24 November 09
Bernard Cribbins received the Academy's Special Award at the EA British Academy Children’s Awards in 2009.
Anwar Brett interviewed the much-loved entertainer before the Awards.
When Bernard Cribbins speaks, it is not uncommon to see the faces around him light up. Of course, these might belong to folk in their early middle age who are transported back by that unmistakable, expressive voice to the BBC series The Wombles in the early 1970s, or any one of over a hundred appearances on the oral storytelling series Jackanory.
And he’s still, at the age of 80, entertaining audiences young and old, recently recording audio books for The Wind In The Willows and David Benedictus’ new Winnie The Pooh stories.
But if his voice is recognisable to an older generation, his face will be well known to today’s young audience as that of Donna’s grandfather in the current run of Doctor Who, which culminates in two specials over the festive period.
"He has given audiences of all ages a huge amount of joy over the years." Jenny Agutter, Actress
What they might not know is that Cribbins starred in Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966) opposite Peter Cushing, and appeared in a radio version opposite Paul McGann - and was even in the running to succeed Jon Pertwee in the title role in the early 70s.
The one thing Cribbins has yet to do, he claims, is write his autobiography, preferring to wait "until something happens." Yet so much has happened already in a career that began in his native Oldham when he was 14, that such a book is long overdue.
"I really learned everything I knew in rep," he recalls, "I started off as ASM at the age of 14. I got fifteen shillings a week for 70 hours, six days a week. We would do 50 plays a year, which is a lot of work, but gave me a huge variety of experience. I soaked up a hell of a lot, I’m quite sure, just by watching the older actors working in rehearsal and on stage."
After more theatre experience, and his National Service in the Parachute Regiment, Cribbins began to gain experience in television. One of his earliest roles was in the BBC’s David Copperfield, playing Tommy Traddles opposite Robert Hardy’s lead. Before long he was combining this work with theatre revues and films, taking roles in popular hits such as Tommy The Toreador with Tommy Steele.
"Bernard Cribbins is the archetypal children's TV storyteller. The voice is instantly recognisable as is the warmth and humour, but he also has the ability to create a huge range of varied characters." Anna Home, Dir/Prod/Exec
"In those days, my intention was just to keep working," he says, "If a job came up and you were free and you fancied it, you did it. That was all. And I fancied most jobs, to be honest."
His star had begun to rise inexorably though, and as he grew in recognition with the wider public, he appeared in more feature films.
"They all happened from the early 60s for about eight years before I went back on stage," he continues. "I did a whole load of films back to back, year on year, which was great. There was Mouse on the Moon, Two Way Stretch, Carry On Jack and Carry On Spying and a film called She that I did out in the desert in Israel with Peter Cushing. I was just a jobbing actor, basically, in demand for certain roles."
If audiences knew him primarily for his comedic output, Cribbins always saw himself as a straight actor with a facility for comedy. "People forget that I am an actor and can do almost anything. I can scream and shout and be sinister and whatever else, but I can also do comedy. I started off being slightly funny, and got funnier here and there, but at the same time you can turn it the other way round."
Through it all, Cribbins has regularly returned to children’s television, narrating series such as Simon In The Land of Chalk Drawings and Moschops, and making guest appearances in popular shows including Worzel Gummidge and Super Gran. Film appearances include The Water Babies, whilst his performance as the gruff but loveable station master Mr Perks in The Railway Children earned him a BAFTA nomination. All this plus appearances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and playing a key role in the classic Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors underline his versatility.
In a 66-year career, the only ambition to elude him is a role in a western, but you never know, there might still be time. The remarkable thing is that during all the time Bernard Cribbins has been entertaining us he has never been typecast in any one role and remains as much in demand as ever.
"I’m 80 years old now, it’s just a question of how much longer I can carry on and how much longer people will want my services. But they still seem to," he chuckles, "so that’s alright."
"Everyone knows what a talented geezer you are, but you're also a kind and generous friend. Massive thanks for all the advice.... oh and the gigs! Have a great night, Bernie, a much deserved award for the Jackanory record holder." Chris Jarvis, Presenter
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