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Actor Bernard Cribbins: ‘My only regret is not doing a western’

Bernard Cribbins as Widow Twankey in Aladdin
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As nearly 90, pop culture’s Renaissance man has published his autobiography looking back on a career encompassing everything from Shakespeare, pop hits, panto and musicals. Bernard Cribbins tells Nick Smurthwaite he’s still a working actor at heart

As well as being a much-loved actor for more than seven decades, Bernard Cribbins, at 89, is also one of the industry’s great survivors. There isn’t a facet of popular entertainment he hasn’t tried, from playing Widow Twankey to Stanley Kowalski.

His newly published autobiography, Bernard Who? is subtitled 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything for a good reason. The modest actor sees himself as an all-rounder who will give pretty much anything a go – from serious drama to children’s TV, from starring in films and singing pop music hits to panto and soap opera.

In the 1960s he was in successful films including Two-Way Stretch, The Wrong Arm of the Law, Crooks in Cloisters and Carry on Jack, as well as an unlikely pop chart contender with Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred.

Bernard Cribbins (right) with co-stars Juliet Mills and Kenneth Williams in the 1963 film Carry on Jack
Bernard Cribbins (right) with co-stars Juliet Mills and Kenneth Williams in the 1963 film Carry on Jack

The following decade, he did a lot of TV, became the voice of The Wombles and a regular storyteller on Jackanory, as well as playing the bolshie stationmaster Perks in The Railway Children, directed by his friend Lionel Jeffries.

In the 1980s and 1990s he returned to the theatre, where he’d started out, starring in a string of Ray Cooney farces, as well as the National’s Guys and Dolls. Then in more recent times he turned up as an ageing lothario in Coronation Street and Catherine Tate’s cuddly grandpa in Doctor Who. His mantra over six and a half decades has been simply: “Do your best and be grateful for every single job.”

Leaving school at 14, Cribbins went to work as an assistant stage manager in his local theatre, Oldham Rep, where the young female lead was Dora Broadbent, who later became better known as Dora Bryan. He would be given small walk-on roles – “two lines and a smile” – but enough to give him a taste for the bright lights.

After National Service in Palestine – “if you were an actor you were immediately labelled a poof” – Cribbins returned to Oldham as an adult member of the company, playing, among other things, Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He recalls: “On the first night I took my T-shirt off and wiped myself down with it, and a man in the front row was sick.”

By 1955, he was married to the actor Gillian Charles – they have now been married 63 years – and beginning to be noticed. “The producer Lionel Harris, who was casting Julian Slade’s musical version of The Comedy of Errors, came to see me in Saint Joan in Hornchurch, where I was working, and offered me the dual role of Dromio. I went straight from that into Salad Days, a big hit in the West End at the time, and after that I was rarely out of work. There was no plan, just a succession of musicals, comedy roles and revue, all of which I loved.”

 with co-stars Andrew C Wadsworth, Betsy Brantley and Imelda Staunton in National’s Guys and Dolls in 198
with co-stars Andrew C Wadsworth, Betsy Brantley and Imelda Staunton in National’s Guys and Dolls in 1984

His big-screen debut in 1957 was as a naval rating “covered in glycerine sweat” in the war film Yangtse Incident, starring Richard Todd. To his surprise, Cribbins found that he loved film acting as much as being on stage. “It was quite different from the theatre, requiring more thought and stillness. I remember the cameraman telling me not to blink during a tight close-up otherwise my eyelashes would look like a couple of giant condors taking off.”

After several years of back-to-back movies, he was offered a supporting role in Cooney’s Not Now Darling, with Donald Sinden, in the West End. It ran for more than a year. In the book, while describing Sinden as “the best farceur in the country at the time”, Cribbins recalls losing his temper when Sinden sabotaged one of his co-star’s funniest lines: “Donald got bored quite easily and would start wandering off script and adding bits,” he writes.

It was around this time, in the early 1960s, that Cribbins encountered the young record producer George Martin, who had yet to play his part in the making of the Beatles. Martin talent-spotted Cribbins singing a couple of songs in a West End revue, And Another Thing, and invited him to record a specially written “novelty song” for EMI: Hole in the Ground, which reached No 9 in the pop charts in 1962.

The follow-up song, Right Said Fred, written by the same duo of Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks, also made it into the Top 10. Cribbins made a conscious decision to stick to acting rather than try to be both actor and singer. He explains in the book: “I made novelty records generally, and novelties tend to wear off after a while. I was an actor first and foremost.”

Cribbins says he is still available to work “as long as the phone keeps ringing”. As an actor, is there anything he’d like to have done that has never come his way? “I’d like to have appeared in an old-fashioned western. Perhaps I could play Clint Eastwood’s dad, although he is only a few years younger than me, so probably not. To be honest, if somebody offered me a job telling yet more stories on television for tiddlers I’d be just as happy as I would be filming the shoot-out at the OK Corral.”

Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything is published by Little Brown

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