Updated: Aug 10, 2022
Bernard Joseph Cribbins OBE (29 December 1928 - 27 July 2022)
If you have lived in the UK in the last 70 years, you know Bernard Cribbins. It is almost impossible to encompass the breadth of his work across his career, or even more, the warmth and fondness which multiple generations have for him. He was the voice or face for a plethora of school children programming, but also a versatile entertainer and actor and even a pop artist. His appeal was universal, not only did audiences of all ages love him, but with the acting profession as well. It was often said that anyone who worked with Cribbins, always desired to do so again.
Cribbins was born into a poor family in the Derker area of Oldham, Lancashire, the son of a cotton weaver Ethel (née Clarkson 1898-1989) and a First World War veteran John Edward Cribbins (1896-1964). Cribbins left school at 13 to take up a job as an assistant stage manager at a local theatre club, also taking on some acting roles. He then served a apprenticeship at the Oldham Repertory Theatre. While there he met an aspiring actress Gillian McBarnet. In 1947 he began his national service, during which he served in Palestine. In 1955 he married Gillian.
He made his West End debut at the Arts Theatre, playing the two Dromios in A Comedy of Errors (1956) before starring in a variety of shows. He started to get small roles in television and film, including the war film Dunkirk (1958).
In 1960 he was in the revue And Another Thing which brought him to the attention of the head of Parlaphone records, George Martin. Cribbins had three singles in 1962, Hole in the Ground, Gossip Calypso and perhaps the most famous was Right Said Fred, which was the inspiration for the nineties pop act of the same name.
It was these novelty pop songs that catapulted Cribbins into demand and his work credits built up thick and fast. In the mid sixties he starred in two of the Carry On pictures, Carry on Jack (1963) and Carry on Spying (1964).
He starred alongside Peter Cushing in Hammer horror She (1965) before then returning to comedy in the 1966 British modern silent comedy film The Sandwich Man before he was reunited with Peter Cushing in the big screen Doctor Who adventure Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966). This was perhaps the beginning of his journey into a lifetime as a children's entertainer, alongside the start of his role as the storyteller in Jackanory (1966-1991) in the same year.
He starred in Casino Royale (1967) but his trajectory was set and as the 1970s got underway one of is most endearing roles was as Albert Perks in the much loved The Railway Children (1970) and one of his most iconic as the voices and narrator in the perpetual favourite TV show The Wombles (1973-1975). He also released the audio recordings of Paddington Bear Vol I and II and recordings of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen while also managing to keep his work varied away from the children's arena with a memorable role in an episode of all time favourite sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975).
A Towering TV Presence
He made further films in the late seventies, including The Water Babies (1978) and The Adventures of Picasso (1978) but the eighties became a period of his life dominated by television work. He featured in Worzel Gummidge (1981) and narrated various stories in The Storyteller audio collection. While he featured in an episode of Tales of the Unexpected (1983), his career was now in children's TV and especially his voice work. In 1984 he narrated the story of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman in a stand alone concert of the music written by Howard Marks
In the nineties he was part of the brief return of the Carry On films and featured in Carry On Columbus (1992). The long running Saturday night show Noel's House Party saw him appear as a recurring character, Victor the Vicar. He experienced a series of guest roles in a new generation of comedy films with Blackball (2003) and Run for Your Wife (2012) and then his glorious return to the Doctor Who saga as the universally adored Wilfred Mott, who was to become an oft used gif by a whole new generation of media consumers. He also featured in some long running British TV shows such as Last of the Summer Wine, Coronation Street and Midsomer Murders.
In 2009 he was honoured for his work in children's entertainment at the British Academy Children's Awards and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011.
He returned to The Wombles as the voice of Great Uncle Bulgaria in 2016 and released his autobiography Bernard Who? 75 Years Of Doing Just About Anything in 2018.
Despite his advancing years he was even working on a reprise of his role as Wilfred Mott in the filming of the Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials as recently as late spring 2021. In February of 2021 a successful social media campaign secured the rights to Cribbin's autobiography as an audiobook, in his own voice.
Russell T. Davies, the show runner at Doctor Who left a touching tribute to his friend Bernard on social media:
“I love this man. I love him. That’s him as Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. D’you fancy doing some Shakespeare, Bernard? “Let me see the script.”
“He knew everyone! He’d talk about the Beatles and David Niven, and how he once sat on the stairs at a party impersonating bird calls with T H White. Then he’d add, ‘I said to Ashley Banjo last week…’
“He loved being in Doctor Who. He said, ‘Children are calling me grandad in the street!’ His first day was on location with Kylie Minogue, but all eyes, even Kylie’s, were on Bernard. He’d turned up with a suitcase full of props, just in case, including a rubber chicken.
“And what an actor. Oh, really though, what a wonderful actor. We once took him to the TV Choice Awards and sent him up on his own to collect the award, and the entire room stood up and cheered him. That’s a lovely memory.
“He’d phone up and say, ‘I’ve got an idea! What if I attack a Dalek with a paintball gun?!’ Okay, Bernard, in it went! He loved Gill (his wife who died last year) with all his heart; he mentioned her in every conversation we ever had. A love story for the ages. I’m so lucky to have known him. Thanks for everything, my old soldier. A legend has left the world.”