digging it ROUND when its supposed to be SQUARE

digging it ROUND when its supposed to be SQUARE

Norman Warwick looks at tributes paid to a great comedy actor,

Bernard Cribbins was a multi-talented performer:Actor, comedian, singer and raconteur: he had a go at everything from Shakespeare to pantomime, Jackanory to Top of the Pops.

He was the voice of the Wombles, Catherine Tate’s cuddly grandpa in Doctor Who, and the irate-but-soft-hearted station master who tugged at our heartstrings in the 1970 film The Railway Children.

n 2018, when he was nearly 90, he published an autobiography looking back on his years in show business. Its title was Bernard Who? 75 Years Of Doing Absolutely Everything – and its advice was simple.

“Do your best and be grateful for every single job”.

Bernard Cribbins was born into a working-class family in Oldham, Lancashire on 29 December 1928.

These were harder times. Cribbins’ mother worked barefoot in a local factory; his father was a champion “clog-fighter” – a method of settling disputes by kicking an opponent’s shins until he begged to give up. Home comforts were few and far between: a cold-water tap, a tin bath and an outside toilet that Bernard nicknamed “the long drop”.

A few years ago a local  artist delved into the borough’s history to try to rediscover this  ´forgotten sport´ of clog-fighting..

Anna FC Smith, (see her illustration above) originally from Leigh, is trying to find out about the old illegal sport contest and gambling activity that was once all the rage in the alleyways and dark corners of Wigan and Leigh and stretch across the county at least as far as Oldham, obviously.

Popular with miners, purring (pronounced porrin’ in Wigan or parrin’ in Leigh) or clog fighting fell out of favour in the late 1930s and has little presence in local history books until Anna decided to base an exhibition on it.

She explained to The Leigh Journal in 2013.

She said: “My friend actually told me about it because his dad was a miner and had told him about this weird Wigan practice that involved shin kicking.

“So I started to look into this illegal activity that was played in the alleyways. I could only find two paragraphs in a local book. Apparently there was a death because of it behind the Millstone in Wigan were I now live.

“It is all oral history which is amusing because some people tell me stories that confirm what I thought, while others completely contradict each other.”

Anna wants to record interviews with people who have either been told stories about purring, or experienced it for themselves. If anyone does not want to be recorded they can email her their stories.

She will then exhibit the soundbites alongside interpreted paintings and a film at Wigan Life Museum on January 17.

She said: “I wanted to put on a live demonstration but I can’t find anyone willing to put on clogs and kick each others shins. I have asked a few friends but they all like their legs too much!”

Bernard´s life-long stage career began at Oldham Rep at age of 14, where he found himself appearing in a succession of small parts., that he called “two lines and a smile,” They were, though, more than enough to give him a taste for the bright lights.

Little could dent his ambition, not even a horrific accident in a production of Macbeth. The play ended with the usual sword fight between Macbeth and Macduff. To save money on expensive fake swords, real ones were used instead. The actor playing Macbeth, Harold Norman, was fatally stabbed in front of him.

Cribbins’ eight-year stint in Oldham Rep was interrupted by National Service, where he served with the Parachute Regiment in Palestine during the 1947-1948 crisis.

He said afterwards that he didn´t recommend six months of getting shot at.

Later, when appearing as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who, Cribbins proudly wore his regimental badge on the front of his woolly hat  His experience of being under fire in Palestine was even written into the script.

Before all that, though, there were further spells in local theatre, where he turned his hand to Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. In A Streetcar Named Desire, he played Stanley Kowalski – the part made famous on screen by Marlon Brando.

For Cribbins, the part may have been too far a stretch. “On the first night I took my T-shirt off and wiped myself down with it,” he said, before adding withg his self-deprecating humour, “and a man in the front row was sick.”

In 1956, he made his West End debut in a musical production of A Comedy of Errors, moving on to a number of leading roles in plays such as Salad Days

´There was no plan´, he told one interviewer, “just a succession of musicals, comedy roles and revue, all of which I loved´.

The same year, he discovered his aptitude for children’s television when he appeared in a live BBC production of Nicholas Nickleby.

His first film role came as a sweaty naval rating in a wartime drama, Yangtse Incident. To his surprise, Cribbins found that he enjoyed the silver screen as much as being on stage.

´It was quite different from the theatre´, he told The Stage, ´requiring more thought and stillness. I remember the cameraman telling me not to blink during a tight close-up otherwise my eyelashes would look like a couple of giant condors taking off.´

He went on to act alongside Peter Sellers in Two-Way Stretch, a comedy about a group of convicts planning to break out of jail, rob a train and then return to their cells to establish the perfect alibi. Crime – on screen at least – continued to pay as he followed up with The Wrong Arm of the Law and Crooks in Cloisters.

In 1962, he released two comedy records: Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred, both of which reached the UK Top 10 and were produced by George Martin, who would shortly sign the Beatles. There are still noticeable similarities between these singles and the later Sergeant Pepper´s album in Martin´s delightful use of ´sound effects´.

It would be twenty years after the release of those Bernard Cribbins singles that Colin Lever and I, as Lendanear (right), turned them into brief comedy sketches in our folk club act on the North West folk e in the uk. Our performance of Hole In The Ground saw me as the road-labourer raising my spade and chasing away Colin, as the ´jobsworth´, perhaps still a few years away from that word entering the English language.

Cribbins ultimately decided to quit the novelty record business. “Novelties tend to wear off after a while,” he said.

Lendanedar found that out to our own cost and soon re-focussed and concentrated again on our social comment songs about poverty and mining disasters. 

However, years later, Bernard Cribbins was asked to sing Hole In The Ground at George Martin’s memorial service at St-Martin-In-The-Field.

´Everybody enjoyed it, ´ said Cribbins proudly. ´It got huge applause and Elton John gave me a hug and said: ‘Why didn’t you do Right Said Fred as well?'”

A natural comedian, Cribbins came to the attention of the Carry On film-making team – playing Midshipman Poop-Decker in Carry On Jack. Carry on Spying followed, a production that suddenly seemed less fun when Cribbins was ´shot point blank in the face by an extra with a gun´.

By now firmly established as a versatile character actor, he appeared alongside Jenny Agutter in what became a classic film: The Railway Children, in 1970. The climactic scene sees Bobbie – played by Agutter – meeting her father on the platform.

´If you don’t shed a tear when she shouts, ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ you’re made of wood,´ said Cribbins. ´I always well-up when I watch it. But Jenny, who remains a close friend, doesn’t. Hard as nails, she is!´

He also became a regular in pantomime, especially as Widow Twankey – and found enduring fame as a voice actor: narrating road safety films as Tufty The Squirrel and – in 1973, and ´wombleing free´, becoming the voice of The Wombles.

Based on Elizabeth Beresford’s books, the stop-motion animation series ran for 60 episodes, with Cribbins voicing all of the environmentally friendly characters.

´They were lovely to do,´´ he reminisced. ´Although there was one who didn’t appear that much, MacWomble the Terrible – the Scottish one, second cousin to Great Uncle Bulgaria. He sounded like Bulgaria on ´something. ´

He also voiced Buzby, the little yellow bird that appeared in a series of commercials, first for the Post Office, and then its telephone successor BT.

He made a noteworthy appearance in an episode of Fawlty Towers as the voluble spoon salesman, who is mistaken for a hotel inspector by an increasingly manic Basil Fawlty.

Cribbins became a fixture on the BBC’s Jackanory: becoming the longest-serving story teller on the series with 111 appearances. He was later critical, too, of the BBC’s decision in 2006 to revive it using electronic animation.

´I do wish that it could be brought back in the form that it used to be, with someone sitting one-to-one with a camera. It’s like you are talking to your children at bedtime, they look at you and don’t see anything else – they don’t see flashing lights and CGI and all the rest of it.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he continued to work in films, television and radio, including a part in the poorly received Carry on Columbus, which was destined to become the last of the long-running film franchise.´

There was a brief spell as lecherous Wally Bannister in Coronation Street, before gaining a new generation of fans in 2007, starring as Wilfred Mott in the Doctor Who Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned.

Cribbins had first appeared alongside a time lord in 1966, with Peter Cushing playing the Doctor in Daleks Invasion: Earth 2150 AD. In 1974, he narrowly lost out on becoming the legendary character himself, when the part went to Tom Baker.

Becoming Catherine Tate’s grandfather – after a four-decade break – made him the first actor to travel in the Tardis as two separate characters.

In 2009, Cribbins was awarded a special Bafta to mark his contribution to children’s film and television. An OBE followed two years later.

Away from work, he was a keen fly fisherman who voiced a number of fishing documentaries and shared a house in Surrey with his wife, Gillian, whom he met and married while at Oldham Rep.

Still working in his late 80s, he was asked if he had any future ambitions. The man who had done just about everything had one.

´I’d still like to do a Western,” he said. “I could play Clint Eastwood’s dad!´

It was all a heck of a career for an artist who started as a young lad at Oldham Rep, and I´m pretty sure he would like us all to celebrate the organisation that also was the training ground for artist such as Dora Bryan, Ralph Fiennes, Dame Thira Hird, Anne Kirkbride and Kathy Staff.

The town also hosts Oldham Theatre Workshop, where celebrated players like Jane Danson and Sue Devaney (who once gave a parody performance with Bernard Wrigley in Dinner Ladies, that is stored in my memory next to Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle).

When writing a piece on Jane Danson  a few years ago I watched her deliver her own workshop to under fourteen year olds at The Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festival. She was so empathetic with those kids and brillianttly demonstrated to them all sorts of techniques.

Bernard Cribbens came through Oldham, too, and was surely a shining example to so many of those who followed in his footsteps at Oldham Rep or The Oldham Theatre Workshop or even at The Oldham Coliseum (right).

He appeared in a wide ranger of films from Tommy The Torreador with Tommy Steel, and was even in She with Racquel Welch, famous for its iconic poster.

In later year he was always a value for moeny guest on TV game shows such as Pointless and Would I Lie To You.

Bernard Cribbins
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