Meeting Bernard Cribbins

Image above: Bernard Cribbins with Barbara Windsor, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in ‘Carry On Spying’ 1964. Copyright: Carry On Films Limited

Caroline Frost met the actor whose career spanned seven decades, who died last week aged 93. He gave her what would have been one of his last interviews for her book on the Carry On films, Carry On Regardless.

The actor who spent 70 years of making audiences happy

Guest blog by Caroline Frost

When I was setting out to write my book, a completely brand-new history of the Carry On films, a couple of years ago, I had to write a list of all the important people to speak to. At the top of that list: Bernard Cribbins.

It was a wonderful excuse, really, to have a chat with someone for whom the phrase ‘national treasure’ seems almost an understatement. Like so many of my generation, I’d grown up with Bernard Cribbins a familiar character – on TV, where he’d been the most prolific storyteller, on film where he’d been the gruff but clearly kindly stationmaster in the 1970 classic Jenny Agutter film The Railway Children, and as a man of many voices in The Wombles, where he brought us the sounds of characters Great Uncle Bulgaria, Tobermory, Orinoco and Madame Cholet.

So it was with a full nostalgic heart that I first tried to get hold of Bernard Cribbins, but I have to say he proved an elusive character, clearly happier working into his 90s than talking about it to journalists. Fortunately, I attended an evening at Chiswick’s ArtsEd celebrating the life of Richard Briers, where I met The Good Life star’s biographer James Hogg, who had also helped Cribbins write his memoir, Bernard Who? 75 Years Of Doing Just About Anything.

Image above: Bernard Cribbins in ‘Carry On Jack’ 1964. Copyright: Carry On Films Limited

I contacted James and he very kindly suggested I write a letter for his pal Bernard, which he promised to deliver to him. A few weeks later, I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang, “Is that Caroline? Bernard Cribbins here.”

And we were off. It was one of the very last interviews he did and, although it was clear he was determinedly unsentimental about his work – “it’s a job” – he couldn’t help but delight in fans of all ages continuing to talk to him about his decades of work and the place it had in their lives. Faced with such a national treasure and with so many things to talk about, my challenge was to concentrate on the task at hand, namely Bernard’s memories of taking part in the Carry On films.

Basking in the “afterglow”

Fortunately, he was quick to recount everything he could remember, good and bad, of those times when he featured in three of the titles. He made his debut as midshipman Albert Poop-Decker in 1964’s Carry On Jack, filmed in Frensham Ponds, Surrey as well as in the studios at Pinewood. Although he described it to me as “just another job” in an already long and varied career, he admitted he spent “a very happy few weeks” jumping around on the boat on set, swinging between ropes and performing his own stunts.

His duties as hapless secret agent Harold Crump in Carry On Spying the same year were less pleasant, it seemed, particularly as he was injured when he was accidentally hit at close range by the blank from an extra’s gun. He clearly remembered the shock of it decades later, telling me, “A blank is not a safe gun at close range, because it shoots out burning particles. One hit me in the lip. Agony!”

He wasn’t a fan, either, of the breakneck speed at which the film was shot, with director Gerald Thomas determined as ever to bring it in on time and within budget. Bernard’s great solace was working alongside his friend Barbara Windsor, whom he described to me as “a breath of fresh air”.

Carry On Columbus, the last in the series and the third to feature Bernard, was a film unloved by many of the series’ long-time fans but one that many of the cast were thrilled to do as a favour to Carry On’s long-time director Gerald Thomas. It was a reunion for some old faces, alongside new stars like Rik Mayall and Julian Clary. Gerald’s daughter Debbie told me of her father’s final Carry On outing, “I know working with Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins again made my father very happy.”

As for the legacy of the Carry On franchise, even the ever-pragmatic Bernard couldn’t hide how special it all was. Like so many of his fellow Carry On stars who spoke to me during my research for my book, he delighted in the fact that, over half a century later, he could still get a letter from a middle-aged fan telling him, ‘I remember you in Carry On Jack!’ He told me happily, “I’ve received lots of very long-term applause.” Bernard had a beautiful word for it, too. He called it “an afterglow”.

Caroline Frost will be discussing her bestselling book ‘Carry On Regardless: Getting to the Bottom of the Carry On Films’ at the Chiswick Book Festival on Saturday 10 September. Information  and tickets from the Chiswick Book Festival website.

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