On the release of his autobiography, we chat to the wonderful Bernard Cribbins about his legendary career, approaching 90 and ballet fun on the set of The Railway Children
Listening to Bernard Cribbins talk about his life is just like sitting back in front of the telly on our mother’s knee hearing him read a story for an episode of the BBC children’s show, Jackanory. A master storyteller who feels like a great friend or a kindly uncle from the moment he opens his mouth, it’s no wonder he’s made his name playing some of the most loveable acting roles, going from friendly Mr Perks, of The Railway Children, to the voice of the entire Wombles family.
Speaking to us as he releases his autobiography, Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything, Bernard is full of memories and anecdotes from a jam-packed career.
From a working-class upbringing in a two-up, two-down in Oldham with a tin bath and outside loo, Bernard made his way into stage management as a young man – where he met his wife of 63 years, Gillian – and eventually into acting. With a brief stint as a recording
‘I’ve loved the variety of my life – that was always the great appeal of being an actor’
artist too, making the hits Right Said Fred and Hole in the Ground, hundreds of roles on stage, TV and film followed. He worked with the biggest stars in the business, forming lifelong friendships with the likes of Lionel Jeffries, Barry Cryer, David Niven – “a lovely, lovely man” he says – and Peter Sellers, of whom he does a great Goon impression as we chat.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I’ve loved the variety of my life – that was always the great appeal of being an actor.” With a CV brimming with all kinds of roles, serious, comic and otherwise, he addresses the fact he is perhaps best known for his performances aimed at children.
“That was something that just happened, but I’m very glad about it as they’re a wonderful audience.
“The ongoing applause, though, is when some middle-aged gentleman comes up to me and says ‘I loved the Wombles’, which is lovely and still sometimes happens today.
“Back when the show was on we also used to have children knocking on our front door saying please could you do Orinoco or Tobermory and I’d do the voices for them.
“When I was asked to do The Wombles I had no idea of the enormity of what I was getting myself into, but I really have to give every credit to the writer Elizabeth Beresford who’d written the characters so beautifully, the voices I gave them just fell into place as I read them.”
The success of The Railway Children, too, took everyone by surprise as he says “you had a rookie director [Lionel Jeffries] making a film with some pals, basically. Or, at least, that’s how it started out.”
But Bernard has many happy memories from his time filming that now iconic movie, our favourite, referenced in the book. “The lovely Jenny Agutter was not long out of ballet school, so when she was standing around waiting to film a scene she’d always stand with her feet pointing outwards in the second position. Whenever I saw her doing this I’d run up, stand beside her and do the same.
‘A lot of the stuff I’ve done has always been with a smile and if I make other people happy, then I’ll be very happy’
‘Ready for a pas de deux, Miss Agutter?’ “Absolutely Mr Cribbins. Ready when you are. And a-one, a-two, a-three, a-four.”
Jackanory was the other setting where we lost our hearts to Bernard’s unique charm, and he had a special technique of helping this happen. “Children like stories in the first place and if they don’t, they love to have a story told to them. I’d always look into the camera lens and imagine just one child sitting there waiting patiently and expectantly for a story and then I’d beckon them in and in agreement with the crew, the camera closed up a bit, drawing the child into the conversation and then I’d say something like ‘do you know what happened last Tuesday? Where were you last Tuesday? Oh never mind. What happened was…’ and we’d be off, the child sitting there really ready to listen.”
As Bernard approaches his 90th birthday this Christmas, I ask how he’s feeling about it. “I think I might just have to slow down a bit,” he says before my very doubtful “really?” makes him burst into a laugh and say, “actually, no I probably won’t.” Revealing he’s still as busy as ever with work, he also says his big ambition is to be in a Western.
“I’m definitely not retired, it’s a dirty word and, besides, I’m fit and healthy, apart from a bit of back surgery I had last year which may have had something to do with the parachuting I did during my National Service!”
All in all, though, at this reflective time of his life with the book out and his upcoming landmark birthday, he says what he hopes for most of all is that when people think of him they smile. “That might sound rather trite, but a lot of the stuff I’ve done has always been with a smile and if
I make other people happy, then I’ll be very happy.”