Bernard Cribbins has been a part of my life since I was a kid. He probably had more influence over me than my parents when I was growing up and hearing his voice or catching an old movie of his makes me break out into a grin. I’ve never been able to work out exactly why this is, but it turns out Bernard knows. He’s a smart guy. But I’ll get to that.
He recently received a BAFTA Special Award in recognition for his work in children’s entertainment. You can see clips from this strand of his career and interviews from the night here.
“I’m 80 years old now, it’s just a question of how much longer I can carry on and how much longer people will want my services. But they still seem to,” he chuckles, “so that’s alright.”
As a follow up to the BAFTA awards ceremony a more public event was organised at the BFI last weekend and I was lucky enough to be invited along. It was great to see so many young children there and of course Bernard’s recent turn as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who has introduced him to a new generation of fans. The Q&A was followed by a screening of the 1966 movie, Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 in which Cribbins plays another TARDIS companion, police constable Tom Campbell. But of course the main reason for most people to be there was to hear him speak of a career that started when he was just 14 years old.
We were treated to an 8 minute video that showed a fraction of the roles he’s played over the years before he walked on stage saying, “My God, I was busy…”
He’s still a wonderful speaker and was happy to tease his interviewer and concentrate on the audience. It was one of those rare events where the crowd got to ask the majority of the questions and each one lead to a funny or moving anecdote. A young girl a few rows ahead of me asked him in a very serious voice how he had felt upon discovering that he was responsible for the Doctor’s death in the recent Christmas special. Brilliant.
He answered my own question as to why it seems he, rather than so many other actors of his generation of whom I’m also a fan, had such an impact on me as a kid. He recalled being in the back of a cab on his way to the BBC and chatting to the driver when the long running children’s show, Jackanory, came up in conversation. Bernard actually holds the record for reading more stories on the show than anyone else, a staggering 111 appearances. In a very matter of fact way, as if it was not a big deal at all, the man revealed to Bernard that it was watching him read to him on the television that made him decide to learn to read.
Incredible stuff storytelling.
Bernard went on to praise the simplicity of the concept: a couple of cameras, a good story, simple but beautiful illustrations and the reader. What this meant to him – and this was the revelation for me – is that he was reaching out to each child individually in much the same way that would happen when a parent read to their child before bed. No unnecessary bells and whistles, no special effects. One story. One reader and one listener. Life changing stuff. And from the smiles in the audience of kids and adults alike he’s still connecting.
I didn’t like much of the new Doctor Who. Parts of it were utterly brilliant, but for the most part I thought it was dreadful and at worst actually treated the audience with contempt. All the worst parts of the new run seemed to have been brought front and centre for David Tennant’s swan song, but in the middle of this unholy mess was Bernard Cribbins. Inspired casting – although as it turns out his continued role was more chance than intentional – and two scenes stand out. One is when the old man finds himself in orbit and points out far below where he fought in the war (an actual anecdote of Bernard’s that was woven into the script) and then later when Wilfred knocks four times to bring the Doctor’s attention to his latest predicament*.
The emotional charge that Cribbins brought to those scenes comes from not just a lifetime of acting, but also taking the parts seriously. It’s something you can see throughout his career and he’s been in some truly bizarre roles, but he tackles each one as seriously as Shakespeare. Known as a comic actor he’s actually got one of the most varied bodies of work I’ve seen and I’m slowly but surely tracking the roles down.
I’ve seen a lot of Bernard Cribbins, but thanks to BAFTA I think my favourite moment of his now is watching him leave the stage and join his family to watch a movie he hadn’t seen himself in decades.
Time travel, right there in front of me. Pretty damn perfect I think.
*Of course, a moment later the scene goes to hell when Tenant’s Doctor cowardly complains about his fate. Tenant’s done some wonderful things with lackluster scripts, but its this fatal misunderstanding of the character by the new writers that made me wish the damn franchise had been left well alone. But I digress.