The fortnight at Harry’s home in Child Okeford was not only for preparing for the tour, making sure everything was in perfect condition and packed properly in the Sooty van (some fragile items were to travel in the back of Harry’s Range Rover), it was also to give us time to get to know one another before we spent the next six months almost living in each other’s pockets.
Obviously Harry and Tobes already knew Lawrence from their visits to Basildon when he had worked on the Sooty Show, backstage. Similarly Lawrence and I knew each other through the Basildon Arts Centre.
We had to become an even more cohesive group, however, to ensure the show went without a hitch.
Going over the equipment, rehearsing the sequences – especially the water garden – worked well. Just as working in an am dram group can bring a small cast together for that show so that they perform like a well-oiled machine. Well, that’s how it worked at the Little Theatre group.
The guest performer, Howard the escapologist, was not initially part of that togetherness because other than the Arabian Nights UV sequence he only had his own section of the show. Of course, by the end of the tour we all came to know him far better and we made a happy little family.
The family consisted of more than the five of us, however, there’s no show without Sooty and there’s no Sooty without Sweep being there as well. That’s the way I remember it on TV.
I remember Sooty from my childhood and always linked him with Sweep. The show first appeared on TV in 1955 and Sweep did not join his little bear pal until 1957 but I always thought of the two together.
During the two weeks prior to the start of the tour Lawrence had to keep working with the swazzle, which was the device with a reed in it which transformed ordinary talk into Sweep speak.
He would also work with a Sweep puppet to make sure all the movements were right. During lunchbreaks and other down time I would use an old Sooty puppet to give Lawrence a target to talk to and react to.
At times these little impromptu “shows” would end up with improvised conversations between the little bear and his doggy pal. Of course I had to interpret for Sooty, remember he has never been known to say a word.
In the early days I would pretend Sooty whispered in my ear and tell Sweep (Lawrence) what he said. Lawrence would respond in Sweep Speak and initially I would make a rough guess at what he said. It wasn’t long, however, before I understood exactly what Lawrence was saying as Sweep and soon after I was having conversations directly with Sweep.
This was to set my reactions to the three puppet stars for the whole tour.
I felt that Soo was well-intentioned (very much like Tobes) but also somewhat bossy and very much a 70s women’s libber, (very unlike Tobes). Sooty wasn’t really as clever as everyone thought he was – I believe Harry translated the little bear’s whispers to make him sound more intelligent.
Sweep, however, was a completely different box of doggy biscuits. He was a joker, a mischief maker, even a prankster, but there wasn’t a bad bone in his body. When it came to naughtiness Sooty was the real ring leader and led Sweep astray. Once you got Sweep on his own he was just a loveable scamp, a puppy dog out to please anyone who wanted to be his friend.
Of course I couldn’t let the rest of the team know how I rated the trio. Sooty was Harry’s pride and joy but Sooty’s magic all came from the self-same Harry who really was a magician. He was very well-thought of in the Magic Circle as I found out – but that’s a story that comes after the tour ended.
Except for the bossiness Soo was really just a puppet version of Tobes, sweet, charming and just wanting things to run smoothly.
Just as when I was a child Sweep was my favourite, and still is.
Two weeks after I arrived at Child Okeford we set off for the first date on our tour. To this day I still cannot remember those early places on the tour. All I can remember is that the first few were in the South, starting off not far from the Corbett home.
We set out on the Sunday with Harry and Tobes in their Range Rover, towing their plush caravan, followed by Lawrence and myself in the Sooty van towing our, not quite so plush, caravan.
I left my beloved green Moggie Minor behind at Harry’s place.
NEXT TIME: Curtain up, light the lights.