Here’s Bernard Cribbins at the NFT a few weeks ago, talking about his career and his experiences with both the Cushing and Tennant Doctors.
Q: You were 14 when you started treading the boards?
A: Yes. It was the best possible training that I could have had, I think, because I was watching good actors working the whole time. In weekly rep, you start a new play on the Monday, as a performance, and then Tuesday morning you’re learning the following week’s play in order to know that, and it’s relentless, absolutely. With Shakespeare thrown in, and everything else. And I was able, as child, to watch really good actors doing their job.
Q: You hold the record, 111 episodes, for hosting Jackanory. Beating Willie Ruston, Kenneth Williams, you beat them all hands down.
A: I was out of work more than they were! It’s called availability. I’m sure a lot of you remember Jackanory. The thing I always loved about Jackanory, apart from the fact that I was lucky with the authors I was given, was that you sit there and you contact one child through the lens, and just grab ‘em. And if it’s a good story, the child’s going to listen. You don’t need whizz bangs and quick cuts. Just think how simple it was. Camera one would be on you, camera two would be on the caption, camera three would be ready on another caption. And you’d say ‘he walked into the wood’ and you’d get a picture of a child walking into a wood. Nothing moving, just an illustration, as you’d have in a book. That was, I think, the magical thing about Jackanory. It was also at a very good time of the day, Dad would be coming home from work and the kids would be occupied and out of the way. I just wish they’d bring it back without all the bells and whistles, because it still works, I’m sure. Mum, when she’s reading a bedtime story to a child, she doesn’t leap up onto the wardrobe and all that. She sits and she reads, and the child listens.
One thing I’ll mention, and I may cry while I’m doing this, I think it’s a wonderful thing… I got in a cab one day in London, to go up to Paddington. We were doing a bit for the BBC about Roald Dahl. So I got in the cab and the driver was an East Ender, black guy, and he said ‘Where to?’ and I said ‘Sussex Gardens’, I’ve forgotten the name of the hotel, and off we went, and he looks in the mirror and says ‘You alright, Bern?’, and I say ‘Yeah, just doing a bit of filming for the BBC’, and he says ‘Oh, what’s all that about, then?’, I say ‘It’s about Roald Dahl, you know, he wrote stuff for Jackanory’, and he says ‘Oh yeah, terrific, Jackanory. That made me want to read’. End of story. Wonderful. And that’s what it did for kids, it engaged them, it entertained them, it educated them, it fascinated them and that, I think, was its great gift. I rest my case!
Q: Didn’t The Wombles cause an increase in visitor numbers at Wimbledon Common?
A: The rangers said they had problems with children arriving with bags of rubbish (laughs), and they’d spread the rubbish around under bushes and trees and so on, and they’d stand back with their little camera waiting for the Wombles to come out and clean it all up. The rangers had to say ‘No, it’s Wednesday, they don’t come out on Wednesday’ and try to get them to pick it all up.
Q: And Elizbeth Berresford, who wrote the stories, left a lot of room for ad-libbing, didn’t she?
A: Yes. Elizbaeth used to write a very minimal script. The lines for the characters, obviously, and then the films were shot and it was very laborious. Stop-frame animation, it took five or six days to do a five minute animation. And I’d add little coughs and sneezes. I used to do at least five minutes of snoring for every episode, for Orinoco.
Q: The character of Mr. Hutchinson in Fawlty Towers sticks in the mind.
A: I had almost shoulder length hair and a big Viva Zapata moustache, and I went to my hairdresser on the day of recording and got that sort of Hitler haircut, and had my moustache shaved into that bit in the middle. And I walked into the studio, and John Cleese said ‘Good God!’, because he thought this long-haired idiot was coming in, instead of which it was me. When he was trying to suppress me at the table, karate chop me… he’s a big lad, John, a big strong young man, and he was going Whack! on the back of my neck. He was being very strong with me, so we had to mime it.
Q: You suffered for your art?
A: Not really, because I told him to stop it.
Q: Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD is the second Peter Cushing story. Roy Castle did the first, and you came along as PC Tom Campbell in the second one. It was directed by Gordon Fleming, wasn’t it, a big, scruff Scots guy?
A: Yes, Gordon I hadn’t met before, and we were on set doing a scene with the Daleks for the very first time. They were on the ramp in the spaceship, and Peter and I had just been introduced to the Daleks. And the Dalek operator in the machine, Bob Jewell, was Australian, he had all the lines ready to read out. And he read out ‘You will come with us or you’ll be exerminated’ in an Australian accent, and Peter and I couldn’t stop laughing. Gordon said ‘Come on, pull yourselves together’, but every time this Dalek said something, we were off!
Q: So, the phone rings for the Christmas episode with Kylie Minogue and David Tennant. Did you know, at that point, that you’d be returning in series four?
A: Not at all. The reason I was brought back into it was that I’d done the Christmas episode, as a silly old news vendor in my parachute regiment jacket and my silly hat. And then a few months later, the actor who was playing Catherine’s dad sadly died, and they wanted another man in that household, but Phil Collinson said ‘Well, we don’t want to put in another actor as Dad, hang on, Cribbins, we’ll have him back’ so I was re-introduced as Grandad.
Q: When you found out that you killed David Tennant…
A: Yes! (laughs) That was a surprise, wasn’t it? To find that it was Wilfred. But you must remember that Wilfred had already gone inside that booth to save somebody else, without realising really. And I did the four knocks. Good bit of story, though, wasn’t it? But he was going to change anyway, it’s just Wilf who happened to be there.