Bernard Cribbins reveals "warmth" of being kids star unable to have his own

In between repeating a limerick he once shared with Alfred Hitchcock about a sex-crazed gorilla, trying on a few accents for size and telling a giggly anecdote about his dog’s flatulence, Bernard Cribbins begins a sing-song.

“‘You’ve got to … acc-en-tuate the positive, elim-in-ate the negative … Who’s that?” he snaps, interrupting himself.

“Glenn Miller? Look it up on your machine,” he adds, pointing to my smartphone as if it was a flying saucer. He doesn’t like them, refuses to have one.

“No, Bing Crosby?” he corrects himself, a big smile spreading on that familiar bearded face, instantly recognised and adored by three generations at least.

Given that the near 90-year-old performer has spent 75 years on stage and screen, who would expect anything less than half interview, half pizzazz?


Yet it’s proving difficult to get serious with him. He repeatedly taps his fingers as if giving a personal drum roll – and when I stray too long into contemplative territory he says bluntly in an American drawl: “Be positive.” Hence the song choice.

But as we talk of his meandering life story there are anecdotes that clearly move the twinkly-eyed actor – perhaps best known for his devotion to children’s entertainment.

He is beloved by countless youngsters, now grown up, for playing stationmaster Albert Perks in The Railway Children, for being the voice behind The Wombles and for his legendary 114 appearances reading stories on BBC TV’s Jackanory.

In a painful irony, the nation’s adoptive grandad tells softly and briefly of how he and his wife of 63 years, Gill, could not have children of their own.

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

Then he adds swiftly: “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.”

Cribbins also describes the impact he had on a boy from the East End of London. “One story still makes me shiver,” he remembers. “I called a cab, it was a young guy. He is looking in the mirror then says, ‘Jackanory? That made me want to learn to read.’

“I have never forgotten that sentence. It was wonderful.”

He goes on: “Children are a very good and very perceptive audience. It’s extremely gratifying – if you can shut them all up.”

His preference for accentuating the positive gives the impression it’s because the contented star feels he has had a pretty lucky life – one he has outlined in a new autobiography, Bernard Who? 75 Years Of Doing Just About Anything.

He was born in Oldham and grew up close to poverty with two siblings, cotton weaver mum Ethel and “Jack of all trades” father John. But he insists: “I never felt poor.” At 13 he left school but by then had already found acting.

His dad dabbled in amateur dramatics and the young Bernard had shown a talent. By 14 he was offered a job “as assistant stage manager at the local rep and any boys’ parts that came along”.

He recalls: “January 4, 1943, is when I became a professional actor-cum-thespian.” The war did not affect him too much, he says, though at night he could hear and see the blitz over Manchester and Salford.

Later he experienced combat during National Service after opting to join the Parachute Regiment – for the “extra two shillings and sixpence a day”.

In 1947, after completing his eight test jumps, he was posted to Palestine to join the peacekeeping mission. “There were a couple of hairy moments there certainly,” he says, describing flying bullets and near-misses. “It was a rotten place to be.

“You never knew who was going to have a pop at you and you certainly got behind a wall as quick as you could.”

After returning to Britain he married Gill, a fellow actress, and dedicated himself to his craft. From theatre to film and TV, he popped up in everything from Doctor Who to Fawlty Towers.

He worked with many of the greats – Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, David Niven – and some of them became firm friends.

During Carry On Spying in 1963 he met Barbara Windsor, to whom he still speaks regularly.

“She’s not frightfully well,” he says, reflecting on the actress’s dementia. “Barbara is aware she is forgetting things. But she was in good form. ‘Hello darling’,” he mimics. “Chirpy, just annoyed she can’t remember things, as you would be.”

Another leading lady he discusses fondly is Ursula Andress. “Excuse me, I’ll just have a moment there,” he laughs, mock daydreaming.

“She was and is a lovely lady, absolutely sweet, so beautiful, a good actress and one of the boys.”

He starred with her and pal Peter Cushing in the 1964 film She – which proved to be a rather dangerous experience.

“It was a very happy film apart from having my bum blown off,” quips Cribbins. A detonator used on set hit him accidentally in the buttocks and he had to have shrapnel removed.

“It was literally that far from the bits and pieces,” he gestures. “I would have been dead. Twenty-odd pieces of metal that far away from everything. We wouldn’t be having this conversation.” But death is a subject he refuses to dwell on. Nine years ago he battled prostate cancer and won. All he will say is: “It happens, it’s a very common thing.”

Now, apart from a nagging back condition, Cribbins says he is in good health and is even
considering more TV scripts.

He shrugs impatiently at the mention of mortality, saying: “It’s part of the contract. You’re born, you get to there,” he lifts a finger and marks an imaginary end, “and you stop. I don’t think about it.

“No point, have a laugh love,” he chirps in a Cockney accent, with a final drum roll of those sprightly fingers.

  • Bernard Who? 75 Years Of Doing Just About Anything is published by Constable Books.

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