Bernard Cribbins gave a live reading from The Wombles at a children’s theatre in Wimbledon. He appeared in a Sunday Story Session at the 300-seat Polka Theatre on 17 January – looking quite sprightly as he clambered on to the stage, without the walking stick he’d been using after knee surgery in the past few years.
In a Jackanory-style setting with just an armchair in the middle of the stage, he read chapter 6, ‘Orinoco and the Rabbit Hole’, from the first Wombles book. This meant he could enjoy performing one of his favourite Womble voices as we spent time in the kitchen with Madame Cholet, before moving on to Tobermory and three of the young Wombles – Orinoco, Bungo and Tomsk – as they learned how to play golf.
During the one-hour show he also read from The Wind In The Willows (the first half of chapter 1, ‘The River Bank’) and Winnie-the-Pooh (an extract from chapter 8, ‘An Expotition to the North Pole’).
Between stories, local musician Julian Butler provided piano accompaniment while Bernard sang two of his classic songs, Right Said Fred and The Hole In The Ground – the latter requested by one of the dads in the audience, who said ‘it’s Leo’s favourite song!’. His young son did look delighted.
At the end there was time for some questions from the children. One little boy asked who was Bernard’s favourite Womble. He replied: “Probably the same as yours… yes! Orinoco. Everybody likes Orinoco, especially people about your age, because he likes having a little something to eat, and he doesn’t like working too hard. He goes off and has a little snooze. I like Orinoco the best – he’s my favourite.”
Then someone asked how old he was when he started telling stories. “I can’t remember to be honest”, said Bernard. “I’m very old now! I’m 87 now, so I’ve got a lot of stories I can tell, because I’ve been at it for a long time.” He went on to recall how he’d started in theatre at the age of 14, straight after leaving school.
Another boy asked ‘where’s Salty?’, referring to Bernard’s dog in the CBeebies TV series Old Jack’s Boat. Bernard explained that she’s actually owned by his friend Paul Hawkyard, who plays Ernie. “We didn’t have a dog then but I said, I know somebody who’s got a dog that will work for me, because I’ve been out with her. And you can make her sit and lie down just with hand signals, so that was very useful. So she did the audition and passed all the tests, and he, being an out-of-work actor, he got the job as well!”
When a little girl asked what was his favourite song, Bernard said: “I like Right Said Fred I must say. I do like those songs that I did all those years ago. On the album I did, there’s another lovely one – it’s about a mouse falling in love with an elephant. Next time I come here I’ll make sure that I have it in my head and I’ll do it for you. It’s a lovely one.”
An enormous thank you to the legendary Bernard Cribbins for his storytelling session yesterday! pic.twitter.com/zcbQzubpxK
— Polka Theatre (@polkatheatre) January 18, 2016
Proceeds from this event will help support Polka’s work with libraries and other community partners, which give disadvantaged local children opportunities to experience live theatre at Polka.