A Sunday drive in late summer from North Wales to Dorset, in a 1950s green Morris Minor, is one of the most relaxing journeys I can think of. Well I found it relaxing on that sunny day in 1974.
It was just as well that I have always found driving myself from A to B to be more relaxing than being driven, or travelling by train or bus.
I was turning my back on a profession I had followed for nine years and starting a a new adventure in which I would be in a new town every Sunday for the next six months.
I arrived at Harry Corbett’s home in Child Okeford, not far from Blandford Forum, in the late afternoon and as I drew in to the large yard behind the house I could see Lawrence waiting to greet me, standing alongside a deep blue three-ton Luton van with The Sooty Show painted in bright yellow on the sides and the rear and images of Sooty on both sides alon%%%%with varying sized stars.
Not a vehicle designed to go unnoticed.
As I got out Lawrence came over, welcomed me and told me that Tobes had told him to bring me straight into the house for a cup of tea.
That was when I first discovered that Harry’s wife, Marjorie, who was also the voice and operator of Soo, was known as Tobes (as in Toby jug) to family and friends. I gather it was a name given to her by her sons, Matthew (actual name Peter) and David, when they were children.
Tobes greeted me as though I was a member of the family she hadn’t seen for a while and gave me a great big motherly hug. She told me to sit down while she brewed the tea and as she handed me a mug Harry came in and also gave me a friendly greeting.
We ate with Harry and Tobes that first night and then, tired from the drive, I retired to my bed in the caravan which Lawrence and I would be sharing for the tour.
When I woke the following morning at about 7.30 I had to think first as to where I was. My bed was at the dining end of the caravan and the table dropped down between the two seats to form a double bed. The cupboard door folded out to create a partition.
The other end was a sort of U-shaped seating area (a bit more squared off) and a part similar to the table slotted in to create another double bed.
Over the next few months those remained as beds for the tour and it gave Lawrence and myself our privacy.
After breakfast that first day I was shown around the set store and the workshop and soon realised how efficiently organised everything was.
There were three main sets which were about ten feet wide, but folded down for easy storage on the truck. I know there was a kitchen scene because Sooty baked a pie and I had to make sure the “dough” was ready in place.
Then there was the finale set which was a water garden in which Sooty produced a water fountain from his wand, Sweep’s head, Harry’s finger if I remember rightly, and various other props on the set including a potted plant.
Again this was an unseen role for me as I kept my head down behind the set, made sure the water tank was full, and ensured there was the right water pressure when Sooty “magically” switched the fountain to the other objects.
I think the other big set was a Haunted House. This sequence did not involve me as much as the water feature and I had my role as soundman to keep me occupied (same as with the kitchen scene).
In the fourth Sooty sequence we had a set which consisted of black drapes and a low piece of set at the front, cut to look like rocks or waves and painted in bright colours.
The colours were really bright because they were fluorescent and the whole scene was done with UV lighting. It was an Arabian nights setting and included the magical appearance of a genie.
The genie was controlled by the guest on the Sooty Show Tour, an escapologist called Howard (I don’t remember his surname) who joined us to rehearse his UV role a day or so before the first performance.
I went on a steep learning curve during the fortnight we were at Child Okeford and my first lesson involved providing Sweep’s voice.
Lawrence operated Sweep during the tour and required an “instrument” called a swazzle to make sure he got the right note for Sweep’s squeaks. If you listen you will realise it is like the Clangers and you can actually make out what was being said.
I used to make 20 swazzles a day at the beginning because each one had to be at exactly the right pitch and Lawrence would try them out. The ones that failed to pass the test were junked. Later in the tour I could make a few swazzles at the beginning of each week and one would last the week.
Each day was busy, preparing the sets; making sure all the lighting rigs worked; that the sound system was functioning properly; all the stage drapes were clean and folded neatly for storage on the Sooty van.
That was something else we practised during that fortnight – loading and unloading the van. Everything had to be placed in exactly the right position so that unloading was easier for ensuring the right things went in first.
I’ll give you an idea of how full that van was at a later date and you might be surprised about what we got into it.
I know at the end of the first day I was more worn out than I had been at any time in my journalistic career.
When we knocked off for the day Lawrence and I went to the nearby pub for a well-earned drink or two.
It was a fascinating little pub, really just the front room of a cottage. The serving hatch was in the back wall and the place was run by a little old lady who looked as though she had been there since the year Dot.
There were seats in the tap room with tables and there were benches outside as well to take advantage of the last of the summer weather.
One thing I did find out was that at 10pm the old lady went to bed and trusted regulars to draw their own pints, leave the correct money and turn everything off and lock the door when they left.
As far as I am aware nobody took advantage of this honesty system.
That’s village life for you.