Corbett considered a musical career, but, suffering from hereditary deafness, began an electrical engineering apprenticeship. He retained his interest in music, however, and took up amateur conjuring and magic in 1940. Corbett's career changed direction in 1948, when he bought a glove puppet teddy bear on Blackpool's north pier for 7s 6d to entertain his two young sons. He incorporated the puppet into his conjuring act and the bear made its stage debut at Pudsey Conservative Club in 1948. After attracting the attention of a TV producer at the Manchester Radio Exhibition in 1952 he appeared on the BBC Talent Night on 3 May 1952. The Sunday Express of 4 May enthused: "five minutes on the television screen last night established Harry Corbett's teddy bear as a rival to Muffin the Mule". In October 1952, with the support of his wife, he turned professional with the bear, originally known as Teddy, rechristened Sooty.
The death of Annette Mills in 1955 resulted in the demise of Sooty's nearest rival, Muffin, and a generation of children with a very limited choice in TV viewing became enraptured by the antics of the mischievous bear, who was given his own TV show in 1956.
Five years later another puppet, Sweep, joined the act, operated by Corbett's brother, who provided the doleful and rather dim dog's distinctive squeaky voice by blowing through a reed. Subsequently other characters were also added, including Butch the dog, Ramsbottom the snake, and Soo, a cute panda, the first female character. Her introduction to the show, however, created a furore. Corbett's initial suggestion that Sooty should be provided with a girlfriend had been dismissed on the grounds it would introduce an undesirable sexual element into the children's programme. Predictably, the tabloid press had a field day, and the BBC establishment was eventually obliged to relent to Soo's inclusion on condition that the two characters never touched.
The sensitivity to public opinion which was required of Corbett, who wrote all his own scripts, illustrated the influence achieved by the character at the peak of its popularity. The puppets became known internationally and a growing merchandising business built up around them. By 1973 Corbett was reputedly earning an annual 40,000. Sooty's success was due in no small measure to the personality of its presenter. Corbett was a natural stage and TV performer with a genuine affection for children. With his receding hair, neatly combed back, revealing a rounded, genial countenance, he always appeared on stage and screen wearing a smartly pressed suit in full knowledge that it would require laundering after each performance. His self-effacing, softly spoken, gentle manner appealed to children. His most memorable catchphrase, "Izzy wizzy, let's get busy", and his weary, resigned farewell at the end of each show, "Bye, bye, everybody, bye bye", became part of children's vocabulary.
After Corbett suffered a heart attack at Christmas 1975, his younger son, Matthew, stepped into his shoes, eventually buying out his father for 35,000, and ultimately selling his interests to a subsidiary of the Bank of Yokohama for nearly 1.5 million. After relinquishing his TV performances Harry continued his one-man stage shows. He died in his sleep on 17 August 1989 after playing to a capacity audience at Weymouth Pavilion.
• Extracted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by John A Hargreaves. Copyright Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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