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December 2013

On 29th December, national treasure Bernard Cribbins will be 85. He may not be appearing in panto this year, but he is busy as ever, starring in the CBEEBIES show OLD JACK’S BOAT, a lovely, gentle series in which Bernard, as the elderly seafarer Jack, interacts with his local village community and tells stories in the unhurried, unwacky style he made famous in so many episodes of JACKANORY.

Bernard’s career has brilliantly succeeded in making him loved as much by children as by adults. His incomparable narration of THE WOMBLES made his voice immediately recognisable; his was the voice of the Tufty road safety ads and Buzby, the BT bird.

His iconic Perks in the film of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN once seen is never forgotten. and much more recently he was admired by millions in DOCTOR WHO. Adults remember his hotel inspector in FAWLTY TOWERS, his appearances in the CARRY ON films and THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW, and his hilarious Nathan Detroit in GUYS AND DOLLS for the National Theatre, and his long West End runs in Ray Cooney’s RUN FOR YOUR WIFE and NOT NOW DARLING. He moves effortlessly between Shakespeare in COMEDY OF ERRORS and musicals like LADY BE GOOD at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and between music hall and revue, like AND ANOTHER THING at the Fortune Theatre, and roles in tv series like THE AVENGERS and LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE. Versatile is his second name.

I first became aware of him in the early sixties, when his rendition of FOLK SONG, from the revue AND ANOTHER THING, was recorded by the legendary George Martin, and led to an album called A COMBINATION OF CRIBBINS, which, as an aspiring comedy song writer, I revered. And, of course, two songs by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks went on to hit the charts and become perennial favourites – RIGHT SAID FRED and HOLE IN THE GROUND. It was very rare – and still is – for comedy songs like these to achieve pop success. It was a thrill to work with Bernard for the first time in the BBC tv  ALL-STAR RECORD-BREAKERS CHRISTMAS SHOW, which brought together a huge team of children’s presenters in a spectacular variety show, presided over by the much-missed Roy Castle. We all loved this annual knees-up, when we got our chance to strut our stuff with each other – BLUE PETER met PLAY SCHOOL, SWAP SHOP met NEWSROUND etc in sketches, musical items and potted versions of musicals like SCROOGE. Another reason we enjoyed it was that the programme was made by Light Entertainment and we got paid properly! Most of us in BBC children’s tv were on contracts that had stamped on them the words, ‘SPECIAL LOW’. There was nothing special about the fact we were paid less than we might be for an equivalent grown-up programme.

A few years later, along with the lovely Jan Francis and the much-respected Maurice Denham, Bernard and I filmed ten episodes of THE HOBBIT for the 300th JACKANORY. We sat for hours on an earthy (literally) set at Lime Grove Studios, and I think we all got ants in our pants. But it was a lovely job. Bernard and I even managed to spend our Saturday lunch break making faces at Des Lynham as he presented GRANDSTAND live on air from the studio next door.

During another break I asked Bernard if there was any chance that he might play Herr von Cuckoo in a London Christmas season of my musical play THE GINGERBREAD MAN. I was overjoyed when he agreed, and Cameron Mackintosh and I produced the show at the Royalty Theatre. I directed it too, and Bernard was great as the cuckoo-clock cuckoo who loses his voice. He was funny and moving, and admirably resisted the temptation to follow his instinct and broaden his performance to play panto-style to the audience. He generously respected my purist attitude towards children’s theatre and played it for real. He subsequently recorded the narration for the original Old Vic cast album of THE GINGERBREAD MAN, which has just been released on I-Tunes.  And our HOBBIT recording from 1979 has just been issued on cd by the BBC. Longevity, thy name is Bernard.

Merry Christmas, dear Mr Cribbins, and Happy Birthday too. You’re an inspiration.

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