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Obituary: Bernard Cribbins, actor best remembered for The Wombles, The Railway Children and Fawlty Towers

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Bernard Cribbins was a versatile actor who built up an impressive CV. Picture by Dominic Lipinski

Bernard Cribbins was a versatile actor who built up an impressive CV. Picture by Dominic Lipinski

Bernard Cribbins was a versatile actor who built up an impressive CV. Picture by Dominic Lipinski

Bernard Cribbins, the actor, who has died aged 93, was one of Britain’s most accomplished post-war practitioners of whimsical light comedy and farce, an unexpectedly skilful exponent of silly songs which inched into the pop charts, and a stalwart of British cinema throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

With his curly hair, long face, sad, honest eyes, jutting chin and unfailing affability, Cribbins defaulted to a figure of lugubrious innocence and vulnerability in scores of plays, films and television programmes. He also camped it up in 1960s Carry On films, played the belligerent barman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), and on TV the obnoxious Mr Hutchinson, suspected of being an undercover hotel inspector, in Fawlty Towers (1975). 

Wry, jovial, glum or self-pitiful, Cribbins could adapt his voice to multiple timbres and accents, and was a particular favourite on children’s TV from 1973 as the narrator and many voices of The Wombles.

He starred in his own ill-fated series, Cribbins (1969), which was cancelled after two seasons, and later in more successful ones like Cuffy (1983), Langley Bottom (1986) and High and Dry (1987).

He read more Jackanory stories than anyone else and, in 2009, was awarded a Bafta for his children’s TV work. “Children’s TV is so frantic now, they’ve neglected the fundamentals of traditional storytelling,” he observed.

He won genuine admiration for his kindly portrait of Albert Perks, the crotchety porter in ‘

In 2007 Cribbins acquired a new generation of fans when he co-starred opposite David Tennant in Doctor Who as the Time Lord’s sidekick Wilfred Mott, and starred as the retired fisherman in the CBeebies series Old Jack’s Boat (2013-14).

It was while appearing in West End revues and comedies in the 1960s that Cribbins first ventured into the pop charts with Folk Song. Produced by George Martin at EMI’s Abbey Road studios just before Martin started recording The Beatles, Cribbins followed up with three Top 30 novelty hits in 1962, Hole in the Ground (which climbed to No 9), Right Said Fred (No 10) and Gossip Calypso (No 25). In 1984 he was the narrator on the album of The Snowman.

In the cinema he was cast in several Carry On comedies, among them Carry On Jack and Carry On Spying (both 1964), but he resisted joining the regular ensemble. He won genuine admiration for his kindly portrait of Albert Perks, the crotchety porter in The Railway Children (1970), perhaps his best-known role, and one for which he was nominated for a Bafta as Best Supporting Actor.

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Bernard Cribbins with actresses Sally Thomsett (left) and Jenny Agutter during the filming of The Railway Children

Bernard Cribbins with actresses Sally Thomsett (left) and Jenny Agutter during the filming of The Railway Children

Bernard Cribbins with actresses Sally Thomsett (left) and Jenny Agutter during the filming of The Railway Children

The son of a plumber’s mate, Bernard Joseph Cribbins was born in Oldham, north-west England, on December 29, 1928. He made his stage debut at the Oldham Repertory theatre aged 13 and joined the company as a professional in 1943.

His first television part was in The Black Tulip, followed by an adaptation of David Copperfield (both 1956).

During the 1960s Cribbins featured in no fewer than 20 films, usually playing workmen, petty criminals or policemen. In the 1970s he became more widely known on television as the narrator for the animated film series The Wombles, also providing the voices for the various characters.

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In 1979 he played Gertrude Stein to Wilfrid Brambell’s Alice B Toklas in the surreal Swedish film comedy The Adventures of Picasso. In the same year Cribbins collapsed during rehearsals for the farce Forty Love and was found to be suffering from an acute form of Ménière’s disease.

In November 2014 he received the JM Barrie Award in recognition of his career in children’s broadcasting. Away from his work, Cribbins enjoyed fly fishing, golf and clay shooting. His autobiography, Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything, appeared in 2018.

He married, in 1955, Gillian McBarnet, his assistant when he was stage manager at Oldham Rep. She died last year.

(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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