Most children’s entertainment specialists are remembered by one generation. But such was the lifelong demand for the talents of Bernard Cribbins, who has died aged 93, that it is possible children who watched him in 1956 as Thomas Traddles in David Copperfield, the BBC’s first ever TV Dickens adaptation, listened with their great-grandchildren to The Jungle Book he recorded for the streamer Audible last year.
His familiarity to successive generations rested on his involvement in many of the most enduring TV franchises for school-age kids. He made 114 appearances as the storyteller on the young reading club Jackanory between 1966 and 1995, again meaning that those who watched him as children later tuned in with their own.
Cribbins’ involvement with Doctor Who also spanned five decades. He played Tom Campbell, one of the earthlings trying to resist takeover by the malevolent rolling salt cellars, in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD, a movie spin-off from the original series. When Russell T Davies rebooted the show for BBC One in 2005, his scholarly interest in the show’s past led him to cast Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, an occasional companion of David Tennant’s Doctor. Older viewers recognised the actor from the film; younger ones knew his voice from his narration of The Wombles, originally screened on BBC One from 1973-75 but repeated for decades.
Appearing in shows with a long shelf life – because new child viewers arrive all the time – does not seem to have been a deliberate career strategy, but it gave Cribbins extraordinarily enduring recognisability. It helped that – as has notoriously turned out not to be the case with all stars of BBC children’s shows – no viewer would ever have hesitated to hire the warm, kindly Cribbins as a babysitter.
Somewhat improbably, he also featured on Top of the Pops, due to his comedy novelty records, including Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred, which reached Nos 9 and 10 in the charts in 1962. Both were character solos, with Cribbins embodying the sort of bluff, baffled workman who was a feature of British streets and building sites at the time.
Cribbins also achieved another footnote in music history when Fred and Richard Fairbrass formed a band called Right Said Fred, their song Deeply Dippy finally giving Cribbins an honorary UK No 1 in 1992. The Fairbrass brothers had been at primary school when Cribbins’ song came out, so were a perfect target audience, but their borrowed title remained on the playlist of radio shows aimed at children into this millennium: yet another example of Cribbins’ work engaging successive generations.
Recognising this, Noel Edmonds, who often played the witty singles on his Radio 1 shows, employed Cribbins as Victor the Vicar, rector to the fictional village of Crinkley Bottom, in the hit 90s Saturday night show, Noel’s House Party.
Although his 2018 autobiography was self-deprecatingly called Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Anything, the actor once had a name-branded comedy show: Cribbins (on ITV from 1969-70). It was also around the time he played his single most remembered screen role, as station porter Albert Perks in the original film of The Railway Children. Though Cribbins was still alive and working when this year’s sequel, The Railway Children Return, was made, a four-decade jump in the storyline effectively wrote out his character. In his brief peak as a movie star, Cribbins also, for contrast, made Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 horror flick Frenzy. For the British film industry, he had numerous cameos in comedies, including as Midshipman Albert Poop-Decker in Carry On Jack.
The highest tribute actors can have is that those who have worked with them wish to do so again. This loyal admiration led to a late-career highlight, when Russell T Davies cast him as the tinker Snout in a BBC One version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Davies was unsure if Cribbins would want to do Shakespeare, but he shouldn’t have been. It was well within his range, and brought his acting career almost full circle: his first West End theatre performance, in 1956, was as both Dromios in The Comedy of Errors. It was also fitting that he should play for Davies one of Shakespeare’s so-called “rude mechanicals”, as burly, surly manual labourers had been his most frequent casting from screen roles to pop songs.
Cribbins, who was born into a poor Oldham family, left school at 13 to work in a local theatre, meaning he had a professional career of eight decades. The remarkable legacy of his charm and professionalism is that, on the day of his death, his name, face and voice will be familiar to audiences aged nine to 90.