Bernard Crib­bins on writ­ing his mem­oirs as he turns 90

Bernard Crib­bins has done ev­ery­thing from pop hits to clas­sic films, from Jack­anory to the best-loved cameo on Fawlty Tow­ers. As he turns 90 and pub­lishes his mem­oirs, he talks to Wil­liam Cook

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Wil­liam Cook

For couch po­ta­toes of a cer­tain age, there’s some­thing won­der­fully re­as­sur­ing about Bernard Crib­bins. I’d never met him be­fore but, af­ter five min­utes in his com­pany, I felt I’d known him all my life. The rea­son is fairly ob­vi­ous. For any­one who grew up in front of the telly in the 1960s and 1970s (like me, and mil­lions like me), Crib­bins was om­nipresent – a fa­mil­iar, friendly fig­ure in the cor­ner of the liv­ing room.

His list of act­ing cred­its reads like an A-Z of the golden age of Bri­tish TV, from The Avengers to The Wombles, from Fawlty Tow­ers to Doc­tor Who. He’s been a peren­nial pres­ence on the big screen, too: plenty of pot­boil­ers, the odd block­buster, three Carry Ons ( Jack, Spy­ing and Colum­bus) and a few time­less clas­sics such as The Rail­way Chil­dren. He had two top ten hits in 1962 – The Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred, both pro­duced by the Bea­tles’ pro­ducer Ge­orge Mar­tin.

And now, af­ter three-quar­ters of a cen­tury as a job­bing ac­tor, he’s fi­nally got around to writ­ing his mem­oirs, mod­estly en­ti­tled Bernard Who?

De­spite its self-dep­re­cat­ing ti­tle, Bernard Who? is a rol­lick­ing good read – charm­ing, unas­sum­ing and full of ami­able, home­spun wit. Its sub­ti­tle, 75 Years of Do­ing Just About Ev­ery­thing, en­cap­su­lates his en­dur­ing ap­peal. He can do stage and screen, straight or comic – he can even sing and dance a bit. He feels like the last of a dy­ing breed – a con­sum­mate all-rounder who’s happy to try his hand at any­thing, and has never for­got­ten that the ac­tor’s first re­spon­si­bil­ity is to his au­di­ence.

‘Peo­ple have paid good money to come and see you be a silly idiot,’ he states, em­phat­i­cally. Maybe that’s why, when­ever you’re watch­ing him, you al­ways feel you’re in safe hands.

On screen, he’s al­ways seemed cu­ri­ously age­less. He never looked young, even as a young man. Yet now he’s about to turn 90 (on 29th De­cem­ber) he some­how seems al­most boy­ish.

‘I didn’t re­ally think about age, ever – I don’t think I do now, par­tic­u­larly,’ he says, when we meet up in a ho­tel near his Wey­bridge home for a chat about the book. ‘I had spinal surgery last year – that slowed me up a bit, but up un­til then I was run­ning about and do­ing ev­ery­thing. It’s the phys­i­cal thing that changes, not the men­tal thing.’ Not for him, at least.

His mem­oirs are rich with de­tail. As he em­barks on his tenth decade, his mem­ory re­mains undimmed.

He was born in Old­ham in 1928, into an ar­che­typal poor-but-happy fam­ily. ‘My dad was a sort of labour­ercum-handy­man and my mother had worked in the cot­ton mill. We never had a car.’ He had an older sis­ter and a younger sis­ter, and an­other sis­ter who died very young. ‘Dad was small, bit of a ter­rier – a very good man, who worked bloody hard.’

He caught the act­ing bug from his dad. ‘He was an am­a­teur ac­tor – had a good tenor voice, to­tally un­trained,’ he tells

‘Learn the lines and say ’em proper – that’s it’

me. ‘Dad would have loved to have been an ac­tor, given the right cir­cum­stances.’

Bernard was more for­tu­nate. He left school at 14 to join the lo­cal rep, hav­ing al­ready played sev­eral roles there while he was still at school.

‘Weekly rep – what a tread­mill,’ he re­calls. ‘Ruth­less bloody sys­tem!’

They’d do a new play ev­ery week, re­hears­ing next week’s play dur­ing the day and per­form­ing this week’s play ev­ery evening. ‘Re­lent­less – ab­so­lutely bloody re­lent­less!’ But it was a great ap­pren­tice­ship. It taught him the tricks of the trade and honed his mem­ory – he still finds it easy to learn lines. When he switched to fort­nightly rep, it felt like a hol­i­day.

His act­ing ca­reer was in­ter­rupted by Na­tional Ser­vice. Ea­ger for ad­ven­ture, he ap­plied to be­come a para­trooper, and got his wings – he still wears the lapel badge to­day. ‘I loved it, I loved it!’ The ca­ma­raderie felt like a close-knit theatre com­pany (‘You’re all de­pend­ing on each other’) but, in the Paras, the stakes were higher. In those days, they used to jump with just one para­chute. ‘If it went wrong, you were dead.’

He was sent to Pales­tine, which was pretty hairy. ‘That was the most Go­daw­ful si­t­u­a­tion for the English

squad­die, be­cause you never knew who was go­ing to have a pop at you.’

Af­ter Na­tional Ser­vice, he re­turned to Old­ham Rep, where he met his wife, Gill, an as­pir­ing ac­tress and as­sis­tant stage man­ager. They mar­ried in 1955. They’re still go­ing strong to­day. Sadly, they had no chil­dren. ‘We lost a baby, we think we lost a baby… at about two or three months and, af­ter that, noth­ing hap­pened. That’s the way it goes.’

And yet in­stead, on chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion, he be­came a sort of vir­tual un­cle – al­ways cheer­ful, al­ways af­fa­ble. I can’t help think­ing he would have made a fan­tas­tic dad.

Bernard and Gill moved down to

Lon­don in search of bet­ter things and he got his first big break, in 1956, play­ing both Dromio twins (a show-steal­ing per­for­mance) in A Com­edy of Er­rors. It was his West End de­but. He’s been busy ever since. Like all the best ac­tors, he’s mat­ter-of-fact about his craft. ‘Learn the lines and say ’em proper – that’s it.’

But it’s the mark of a true pro to make it seem so sim­ple. His Fawlty Tow­ers cameo, as Mr Hutchin­son in The Ho­tel In­spec­tors, is a per­fect case in point – only a one-off ap­pear­ance in one episode, but the mem­ory of it re­mains vivid, over 40 years on. ‘It was a piece of weekly rep – it was slap­stick,’ he says. ‘It was a smash­ing part to play.’

He’s worked with some great Bri­tish ac­tors: Peter Sellers (‘a damn good ac­tor’), James Ma­son (‘a lovely man’) and David Niven (‘a gem, an ab­so­lute gem’). How­ever, his proud­est achieve­ment was pre­sent­ing Jack­anory. He filmed more than 100 episodes – more than any other ac­tor – and was im­mensely moved to meet a taxi driver who told him that en­chant­ing sto­ry­telling se­ries had in­spired him to learn to read.

To­day, Jack­anory seems like a quaint relic of a qui­eter, gentler age. ‘We’ve lost a huge amount.’

As he says, what could be nicer than some­one just sit­ting there and telling you a story, rather than bom­bard­ing your eyes and ears with rapid edit­ing and con­stant noise? The se­cret of his suc­cess was that he al­ways imag­ined he was read­ing to just one child. That’s what made it seem so in­ti­mate. ‘It’s a very per­sonal thing that I used to en­joy enor­mously.’

The job he’s al­ways asked about is The Rail­way Chil­dren. Does he have any idea why au­di­ences still adore it? ‘You can sit back and let it wash over you. It’s a nice warm feel­ing the whole time. There’s not much stress in­volved. There’s a lot of hap­pi­ness; a few laughs. Warm is the ad­jec­tive you’d have to use for it.’ That’s the ad­jec­tive I’d use for Crib­bins, and that’s why au­di­ences adore him, too. ‘They like warmth and af­fec­tion,’ he says. We won’t see his like again.

Does he have any re­grets? ‘I wish we’d had chil­dren, cer­tainly. I would have liked to have had an­other look at Amer­ica. I only worked once in Amer­ica. That was in Hous­ton, in My Fair Lady.’ But there aren’t many gaps in his CV. ‘There are so many things to do within show busi­ness, and I’ve done an aw­ful lot of them.’

Af­ter all these years, he’s still a gun for hire. Does he have any­thing in the pipe­line, I ask him. ‘Noth­ing much in the pipe­line, no – but, if you hear of any­thing, I’d be very in­ter­ested to know about it!’ he says, with a hearty chuckle, and his life-en­hanc­ing laugh­ter rings around the empty room.

‘Bernard Who? 75 Years of Do­ing Just About Ev­ery­thing’ by Bernard Crib­bins is pub­lished on 11th Oc­to­ber (Con­sta­ble £20)

‘On Jack­anory he al­ways imag­ined he was read­ing to just one child’

Star­ring with Sally Thom­sett (left) and Jenny Agut­ter in The Rail­way Chil­dren (1970)

Three of a kind: Crib­bins, David Lodge and Peter Sellers in Two-way Stretch (1960)

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