Bernard Cribbins obituary: The Railway Children star and voice of The Wombles

Cribbins, who has died aged 93, became a national institution through his long-running career in British film and children’s TV, from Jackanory to The Wombles.

1 August 2022

By David Parkinson

The Railway Children (1970) © BFI National Archive

While The Beatles were still toiling in Hamburg, Parlophone producer George Martin was guiding another Lancastrian, Bernard Cribbins, to two top 10 hits. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, ‘The Hole in the Ground’ and ‘Right, Said Fred’ showcased the actor’s genius for storytelling. But comic songs were only one of the reasons why Cribbins, who has died at the age of 93, became a genuine national treasure.

Publicity shot of Bernard Cribbins in Crooks in Cloisters (1964)
BFI National Archive

He was born in Oldham on 29 December 1928. With money being tight for his plumber’s mate father and corduroy weaver mother, Cribbins left school at 13 and joined the Coliseum Theatre company for 15 shillings a week. He met future wife Gillian McBarnet during a seven-year stay that was disrupted by National Service with the Parachute Regiment in Palestine.

Following spells in rep, Cribbins relocated to London and made his West End bow as the Dromio twins in a 1956 musical reworking of The Comedy of Errors. Blessed with insouciant versatility, he was able to switch between musicals, revues, farces and dramas. Yet, while he felt at home on stage, Cribbins found his niche in front of the camera. 

He started in uniform in Yangtse Incident (1957) and Dunkirk (1958). But Cribbins’ understatement and innate timing better suited him to playing gormless stooges and eager innocents in a string of shifty screen comedies. In Make Mine a Million and Tommy the Toreador (both 1959), he abetted Sidney James with his crooked schemes before teaming up with Peter Sellers in Two Way Stretch (1960) and The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963). More bungled burglaries followed in Crooks in Cloisters (1964). But Cribbins was careful to avoid typecasting and seized opportunities to co-star with William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong, Richard Basehart in Passport to China (both 1960), and David Niven in the Golden Globe-nominated combat comedy The Best of Enemies (1961).

Carry On Spying (1964)

As he could be relied on to get laughs without upstaging the star, Cribbins got to support Brian Rix in Nothing Barred (1961), Norman Wisdom in The Girl on the Boat (1962) and Margaret Rutherford in The Mouse on the Moon (1963). Accomplished turns in Carry On Jack and Carry On Spying (both 1964) seemed to have secured him a berth in the Carry On gang, but a fallout with director Gerald Thomas meant he didn’t return to the fold until Carry On Columbus (1992).

After Children’s Film Foundation duty in Cup Fever (1965) and A Ghost of a Chance (1967), Cribbins honed his slapstick skills in all-star shorts like A Home of Your Own (1965), The Undertakers (1969) and The Plank (1979). He also played various characters in I Know What I Like (1973), an infomercial sponsored by the Brewers of Britain. 

On a grander scale, he was Job opposite Peter Cushing and Ursula Andress in Hammer’s retelling of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1965) and undercover agent Carlton Towers in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Yet, Cribbins will be most fondly remembered for his BAFTA-nominated performance as the station porter in Lionel Jeffries’ impeccable adaptation of The Railway Children (1970). 

Cribbins and Jeffries hooked up again on another children’s classic, The Water Babies (1978), but the same year was to be found playing Gertrude Stein in the surreal Swedish comedy The Adventures of Picasso. Such left-field casting suggested a side of Cribbins that was never fully exploited, and the same goes for his thuggish treachery as a lecherous publican in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and his hangdog cynicism in the teleplay Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1981).

Publicity shot of Bernard Cribbins for Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)
BFI National Archive

Although the odd film cameo cropped up, the latter part of Cribbins’ career was centred on television. Fittingly, for the author of Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything, Cribbins did serials, plays, sitcoms, quiz shows, soaps and The Avengers (twice). Of these, most memorable were his tetchy guest Mr Hutchinson in Fawlty Towers (1975), the tinker in Cuffy (1983), a scheming lothario in Coronation Street (2003) and Tom Snout in a 2016 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But it was his contribution to children’s television that earned Cribbins a special BAFTA. He appeared in a record 112 editions of Jackanory (1966 to 1995), as well as narrating and providing all the character voices for 60 episodes of The Wombles (1973 to 1975). Latterly, he essayed the yarn-spinning fisherman in Old Jack’s Boat (2013 to 2015). And 41 years after he had played alongside Peter Cushing in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), Cribbins became the first actor to travel in the Tardis as two different characters when amateur astronomer Wilfred Mott shared granddaughter Donna Noble’s adventures in Doctor Who from 2007 to 2010. Indeed, his last hurrah will come in a 60th anniversary special due for transmission in November 2023. 

It’s a career that left little undone, but there’s one ambition it’s a shame Cribbins never fulfilled: playing Clint Eastwood’s father in a western. 

  • Bernard Cribbins, 29 December 1928 to 27 July 2022
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