts that once tumbled out of breakfast cereal boxes now frowned upon as planet polluters and health-and-safety hazards, but the cereals themselves are today viewed with puritanical suspicion, guilty of infecting impressionable infants with a nascent sugar addiction; banished from prime-time kids’ advertising slots and – in some cases (such as the late, lamented Ricicles) – expunged from supermarket shelves altogether, these one-time starts to the day have had a hard time of it over the past po-faced decade. How removed from an era when each brand was so key to the childhood experience that their boxes featured familiar faces on the front, whether Florence and Dougal from ‘The Magic Roundabout’, Mr Spock from ‘Star Trek’ or Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of Doctor Who. And, lest we forget, Mr Kellogg also signed-up a famed double act, one so huge that they were both granted a turn as individual cover stars of their own cereals – Sooty on ‘Puffa Puffa Rice’ and Sweep on ‘Coco Krispies’. Yes, that’s how big these two characters were: they were allocated separate cereals.
Sooty this year celebrates his 75th anniversary – not bad for a cheap glove puppet picked up in a Blackpool toy shop by Bradford-born music hall magician and puppeteer Harry Corbett in 1948; trading on a deep-rooted British tradition stretching back to Punch and Judy, Corbett developed an act with the bear he initially christened Teddy and won a slot on an early BBC TV variety show. So popular did the act with Teddy prove to be, Corbett was offered his own programme shortly thereafter, but in order to stand out on monochrome screens, Corbett blackened the bear’s ears and nose, something that led to a change of name to Sooty. The silent glove puppet, who would ‘whisper’ words in the ear of his human assistant between magic tricks and the occasional squirt of a water pistol, soon acquired a sidekick, a dog called Sweep. Sweep was the clown to Sooty’s straight man, immediately recognisable by his high-pitched squeak, and the two became inseparably linked as a double act.
Sooty and Sweep’s popularity in the 1950s and 60s was so great that even an up-and-coming thespian who shared the same name as Sooty’s ‘dad’ had to insert a ‘H’ in the middle of his name to avoid confusion; this popularity was also mirrored in pioneering merchandise such as Sooty’s miniature xylophone-cum-glockenspiel, as well as a yearly Sooty annual published for the best part of 40 years from 1957 onwards, and regular comic strips featuring in weeklies targeting a pre-school readership. The TV shows largely specialised in slapstick sketches in the music hall tradition and gradually introduced other characters to the Sooty family such as female panda Soo (originally voiced by Corbett’s wife Marjorie in a distinctively husky Fenella Fielding-like fashion) and bulldog geezer, Butch. Sooty was part of the childhood wallpaper to anyone raised in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and the seamless switch from the BBC to ITV that took place in the late 60s had no detrimental impact on the puppet’s popularity whatsoever. So engrained were Sooty and Sweep in British pop culture by the 70s that the pair were central to the puppet government storyline in a memorable episode of ‘The Goodies’, whereby Sooty as Prime Minister and Sweep as Home Secretary were interviewed by Michael Barratt on ‘Nationwide’.
The first significant change to the act took place in the late 70s, when Harry Corbett was reluctantly forced to retire due to ill-health, but he kept Sooty in the family by handing over the reins to his son Matthew, already a familiar face to children due to his appearances on ‘Rainbow’. Matthew Corbett kept his hand in, as it were, for the next 20 years. Sooty even survived Corbett’s retirement in 1998, whereupon he was inherited by Richard Cadell, who maintained Sooty’s presence on TV screens until the outsourcing nature of British television in the 21st century eventually put paid to a show that had essentially run for the best part of half-a-century by 2004. Since then, Sooty and friends have resurfaced on other channels and the most simplistic of children’s characters has remained a fixture in the nation’s collective consciousness to this day. So, happy birthday, Sooty – and why not? From assisted suicide to Sooty in one fell post.
DAVID CROSBY (1941-2023)
Upon hearing of the death of David Crosby – coming so hot on the heels of Jeff Beck passing away last week – I remarked to a friend that the 60s generation had become their own Dorian Gray portraits, ageing and decaying before our eyes whilst their over-achieving 20-something selves continued to be their definitive public image, frozen forever in the high summer of youth. Crosby’s CV was a case in point, making his most fruitful recordings as a member of two key American bands of the era, The Byrds and then Crosby, Stills and Nash (with or without Young); but he always had a reputation as being something of an awkward sod. Indeed, Doris Day’s record producer son Terry Melcher worked with The Byrds during Crosby’s tenure in the band as well as Charles Manson when the latter had a failed shot at being a pop star himself; Manson developed a dangerous grudge against Melcher comparable to Adolf’s beef with Jewish art critics, but Melcher nonetheless once stated that given the choice of re-entering the studio with either Crosby or Manson, he’d opt for the future murderous guru.
Crosby’s propensity for falling out with his nearest and dearest was apparently so incurable that even the CSNY peacemaker Graham Nash eventually had his patience tested for the last time and publicly declared the final severance of his long association with Crosby four or five years back. Nash had performed a role in CSNY that is a familiar one where most big bands containing several big egos are concerned; just as Eric Clapton separated Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream or Maurice Gibb stood between Barry and Robin in The Bee Gees, Graham Nash had to routinely step in and pour oil on the troubled waters gushing from Stephen Stills and Neil Young; and he also had to deal with David Crosby, regularly provoking all three of his bandmates. Nash had managed to paper over these differences with considerable diplomatic aplomb, but he finally grew as weary of Crosby as the other two in the end. Yet, this is the same man who could emit such soothing, seductive vocal warmth in deliciously delicate songs like ‘Guinnevere’, ‘Long Time Gone’, and ‘Déjà Vu’.
Graham Nash often recalled how struck he’d been by the harmonious magic that arose when he combined his voice with those of Crosby and Stills for the first time, and perhaps all three recognised that putting their egos to one side for the sake of their art might be a profitable route to take. Even so, they only managed it for so long before personalities asserted themselves and clashes inevitably interrupted the creative flow. Perhaps, in the case of David Crosby, it really is best to separate art from artist and to simply immerse one’s self in the music.
© The Editor