The big interview: National treasure Bernard Cribbins

Bernard Cribbins
Bernard Cribbins
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Bernard Cribbins is a veteran comedy actor, pop singer and much-loved children’s entertainer and, as Chris Bond discovers, he’s still going strong.

ALTHOUGH he was born on the wrong side of the Pennines, at least in the eyes of those from God’s Own Country, Bernard Cribbins is no stranger to Yorkshire.

Bernard Cribbins

Bernard Cribbins

As a youngster he used to hop on the bus from his home in Oldham and head over the border. “There was a gang of us who used to go hiking every Sunday in the West Riding, it cost us six pence on the bus and we’d go out into the wilds, the landscape was breathtaking,” he says.

His meandering career has brought him back several times since, most notably for The Railway Children, which was filmed at picturesque locations like Oakworth Station and Haworth, and The Good Old Days at Leeds City Varieties.

More recently he’s been over on the east coast in the seaside village of Staithes which provides the backdrop for the popular CBeebies series Old Jack’s Boat. The children’s TV programme, which won a Royal Television Society Award last November, follows the story of a retired fisherman who tells tales from his time at sea, helped by his eccentric friends in the village.

“I’ve filmed in a lot of locations throughout my career, but there’s something about the sea air, the beauty and the friendliness in Staithes that makes it a special place to be,” says Cribbins. “I hadn’t been over to that area before but I absolutely loved it, the North York Moors are beautiful and my wife and I are going to go back so we can explore a bit more of it.”

Cribbins, of course, is no stranger to children’s television, having been the voice of The Wombles during the 1970s. He was also a regular reader on the long-running children’s series Jackanory and holds the record for the most appearances on the show – 114. “I was lucky because I got to read lots of great stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and The Wizard of Oz. If you can engage children with a story then you’re away – that’s the secret.”

Successive generations have grown up watching Cribbins on telly but he’s more than just a children’s entertainer. He first made a name for himself in the early 60s as a pop singer enjoying a succession of chart hits with The Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred, before going on to establish himself as a comic actor, becoming a familiar face in the Carry On films.

Over the past 50 years he’s appeared alongside the likes of Peter Cushing, Ursula Andress and Peter Sellars, yet he started out from humble and unpromising beginnings.

“I left school when I was 13, I turned 14 in the holidays and they said don’t bother coming back,” he says, with a chuckle.

With his future looking far from rosy, the Second World War offered him an unlikely lifeline. As part of Warships Week people in Oldham helped raise funds for HMS Onslow with the local amateur dramatics groups all doing their bit.

“There was a drama festival at the Coliseum Theatre and I was in one of the plays,” says Cribbins. “It was produced by a man called Douglas Emery and he asked me and my parents if any parts came up for children whether I would be interested and of course I said ‘yes.’”

Having left school he was offered a job as assistant stage manager (and part time actor) at the Oldham Repertory Theatre where he earned the grand sum of 15 shillings a week.

He remained with the rep for the next eight years during which time he appeared in more than 50 plays, and his theatrical career was only interrupted for a stint on National Service with the Parachute Regiment which saw him serve in Palestine.

Having earned his acting stripes he made his West End debut in 1956 playing two roles in a musical version of The Comedy of Errors. “They wanted someone who could sing and dance and were told to go and watch me, so they did and they offered me the job. That’s where it all kicked off.”

Following this he starred in the revue And Another Thing, featuring a ditty called Folksong, which brought him into contact with a producer by the name of George Martin. “He was an A&R man for Parlophone back then and he used to go round all the shows in London looking for songs to record. He saw me and recorded the song.”

Folksong was written by songwriting team Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks and when Martin asked for a follow-up they penned The Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred.

It made Cribbins an unlikely pop star in 1962 and gained him an equally unlikely fan. “When he was on Desert Island Discs Noel Coward picked The Hole in the Ground as one of his discs. At the end when he was asked which record he’d keep if he could only take one, he said Hole in the Ground. When he was asked why he said ‘so I could translate it into French as I walked up and down the beach.’ I never met him but I would have liked to have thanked him for that.”

His brief pop career proved a springboard for success in TV and film and by the end of the decade he’d appeared in The Avengers and the comedy spy film Casino Royale.

His next role, as station porter Mr Perks in The Railway Children, is one of his most fondly remembered. The film, based on the novel by Edith Nesbit and directed by Lionel Jeffries, has become a British classic since it was first screened in 1970.

“Everyone was smashing, from Jenny [Agutter] to little Sally [Thomsett] and the film was done with a great amount of affection by Lionel. It’s purely sentimental but it’s a great family film and it still holds up today,” says Cribbins, who has fond memories of his time spent filming in Yorkshire.

“My wife came with me and we stayed at the Devonshire Arms. I would go off fishing and I remember the weather was absolutely glorious, it was lovely.”

Another programme he’s fondly remembered for featured a group of 
furry orange eco-creatures on a mission to keep Britain, or at least Wimbledon Common, tidy.

The first Wombles book was published in 1968 and after being read on Jackanory the BBC decided to turn it into an animated series.

The children’s programme became a huge hit, even spawning a novelty pop group, with Cribbins providing voices for all the characters including Uncle Bulgaria, Tobermory and Orinoco.

“It was lovely, it was a very nice episode in my career,” he says. “It’s actually being re-made so hopefully I’ll get the call to do the voices again – I like the idea of being recycled,” he says with a chuckle.

So does he have a favourite Womble?

“My favourite was probably the kids’ favourite, too, and that was Orinoco. Though I did have a soft spot for Madame Cholet,” he says, his voice slipping into character, “Oh you are naughty Mr Bulgaria.” Cue more laughter.

Over the years Cribbins has also returned to the stage where he first started out, taking the lead role in Ray Cooney’s farce Run For Your Wife when it made its 
West End debut and playing Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre.

But latterly he’s become a familiar face to a whole new generation through his involvement with another family favourite – Doctor Who, in which he played the Doctor’s companion Wilfred Mott.

His connection with the time-traveller actually goes back to the sixties and those of you with long enough memories may remember seeing him in the 1966 film Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D, in which he starred alongside the great Peter Cushing.

Cribbins is the only actor who appeared in both this film and the TV series which returned to our screens in 2005.

He calls both Cushing and Tennant “great fellows” and is fulsome in his praise for all those involved in the revamped Doctor Who.

“The scripts from Russell T Davies were brilliant, I got to play a lovely character and I also got to work with David Tennant and Catherine Tate,” he says. “It’s very satisfying as an actor to have good dialogue and the fact the public has taken the show to its heart makes the whole thing a big circle of joy.”

Cribbins was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 2011 and at the age of 85 seems to have done pretty much everything he wanted to, so are there any unfulfilled ambitions left?

“I’m probably too old to be in the circus but I’ve not been in a Western,” he says, mulling the question over. “And I’d like to ride an elephant, that would be nice.”

• Old Jack’s Boat is on CBeebies, weekdays at 5.40pm.