Sooty is one of the longest running children’s TV shows of all time. Can you give me a brief history of the brand and it’s history with licensing?
It started in 1948 when Harry Corbett bought a toy puppet teddy bear from a novelty shop on the north pier at Blackpool. He introduced it into his amateur magic act and his neighbour saw him to it and he had some connections to the BBC. Harry then went on a talent show and as part of his act he used the teddy bear. He won the regional heats and went on to be spotted by a BBC producer who ultimately gave Harry his own show.
Sooty wasn’t always called Sooty. Harry was calling it Teddy, and this BBC producer said, “the trouble is your toy teddy puppet is the same as every toy teddy puppet in the shops.” So they hastily got some soot and dirtied his ears to make the ears black and renamed him Sooty.
From there on in, Harry took that show through to the early Seventies and after Harry suffered a heart attack because he worked so hard, Matthew took over while Harry recovered. Matthew took the show forward right up to 1998 when he announced he would be retiring.
I had been a guest on the show as a kid because I was Young Magician of the Year when I was 15 and was invited on the show and they remembered me. I was a lifelong fan and a bit of a geek about the whole thing so they got me into the TV show, I met Matthew and there it was on a plate. It was a life changing opportunity for me. It encompassed everything I’d ever done as a performer having a background in magic and puppetry; it was the ultimate gig for me.
I’ve finished up being the presenter of the show ever since, and for the five or six years under the ownership of Hit Entertainment who owned the rights. Hit being a global company meant Sooty didn’t really fit. Hit discovered that despite trying to make formats for Sooty that resonated with people abroad, it just didn’t really work with people outside of the UK. It wasn’t a good fit for them. By this time, ITV had gone through a radical change with its children’s programming and had decommissioned it. Just the repeats were being shown on television, no new commissions.
"Harry Corbett didn’t have any understanding of how licensing worked but he made some enquires and found out that Muffin the Mule in the early fifties had generated £10,000 worth of royalties. At that point, he signed the deal for the xylophone. That was the turning point where he saw that through licensing, he could afford to give up hisjob."
Hit decided it was time to be sold and I bit their hand off. It was not for nothing and a lot of money changed hands but I thought it could be nursed back to the old family style operation it was when the Corbett’s had it. That’s the key to this. When Matthew Corbett was doing his licensing, it was quite successful back in his era. It was all done around the kitchen table. It was him, his wife, one secretary and they made decisions, approved products and they watched everything. And that’s what Harry did. Harry was one of the first pioneers of licensing.
Back when Sooty had just made his first TV appearances, they were prestigious but not very financially rewarding. Harry was working as a precision engineer in Guiseley in Yorkshire and didn’t dare become a professional magician even with the start of the TV exposure because he was worried for his family’s security. It wasn’t until somebody contacted him and said they wanted the licence to make Sooty xylophones. He didn’t have any understanding of how licensing worked but he made some enquires and found out that Muffin the Mule in the early fifties had generated £10,000 worth of royalties. At that point, he signed the deal for the xylophone. That was the turning point where he saw that through licensing, he could afford to give up his job.
Going forward to my time, Hit was a very big powerful company with a lot of overheads and Sooty was buried within its portfolio of global brands so it was right for them to sell it. It was the right move for us to buy it and we took it back to the kitchen table. The first thing I did was get in contact with Matthew Corbett who very kindly endorsed it all.
When I bought it, it wasn’t on television. I found that, as much as everybody loved Sooty, I took Sooty to every licensing agent, every toy manufacturer and sat in front of them and said this is a wonderful heritage brand and can we do something. They all came back and said, “it’s lovely but it has to be on television for it to really do the numbers.” It’s very difficult in the current climate to get things onto television. I went back to Children’s ITV who had originally screen the first lot and said, “I think we can do a new format here. I think we can take it back to what it used to be in the glory days of Matthew Corbett. We can change the format and repair this.” So they told me to go and make a pilot and I did. I made an hour-long sort of movie and I knew it would work. I took it back to ITV and we watched it and the head of children’s ITV looked at me and laughed and said, “Can you do 26?” It was as quick as that, and that was in 2011 so it took me three years of graft to get the TV commission.
I went back to the licensing agents and said, “It’s back on TV. Remember me?” and they said, “Well, we need to see the ratings now.” It was another waiting game. ITV put the show on at good times but when you’ve got winning shows like Horrid Henry, they don’t want to drop into the premium time slot an untested brand, even though they loved the show.
Gradually Sooty surfaced and the viewing figures indicated that it was a strong brand and it had been reborn. They tested it in more delicate time slots where they wanted to be competitive with other channels. It did exceptionally well and off the back of that, they commissioned another 26 immediately. So we turned out 52 episodes in two years, which is the highest turnaround of Sooty episodes in the entire history of Sooty. Matthew only ever did 13 a year. The signs are that we’ll be doing another 26.
The viewing figures now on ITV are so strong that its one of their top rated children’s shows. They now show two episodes back to back on a Saturday and Sunday morning and they are repeating the second series because it was so strong. It is the only thing that vaguely gives CBBC a real run for its money in the same time slot. It’s doing fabulously.
I’m from a showbiz background where you can use my creative finesse to enthuse about something but ultimately, people who own the manufacturing businesses want the numbers and facts. For all my enthusing and glossing over things, I couldn’t disguise the fact it wasn’t on TV. What’s wonderful now is that I can get the viewing figures and put them in front of people. ITV emailed us to say that Sooty is number 20 in the most watched shows on the ITV Player. For a kid’s show to get into the top 80 is pretty damn good so to get to 20 is phenomenal.
What licensing partners are currently on board?
I’ve always wanted to be partnered with Redan because I’d always wanted Sooty to feature in their publications. They were one of the first partners I targeted and to partner with them was a real win-win. Sooty is now a strong feature of their publications. They’ve done their own research and found that people are buying it because of the Sooty content.
Golden Bear has signed on the dotted line to become the master toy licence. They always produced the most wonderful Sooty toys back in the Hit era. I knew their quality and I knew what they could do. They are a British company and what they are developing is brilliant and exactly what I want to see: magic sets, magic related toys, puppets. That’s exciting.
And another thing that’s huge is apparel and Fashion Lab has been a massive win-win because they do the whole lot. The reaction from everyone has been great. Everyone has taken it so it’s going to be everywhere. It will be out spring, summer and autumn this year while the Golden Bear stuff will be out for Christmas. And the first signs from Golden Bear is that there is a major interest in stocking Sooty product.
So it’s brilliant and I’m having a ball doing it. For me as a performer, I’m doing the stage tour. We put it out there to the theatres and 104 theatres bit our hands off. So we’re doing 104 theatres over the next eight months, starting in February and finishing in November. Theatres are already adding shows and some venues have already sold out. For me, I walk out there and the kids go crazy when they see Sooty and afterwards I meet them all and it really is turning a corner. It’s gathered a momentum in the last six months.
Do you see adults that are familiar with the brand due to the length of time that Sooty has been around?
That’s the key.
When you look at the breakdown of the viewing figures, we have the highest bracket of parents watching. There are two things: they all grew up with it and remember it so there is an instant recognition. They know what their child is going to see and they know it’s going to be safe, good slapstick. But I know we have taken the format back to what it was when I was watching it as a kid. So it’s not going to be an experience that happens all too often these days where something comes back from the past and it’s nothing like you remember it. It’s CGI or there’s 10 extra characters added to fuel a bit of merchandise or dumbed down because it’s a little bit dangerous or not quite PC. There’s none of that going on with Sooty, if anything it’s the opposite. It’s the only outlet for real slapstick on TV and the only direction I get from CITV is “beef the slapstick up and keep the pies in the face coming”. Kids love to see adults covered in gunge at the mercy of these little things and that’s what we do.
It must be great to get that level of support from your studio?
It is and the reason for it is because Sooty has such an established track record of doing it. Another reason why it’s done so well in the ratings with the parents watching it is because of the celebrity guests that mean nothing to the kids. Anne Widdicombe coming out of the ghost train with a huge wig, Brian Blessed as Father Christmas and Frank Bruno getting soaked with water. It’s a list of celebrities that are willing to put themselves through whatever, which I know they wouldn’t do it for any other kid’s show. The parents watch to see who is going to pop up.
Going back to when Hit tried to make it global. Despite being unsuccessful, how important was that period in getting to the point that Sooty is at today?
For me personally, I felt it would be my life’s work. I felt it was the most important thing in my life because ultimately, even though I wasn’t the owner of Sooty, when I was presenting it I had effectively, to the public, inherited it from the Corbett dynasty. Therefore, I was seen in some ways as the guy that was part of it when it finished, because it would’ve finished. I honestly believe Hit had done everything they could with it and I don’t think the business model was right. It would have just finished. Someone would have probably bought the rights, made a few retro t-shirts but I don’t think it would have ever got back on television. There was a huge battle to get it back on television because you’re not only talking about the emotional side of things but a huge financial investment too.
"Every moment I was awake, I was on a mission. Not for my ego, but because here was a wonderful character and the only image you could stop anybody on the street, say who is that, and they’d know it’s Sooty. It is such a powerful thing and I felt I couldn’t allow this character to die. I’d loved it so much as a kid and I knew we could turn it around."
For me, every moment I was awake I was on a mission. Not for my ego or anything like that but because here was a wonderful character and the only image you could stop anybody on the street, say who’s that and they’d know it’s Sooty. It is such a powerful thing and I felt I couldn’t allow this character to die. I’d loved it so much as a kid and I knew we could turn it around.
I’ve got the original team that work on my TV show are the same team that worked on Matthew’s show so we are like a big family. We were all frustrated when it floundered a little bit and became potentially something that wasn’t going to be seen anymore. It wasn’t just me leading a one-man crusade; I had the support of everyone that worked on that show. The scenic designers, the puppeteers, the voice over artists, Matthew Corbett; they were all behind me saying, “we can do this.” We all believed in it. It was hugely important and to get the feedback we’re getting now from the licensing people that are putting it out there and getting such positive reactions for product, it’s great.
And it’s not about the money. I’m not driven by money as a person. I need the money to make the thing work and to keep the cogs oiled. This is about me wanting to see that little bear live on and make kids laugh. Parents say to me “we always know when the show is on because my kid laughs out loud. We can hear them in the other room.” That’s what it’s about for me. If they want to buy the t-shirts, then great because it means we can make more TV shows.
What do you make of the TV world that Sooty has returned to? Do you notice Sooty’s influence on other children’s shows currently on TV?
I have to admit to being stuck in a bit of a bubble. I’m not a lover of CGI. I’m very cynical about a lot of kid’s product these days. I think a lot of it is blatantly geared around a merchandise programme. It’s blatantly geared around something that can be sold around the world. When you look at the CGI stuff and you can see how it has been mass-produced. I’m a bit suspicious of all that stuff. I think it comes with a price. Parents know when they put their kids in front of that, they will get brainwashed into it. And I find CGI very one-dimensional. They all look so similar. What’s happened with the Sooty show is that because there is so little live action stuff produced these days, it makes it standalone. It’s made Sooty new again because CGI is the norm.
I have been approached several times by people saying “this is great, let’s do it in CGI.” I’ve said absolutely no way. Just after Matthew Corbett sold it, but before Hit bought it, they made a cartoon, and it was shocking. It was awful and when I bought the rights to Sooty, I got a load of props and archive and I actually got the master tapes of this cartoon series and put it all in a big blue skip and had it burnt. I never wanted it to ever be seen. I think if Sooty was to find its way into the CGI world, I think it would be the nail in the coffin. The fans would just desert it. It doesn’t belong in that genre.
Lots of iconic children’s TV stars are making the move to the big screen (Postman Pat, Paddington Bear). Would Sooty suit a movie?
Somebody has talked about a movie, which would be exciting. But we’re talking now at a time when all this is about to happen because this massive surge in viewing figures and popularity has really only happened in the last five to six months. It’s only now, with the likes of Golden Bear and Fashion Lab signing on the dotted line, that everyone else is saying, “hold on, I want a bit of this.” It’s now that it’s beginning to bubble and blossom.
I think it would lend itself to a movie. People have had different ideas and again, a couple of them have been CGI so I’ve said no. But I’d love to see Sooty to go around in the country in a great big bus on a mission to find Sweep’s lost bone and bump into all these celebrities playing stupid cameos along the way. That’s how I see it, a real family movie. I’m sure it’s down the line. Harry Hill did it and I loved that so it could be done.
What is the most important thing you look for in a licensing partner for Sooty?
Respect and love for Sooty. It’s about a passion for the brand and a passion for the characters. That is so important to me. And here’s the key: at Redan Publishing, Emily’s [Emily Bell, marketing manager] kids are mad about the show. She’s not forced it on them, they were mad about the show before she met me. Anne Bradford, head of Fashion Lab, has children that are mad about the show and the head of Golden Bear, John Hales, was involved in licensing Sooty from Harry Corbett and Matthew Corbett. He has a strong connection with the Corbett’s and Sooty and he felt it should be Golden Bear because there was a passion behind it.
That resonates with me. Anyone who is just there for the pounds, shillings and pence, I don’t think they’ll catch it. It’s important for me that they share this crazy enthusiasm and belief in this little thing. So far all my partners have done that admirably.
There will be many who envy the longevity of the Sooty brand. What do you put that down to?
Firstly, Sooty is speaking to children who are running rings around the adults and getting away with it every time. And every child wants to get away with running rings around their parents.
Secondly, it’s such a simple thing. The eyes don’t move, the mouths don’t mouth, and it’s simple stuff. And that’s another reason why the merchandise works. When kids buy a Sooty puppet from the shop, it’s the same as what they see on television. It’s not a plastic replica of a CGI figure. And because it doesn’t have a voice, it’s a seamless transition from the screen to their hand and to their house. It’s the same thing. Kids know it’s a very simple puppet. It’s easy on the eye, straightforward, simple stuff.
Finally, with pies in the face, you can’t beat slapstick.
What does 2014 have in store for Sooty?
Because the TV show is made every other year, this year we are doing the theatre tour. I’ve got 104 venues to cover in the next eight or nine months all over the UK. It’s looking like it’s going to be very hectic.
Do kid’s TV brands lend themselves well to theatre tours? Is it something you’d recommend?
Sooty has a history with theatre because it started off as a live thing. The theatre business is a tricky one. Some shows just don’t translate to stage and this is one of Sooty’s unique strengths. What you see on television and what you get on stage is the same, whereas a lot of other shows can’t make that transition.
Also, the audience know when the book the ticket what they are going to get. But if they are booking something like the Dora the Explorer show, just as an example, they aren’t too sure of what it’s going to be like. Will it be skin suits? Will it be puppets? What is it going to be? Now with a brand as strong as Dora, they’ll book anyway but when you have middle of the road children’s TV shows, you’ll be puzzled as to exactly what you’re going to see.