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Bits and Pieces

End Of The Road - A Former TV Star reflects on life and loss
By Martin "That's the way to do it" Kelner on Jul 23, 2013 - 5:05:13 PM

"I have been silent for too long. It is time to speak out," says the one-time star, who in his heyday filled theatres and boasted a TV audience of millions.

In his pomp, we would have been in a five-star hotel with a bottle of the finest champagne chilling on the bedside table, liveried lackeys attending to our every need, and a sleek young PR operative filtering my questions. Tonight it is just the two of us, uncomfortably perched on two careworn chairs in his bedroom, in a hotel just off junction 28 of the M62, for which the word "budget" is scarcely adequate.

The plastic waste basket bears the evidence of what T S Eliot called "restless nights in cheap hotels;" the cardboard wrapper from a supermarket egg and prawn sandwich, the remains of a Twix bar, and a selection of empties, which I do not intend to enumerate. Like most of the British public, I have too much affection and respect for a figure who has always seemed an essential part of our light entertainment landscape to write anything that might harm him irreparably. In any case, my fervent hope is that there might be a way back for Sooty.

The last time I interviewed him - this is true - was more than 20 years ago, when in the midst of one of his many successful reinventions, he was the prime mover in a bid to set up a World Of Sooty theme park, near his birthplace, at Shipley in Yorkshire. The idea was that Shipley might become the California of northern England, and with the much-loved children's TV character, and sidekicks Sweep and Soo, as the lure, tourists would flock to the small town and sample some of its other delights such as the hills, the flat-cap museum, the many fine fish and chip shops, and, er, the hills.

The failure of the World Of Sooty is one of many things about which he is bitter tonight. He takes a long drag from the latest in a procession of Marlboro Lites, before launching into a long tirade against Sweep and Soo, who he claims hastened the financial collapse of the Shipley project by charging ruinous fees for personal appearances.

In the cloud of cigarette smoke and the half-light filtering through from the Tesco car park, Sooty still appears surprisingly youthful. He looks anything but the washed-up performer the cut-throat world of children's television has decided he is. "I have been a fool," he says, "I thought it was never going to end, but the writing was on the wall as far back as the 1970s."

To understand this comment you need to know something of Sooty's history. In the early 1950s he was performing his routines to raucously unappreciative audiences around the workingmen's clubs of Thackley, when he was discovered by Harry Corbett, who became his personal Svengali, his Brian Epstein or Colonel Tom Parker, taking him from the North of England's dingy down-at-heel clubland to the grand theatres of the British seaside.

"You have to remember, in those days everybody went to the seaside for two weeks for their annual holiday, and they were out for a good time, which is what we gave them. I filled theatres, playing alongside the biggest stars of the day; Ken Dodd, Norman Wisdom, Lita Roza."

Sooty now says rumours of a torrid affair with Lita Roza, whose record How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? was a number one single, were cooked up by Corbett for publicity. He smiles at the memory of his cunning mentor.

"But Harry got tired and handed the business over to his son Matthew, who just saw me as a money-making machine. We went to ITV, and started endorsing all sorts of products, anything that came along; not just kids stuff, but Instant Whip and fucking Toilet Duck, pardon my French."

Clearly, despite all he has been through, Sooty has lost none of his olde worlde charm, and feels uncomfortable giving full vent to his feelings. "There were artistic differences too," he complains, "Matthew was making the comedy too broad."

Too water pistol-based, I suggest?

"Don't talk to me about fucking water pistols," he volleys back, "Bloody health and safety. For years, we've been soaking guest stars on the show. It's the bloody money shot, for Christ's sake. A bit of banter, a sketch or two, and then Clodagh Rogers gets it right in the kisser with the water pistol. Brilliant. Move in for the close-up, and with a bit of luck, some of the water's soaked through her t-shirt. Something for the dads.

"Then, just because one of Showaddywaddy suffers a contact lens-related injury, Health and Safety come marching in, taking my bloody pistols off me, and putting governors on them so they can only shoot a little pussy dribble of water, and no more shots in the eyes they say. Well, what's the point of that? That's my bloody act. You might as well take Charlie Chaplin's cane off him, or Maurice Chevalier's straw hat.

"Harry would have known how to deal with it, but Matthew ended up selling the business to a big organisation Hit Entertainment, where I was just one of a whole stable of acts. I had to take my chances with Pingu and Bob the Builder. I mean, I ask you. He had a bloody tractor. All I had was a half-power water pistol."

For a star whose currency was silence, Sooty can be remarkably outspoken. The air in this raddled hotel room crackles with his vituperation. He is bitter about others who like him achieved a voiceless fame. "Did you read those obituaries of Marcel Marceau? The King of Mime, my arse. When did he ever get any laughs? Oh look, I'm trapped in a box. Do me a favour."

Maybe the 'phone fails to ring for Sooty in this hotel room, because he has spoken his mind too forcefully, too often, most recently when Sooty and Sweep were caught up in a drugs scandal, when they were seen acting oddly after sniffing essential oils from what looked like medicine bottles.

"I ask you? Drugs scandal, me? They want to look at those fuckers in Balamory. What are they on?"

With that, the storm is blown out, and Sooty retreats once more into his own thoughts. It may be the end for Sooty - and with the current cuts in children's TV programming that seems ever more likely - but one thing is certain. He is not going quietly.

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