Write Said Fred: Bernard Cribbins publishes his autobiography
Bernard Cribbins’s autobiography, Bernard Who?, was published on 11 October - targeting the Christmas book market, just as he approaches his 90th birthday.
The title is taken from a 2013 BBC Radio 4 documentary, and alludes to Bernard’s two roles as a Doctor Who companion: first in the 1966 film Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 AD with Peter Cushing, and then in the 2007-2008 TV series with David Tennant.
Co-written with James Hogg, and subtitled ‘75 Years of Doing Just About Everything’, the book covers his lifelong, varied career on stage and screen, as well as moments in his personal life.
There’s an awful lot to get through before we reach the brief section about The Wombles. 1973 might feel like a long time ago, but by then Bernard had already been working for 30 years!
As he says: “If each episode took me roughly half an hour to record and there were sixty, that means I only spent about thirty hours recording The Wombles, which is probably, for a lot of people, what I’m best known for. Just thirty hours out of seventy-five years. It’s amazing.”
Bernard started full-time work as a young actor and assistant stage manager at his local theatre in Oldham just after his 14th birthday, which was the school leaving age at the time. When he was called up for National Service, he signed up to be a paratrooper - purely for the extra pay to send home to his mum - and served in Palestine and Germany in the late 1940s.
Returning to Oldham Rep, he met his future wife Gill and eventually moved to London to ‘seek his fortune’. He gradually got bigger roles in theatre, films and television from the late 1950s onwards, with lots of old showbusiness anecdotes taking us through the middle of the book.
Meanwhile, a talented record producer named George Martin spotted Bernard in a revue and invited him to record some novelty records at Abbey Road Studios, which led to top 10 hits with The Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred.
Later, in 1975, Bernard recorded three Paddington Bear songs for an EP, as well as narrating Paddington audiobooks. He explains: “The reason I didn’t narrate the television series, which started in 1976, was because, on television, at least, I was very much associated with The Wombles and so the baton was passed to Michael Hordern. I certainly couldn’t have done a better job than him, but the fact is I was Paddington Bear’s first voice.” (Though the Paddington books were first read on the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4) in 1963 by David Davis and later by Barbara Sleigh, and on BBC 1’s Jackanory in 1970 by John Bird.)
Bernard Cribbins holds the record for the most appearances on Jackanory, a simple TV format with an actor reading a story straight to camera. He made 111 episodes, mainly between 1965 and 1979. One of his proudest memories is of a young cab driver from east London telling him, “Jackanory? That programme made me want to learn to read.”
In 2013 he returned to storytelling for young children with Old Jack’s Boat, a CBeebies series about a retired fisherman who tells tall tales of his adventures at sea. A few years earlier, Bernard received a lifetime achievement award at the Children’s BAFTAs, “recognition for my contribution to what I suppose I’m most associated with - children’s television”.
He says: “The significance of children’s television with regards to things such as education and development cannot be overestimated. Nor can the effort that goes into making these programmes. Just being part of something like that is quite incredible and more than a little gratifying. It makes your heart leap being appreciated by a child and I will never, ever tire of it.”
Here are some of the other most noteworthy quotes and stories. If you want to know what was happening, you’ll have to read the book…
“I eventually came to the difficult conclusion that even carbuncles were preferable to death.”
“I knew you were allowed to take dogs onto a bus, but I had no idea goats were allowed too.”
“I kept on thinking, ‘That’s me, that is! I’m actually singing on the radio!’”
“Why don’t I tell you about the time I almost had my wedding tackle blown off?”
“The chimp took my hand and put it in his mouth. ‘He’s tasting you,’ said the keeper. I didn’t ask if this was with a view to eating me.”
“Prince Edward’s eyes almost popped out of his head.”
“It honestly never occurred to me that I might have been nominated.”
“Did you know that I once directed a television series in Germany?”
“The news of my illness spawned a paragraph in the Daily Telegraph and the reason I found it alarming was because they’d put me right next to the obituaries!”
“One day, my mind went completely blank. It wasn’t just my lines I’d forgotten. You could have asked me my name and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I was terrified.”
“I won’t tell you what happens in the episode as those of you who are bothered will have seen it, and those of you who aren’t won’t care.”