The loveable British icon Bernard Cribbins dies, aged 93

bernard cribbins

by Ellen Kinsey |

The actor, comedian, and singer Bernard Cribbins OBE has sadly died at the age of 93.

A statement from Gavin Barker Associates said: “Beloved actor Bernard Cribbins OBE has passed away at the age of 93. “His career spanned seven decades with such diverse work ranging from films like The Railway Children and the Carry On series, hit 60s song Right Said Fred, a notorious guest on Fawlty Towers and narrating The Wombles.

"He worked well into his 90s, recently appearing in Doctor Who and the CBeebies series Old Jack’s Boat. He lost his wife of 66 years, Gill, last year.

“Bernard’s contribution to British entertainment is without question. He was unique, typifying the best of his generation, and will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him.”

Bernard has a wide-ranging CV, working alongside directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Tenant and Jenny Agutter.

He's been acting since he was 14 years old and is best known for his roles The Railway Children (1970), Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and the Doctor Who series.

In an interview with Yours magazine the actor said, “that (it) 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.”

The loveable actor has been a star on the television screens for both adults and children making him one of Britain’s most recognisable actors.

Where was Bernard Cribbins from?

Born 29 December 1928, Bernard was brought up in a working-class family in a two-up, two-down in Oldham, Manchester, Bernard made his way into stage management and acting as a young man.

“I caught the acting bug from my dad,” he tells The Oldie Magazine. "He was an amateur actor – had a good tenor voice, totally untrained. Dad would have loved to have been an actor, given the right circumstances."

Bernard's wide-spanning career

Bernard was a student player in Oldham Repertory at just 14 and remained acting there for eight years, becoming established in theatre and variety.

His acting career was temporarily interrupted by his National Service.

Eager to go on an adventure, Bernard applied to become a paratrooper. Bernard gleams in an interview, "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."

After National Service, he returned to Oldham Repertory, where he met his wife, Gillian , who was an aspiring actress and assistant stage manager. They got married in 1955 and moved down to London in search of his first big break.

However, it was in his mid-twenties where he first made his West End debut in A Comedy of Errors in 1956 and another ten years before he became a national star in film comedies.

Bernard, being a master storyteller and the nation’s virtual uncle, made his name playing some of the most loveable acting roles, from friendly Mr Perks, of The Railway Children, to the voice of the entire Wombles family!

“That was something that just happened, but I’m very glad about it as they’re a wonderful audience,” says Bernard while reminiscing about the Wombles children show. “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.”

Here's a video of Bernard voicing the entire Wombles family!

The beginning of the 1970s was the start of Bernard’s string of titles, from his BAFTA-nominated film role, as the genial station porter Perks in children's classic The Railway Children (1970) to his first features on children's entertainment.

The success of The Railway Children took him by surprise. He says, “you had a rookie director [Lionel Jeffries] making a film with some pals. Or, at least, that’s how it started.” But Bernard has many happy memories from his time filming that now-iconic movie.

The Railway Children features the lovely Jenny Agutter who was not long out of ballet school at the time. Bernard smiles, "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. ‘Ready for a pas de deux, Miss Agutter?’ And she'd say 'Mr Cribbins. Ready when you are. And a-one, a-two, a-three, a-four'.”

Bernard Cribbins songs

Bernard Cribbins - Right Said Fred

The 1962 Right Said Fred song reached number 10 in the UK Singles Chart. It was written by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge and it was Bernard's recording that got it in the charts.

Bernard Cribbins - The Hole in the Ground

And Right Said Fred wasn't the only hit he had. In 1962 he also released The Hole in the Ground in 1962. This song reached number nine in the UK charts.

Bernard Cribbins TV and film

The Railway Children

The 1970 Railway Children film is still hugely popular. Bernard Cribbins starred as Albert Perks, the station porter.

Jackanory

Bernard's first reading on Jackanory (BBC, 1965-96) had been 'Harlequinade' in 1966 and he went on to become the storytelling series' most prolific reader! He featured on the show 111 times until 1993.

Bernard recounts how he gets into character as a storyteller on Jackanory, “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.”

He told Yours Magazine, “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.”

In the video below, Bernard looks over his career in children's television:

Outside of children's TV shows he has many other acting credits from his frontman role in the sketch show Get the Drift (BBC, 1971; 1976), he has also appeared several times in The Good Old Days (BBC 1953-83) and took guest parts in series including Space: (ITV, 1975-77) and his most repeated cameo as the salesman Hutchinson in Fawlty Towers 'The Hotel Inspectors'.

He also appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Frenzy (1972) as the barman Frederick Forsythe, co-starring opposite Alec McCowen and Billie Whitelaw.

Bernard Cribbins in Doctor Who

Bernard is known to a new generation of children as the loveable Grandad of Donna Noble in Doctor Who. He is often referred to as one of the best companions of all time, accompanying David Tennant in the final episodes of his run as the tenth doctor.

He is also the only actor to have played two separate Doctor Who companions, portraying Tom Campbell in 1966 before returning for the 2008 series as Wilfred Mott.

Bernard even auditioned for the role as the Doctor in the '70s but lost out to fourth Doctor Tom Baker.

He told the Daily Telegraph "The producer talked to me – and a whole queue of actors waiting to be interviewed. 'What can you do?’ he asked. I told him I’d been in the Paras and I could fight. ‘Oh no,’ he replied, ‘the Doctor never fights.’ Tom Baker got the job, and in the first episode he whacked someone!”

Bernard on life after 90

When Bernard approached his 90th birthday three years ago he told Yours Magazine, “I think I might just have to slow down a bit,” he says before receiving a very doubtful “really?” which makes him burst into a laugh and say, “actually, no I probably won’t.”

In 2009 he was given a Special Award at the British Academy Children’s Awards; this was presented to him by the actress who played Wilfred Mott’s granddaughter in Doctor Who, Catherine Tate.

Two years later, in the 2011 Birthday Honours List, Cribbins was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to drama.

childrens tv award

When he collected his OBE from Princess Anne in 2011, he told the BBC: "I love it, I can't stop, why should I? I'm still able to read and write."

Bernard, a timeless icon said, "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.

Check out a recent appearance from Bernard on a celebrity edition of popular British game show The Chase.

The children television star released his autobiography, Bernard Who?: 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything in 2018. His memoir is full of anecdotes, memories and thoughts about his jam-packed career.

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