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Bernard Cribbins: All-round entertainer beloved by generations of children

Bernard Cribbins in 2014 (PA)
Bernard Cribbins in 2014 (PA)

Bernard Cribbins was one of the most versatile and popular entertainers of his generation, managing to be a favourite on children’s TV while also starring in the bawdy Carry On films.

He could turn his hand to virtually any aspect of showbusiness, from Shakespeare to pantomime, from soap operas to pop music.

His diverse talents ensured he was always in demand, regardless of whether the role called for a straight or comedic performer, and during the 1970s and ’80s he was never far from TV screens.

Bernard Cribbins
Veteran actor and presenter Bernard Cribbins was loved by generations of TV viewers (Nick Ansell/PA)

Cribbins, who has died at the age of 93, was particularly known for his work on The Railway Children and Jackanory.

Dame Floella Benjamin, a doyen of children’s TV, described him as a “treasure for our nation’s children”.

Bernard Cribbins was born in Oldham in December 1928, to First World War veteran father John Edward and mother Ethel.

After leaving school at the age of 13, he entered the world of showbiz and joined the Oldham Repertory Theatre, where he would stay for eight years, during which he fitted in his National Service with the Parachute Regiment.

After more repertory work in London, Liverpool and Manchester, he made his West End debut in 1956, playing tghe two Dromios in A Comedy Of Errors.

This paved the way for more comedy stage roles, while Cribbins was also flexing his creative muscles in other areas.

His film work around this time include 1963’s The Wrong Arm Of The Law, which also starred Peter Sellers, as well as two Carry On films – Jack and Spying, the latter marking Dame Barbara Windsor’s first entry in the franchise.

Bernard Cribbins
Bernard Cribbins enjoyed a versatile career and was never far from our screens during his heyday in the 1970s and ’80s (PA)

Cribbins also appeared in 1992’s Carry On Columbus, the final film in the series.

And he was proving that acting was not his only talent.

His comedy singles Hole In The Ground and Right, Said Fred both made the top 10, while Gossip Calypso was another top 30 hit.

He remained enduringly proud of his musical output and in 2009 told the PA news agency: “Hole In The Ground… here’s a little story for you – Noel Coward chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs.

“He chose it as the only record if he could only have one.”

Cribbins had a small role in 1967 Bond parody film Casino Royale before landing the role for which he is perhaps most famous.

In 1970 he starred in the film adaptation of The Railway Children, playing station porter Albert Perks.

On TV, he was the narrator of all 60 episodes of The Wombles, and made no fewer than 111 appearances on the children’s storytelling show Jackanory.

While becoming a well-known face to younger viewers, Cribbins continued to appear regularly in more adult-orientated shows.

His later roles included Dalziel And Pascoe, Last Of The Summer Wine and Coronation Street.

And in 2006 came a return to the Doctor Who universe, after he had played a companion to the Time Lord in 1966 film Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

He played Wilfred Mott in the show’s 2007 Christmas special alongside David Tennant as the Doctor and Kylie Minogue as his companion.

Queen Elizabeth II in Tadworth
Bernard Cribbins meets the Queen (John Stilwell/PA)

Another appearance came in the two-part Doctor Who specials of 2009-10.

There was talk that he had been overlooked as a possible Doctor in his younger years but when asked he deflected the question with his typical wit.

He said: “I think I wasn’t tall enough. That was it. I’d have been tripping over that scarf all the time.”

Cribbins, who played a spoon salesman opposite John Cleese in Fawlty Towers as well as working with Alfred Hitchcock on 1972 thriller Frenzy, was made an OBE in 2011 for services to drama.

Three years later he was honoured with the JM Barrie Award for his work on children’s TV.

The then-director of BBC children’s programmes, Joe Godwin, said: “Bernard has been a big part of so many of our childhoods.”

Cribbins returned to the storytelling format with pre-school series Old Jack’s Boat in 2013, giving a new generation the gift of his skills as raconteur.

The actor was cast in a remake Dad’s Army, to play the part of Private Godfrey, but was replaced by Timothy West when Cribbins stepped down from the role due to personal reasons.

Working well into his 80s, Cribbins said: “I love it. I can’t stop. Why should I?”

Cribbins married wife Gill in 1955 but, for a man loved by generations of children, it was a painful twist of fate that the couple could not have any of their own.

“We lost one quite early on and that was the only time we got near it,” he told the Mirror in 2018.

“That was a long time ago now. It’s just one of those things and I consider myself very fortunate to have been given a job like Jackanory, which has been wonderfully popular and gives you a very warm feeling to think of all those who watched it as a child.”

In May reports said the actor had been seen on set filming alongside David Tennant and Catherine Tate for Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary celebrations next year.

Cribbins’ wife of 66 years, Gill, died in 2021.