A man who ‘ran away to join The Sooty Show’ in 1974 is selling his original Harry Corbett Sooty puppet, a farewell gift from the man who created the children’s favourite in Blackpool in 1948.
And this Sooty is incredibly well-travelled because, as well as touring the UK in 1974-75, he has lived in Australia, Oman, Wales, Norfolk, Stratford-on-Avon, Worcestershire and latterly in Farnborough, Hampshire.
The puppet belongs to retired journalist Robin Vyrnwy-Pierce, from Farnborough, and is due to be sold by Hansons Auctioneers on March 16 – Robin’s 71st birthday. Sooty’s estimate is £1,000-£1,500 thanks to Robin’s memories and provenance.
Robin said: “In 1974, after nine years as a news reporter, I chucked in my job at the Basildon Standard Recorder (now the Basildon Standard) in Essex to become assistant stage manager on a UK tour of The Sooty Show – and the little yellow bear with a sooty nose has been by my side ever since.
“I wanted a break from journalism to see more of the real world. That autumn I drove to Harry’s home at Child Okeford, Dorset, our base as we prepared for the tour. The stage manager and I shared a caravan which we towed behind a three-ton Luton van which carried the stage equipment.
“I met Harry and his wife Marjorie, called Toabs by her sons. Mrs Corbett was the voice of Soo. One of my early jobs was making swazzles, devices used to create Sweep’s distinctive squeak. I can’t reveal the swazzle’s secret but, suffice to say, I made a dozen a day and often only one or two, if any, had the right note.
“Harry was just as meticulous about his Sooty puppets. Naturally they would wear out during two or three shows a day. At the start of a tour Harry received boxes of Sooty puppets, I think each box held a dozen. Harry went through them and only accepted those which matched his personal Sooty.
“During the tour we received further boxes and he might choose only one or two out of 24. The remainder would be destroyed which is why genuine Sooty puppets are few and far between.
“Theatres expected a typical puppet show to bring a couple of small sets but we turned up with enough equipment to fill the stage - The Haunted Castle, The Kitchen, The Magic Water Garden, Sooty's Arabian Nights, giant butterflies and a magical genie operated by an escapologist.
“As well as being assistant stage manager, I was sound engineer, in charge of merchandise sales, a puppeteer and, occasionally, Harry’s driver. We drove from venue to venue across the country and did two shows a day, three on Saturdays. Before Christmas we performed at London’s Mayfair Hotel.
“Every week Harry and Toabs treated us to a slap-up meal at a good restaurant. They were a lovely couple. In fact, we all has a meal to celebrate the end of the tour in St Helens, Lancashire, in the spring of 1975. Before the final goodbye Harry gave me one of his ‘retired’ Sooty puppets as a memento.
“I went on to work as a manager with the Rank Organisation at Odeon Cinemas in Romford and Camden Town. But it was not my last meeting with Harry and Sooty. Later that year, Harry asked me to do him a favour. At a Magic Circle dinner, I was drafted in to magically make water come out of Sooty’s wand, flowers and even Sweep's head, which took the little fella by surprise.
“Since then, Sooty has been a faithful companion in my study – and travelled the world with me including five years in Australia and two years in Oman when I worked as night editor on a government-owned English language newspaper.
“Finally, we came home again and Sooty moved with me from North Wales to Norfolk, Stratford-on-Avon, Worcestershire and finally to our current home in Farnborough.
“We’ve had lots of adventures but I’m past all that now. Sooty, on the other hand, is still a mischievous bear cub and deserves to have more adventures with a new companion instead of sitting on a shelf in my study with a 110-year-old monkey called Joey - but that's another story!”
Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons, said: “I’m always delighted when Hansons unearths a vintage Sooty puppet because they invariably have a great tale to tell and remind us of one of the greatest UK children’s shows of all time. We have sold a number of rare Sooty puppets over the years including a 1950s Harry Corbett original for a record-breaking £14,500 in 2018. Robin’s version is a later Sooty but its rich provenance means it deserves to do well.”
The Sooty puppet is due to be sold on March 16 in Hansons’ Antiques and Collectors Auction. To find out more, or to book a free valuation, email [email protected].