During a full and varied career spanning more than 75 years as a much-loved, and very funny, character actor, Bernard Cribbins, who has died aged 93, was honoured by Bafta in 2009 with a special award for his work in children’s television. This encompassed story-telling in more than 100 episodes of the BBC’s Jackanory between 1966 and 1995; narrating and voicing all the furry creatures on all 60 episodes of The Wombles (1973-75); and gracing CBeebies as a retired fisherman spinning his yarns on Old Jack’s Boat (2013-15).
He explained his connection to young audiences by saying that his job was to look straight down the lens and imagine one child sitting there, transfixed. This attention, and affection, was visibly reciprocated in The Railway Children (1970), widely regarded as the best children’s movie made in Britain, when he played Albert Perks, the kindly old station-master on the platform where Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) and her siblings hope to be reunited with their father one day.
He also had a special relationship with Doctor Who fans, who relished his appearance in the second feature film, Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 (1966), with Peter Cushing landing the Tardis in a London laid waste by the deadly robots – and then his reincarnation as the wide-eyed amateur astronomer Wilfred Mott, grandfather to Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, in the David Tennant Doctor Who years, 2007-10.
His range was such that it included vaudevillian appearances on the BBC’s long-running music hall showcase, The Good Old Days; knockabout comedy in two gangland capers with Peter Sellers, Two Way Stretch (1960) and The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963); West End farce – he played leading roles opposite Donald Sinden, then Richard Briers, in two of Ray Cooney’s signature smash hits, Not Now, Darling (1968) and Run For Your Wife (1983); and revues and musicals.
Cribbins even found success in the pop charts, thanks to the producer George Martin (before he took up with the Beatles) in 1962, singing two Top 10 novelty songs written by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks, The Hole in the Ground, which Noël Coward claimed as the record he would save from the waves on Desert Island Discs, and Right Said Fred, both of them comic narratives of the class war. A third song that year, Gossip Calypso, written by Trevor Peacock (“Hear all about it, yak-a-yak-yak; every woman up at the window giving out the gossip and getting it back”) made the Top 30.
Cribbins knew a bit about poverty and deprivation. During the depression years in Oldham, Lancashire, there was little work for either of his parents, John Cribbins, a plumber’s mate, and Ethel (nee Clarkson), a corduroy weaver, and so young Bernard leapt at the offer of 15 shillings (75p) a week at the Oldham Coliseum in 1943. The theatre’s director, Douglas Emery, had spotted his talent in an amateur show on that stage. Cribbins was only 14 when he left St Anne’s elementary school to take up the offer of small parts and stage management. He stayed in the job for seven years, playing increasingly larger, then leading, roles, with an interruption in 1947 to complete his national service with the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot, Hampshire, and then in Palestine.
In 1949 he left to play in seasons at Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, with the Piccolo Players; in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester; and at the new Queen’s theatre in Hornchurch, Essex. The last of these engagements led to his West End debut in 1956 in a musical version of The Comedy of Errors at the Arts theatre. The music was written by Julian Slade, who was instrumental in Cribbins joining his hit musical Salad Days at the Vaudeville in 1956; the cast also included Rudge, who would become a key colleague in Cribbins’s television and stage revue work. The previous year Cribbins had married Gillian McBarnet, his assistant stage manager at Oldham.
He divided his time in the 1960s between stage and screen. His first film was Tommy the Toreador (1959) starring Tommy Steele as a seaman turned bullfighter, and the Sellers collaborations led to a double whammy in 1964 of Carry On Jack (he played the lead role of Midshipman Albert Poop-Decker) and Carry On Spying (as one of four hopeless undercover agents led by Barbara Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt). On stage, his comedy credits included New Cranks (1960), a musical revue by the innovative choreographer John Cranko at the Lyric Hammersmith and a more traditional sketch and song revue, And Another Thing (1962), at the Fortune, written by Rudge and Dicks, with Anna Quayle and Lionel Blair.
The Cooney farce roles cemented Cribbins’s top-of-the-bill standing. In 1969, ITV gave him two series of his own comedy show, Cribbins, and a decade of high-profile television work culminated in Shillingbury Tales by Francis Essex, six hour-long episodes of everyday life in a fictional village, filmed on location in Aldbury, Hertfordshire. His character of Cuffy, the colourful tinker, was so successful that it earned him a 1983 spin-off series, Cuffy, in which he was joined by Linda Hayden and Jack Douglas from the original Shillingbury cast. In High and Dry (1987), he played another penniless eccentric, Ron Archer, who somehow acquires a decrepit pier on the Yorkshire coast just after the war.
A BBC Play of the Month in 1977 – William Wycherley’s sexually explicit Restoration masterpiece The Country Wife – in which he played the irascible husband of Helen Mirren’s lubricious Margery Pinchwife – was a reminder that he had been away from the stage for too long. After Run for Your Wife, Richard Eyre cast him as Nathan Detroit, succeeding Bob Hoskins, in his glorious National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls and, 10 years later, put him at the centre of his exquisite 1995 production of La Grande Magia by Eduardo De Filippo, also at the National. Cribbins played a magical mountebank who spirited away the wife of an electrified Alan Howard to her lover; the performance, said Michael Billington, was a revelation, combining the grizzled authority of a magus with clear hints of Cribbins’s experience at the tattier end of the showbiz spectrum.
As if to prove that he left no television stone unturned, he cropped up in Worzel Gummidge with Jon Pertwee, Last of the Summer Wine with Peter Sallis and Bill Owen and, in 2003, Coronation Street, in which he played Wally Bannister, a lecherous gardener passing himself off as a wealthy haulage firm owner. His later films included Carry On Columbus (1992), the last in the Carry On series; a celebrity cameo spot in the film version of Run For Your Wife (2012); and Mandie Fletcher’s Patrick (2018) co-starring Jennifer Saunders, Gemma Jones and Ed Skrein.
Cribbins and his wife, Gill, lived in Weybridge, Surrey. He was always happiest, when filming on location, if he could spend down-time either fishing or beachcombing. He was appointed OBE in 2011, and never once thought of retiring.
Gill died in 2021.