Confessions of a Kids' TV Legend: An Interview with Bernard Cribbins

National treasure Bernard Cribbins reflects on his lengthy career, which includes the children's favourites Jackanory and The Wombles, and also what it was like working with David Tennant on Doctor Who as companion Wilfred Mott!

Jackanory and the Wombles

My first Jackanory story was in black and white in the late 1960s," Cribbins explains. "Molly Cox was the producer and I used one of those Pollock's toy theatres for the story. The stage was cut out as well as the characters, which were put on sticks.

"It was like a miniature Punch and Judy. I did all the voices and it was great fun. I did one or two stories a year, and ended up doing a world-record 111 episodes in total! The BBC didn’t pay very much money but it didn’t matter as there were some nice stories.

I got to tell the stories of Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows, and I also did a lot of Joan Aiken’s stories with Mortimer the Raven. I was very fortunate to get a lot of nice stories, and I was able to be animated with each character and use my repertoire of six voices – then use them again for another story!

The BBC had a policy of reusing their tapes, and they wiped some of the early Jackanory stories, including a couple of mine, which is sad. The show expanded and we did some stories on location. We went to the Mapledurham estate in Surrey for Wind in the Willows, where the story was actually written, and I had to drive a 1910 Hotchkiss car, with its wooden steering wheel. I drove very gingerly along the towpath while telling the story as I didn’t want to go into the canal!

There I was in this silly blazer and a boater – you could dress for the part and move around, and it got huge viewing figures. Now, everything is about CGI and there doesn’t seem to be enough faith in having someone sat one-to-one with the viewer and reading a story. I’m still certain that, if either myself, or Dame Judi Dench or the late Kenny Williams, read a story, kids would sit and watch it. Kids are still the same as they used to be in the 70s, and one person looking into a lens is still good enough.

The Wombles was such a long time ago! I did a reading for my audition, and did three different silly voices at a time. Several different actors auditioned for it, and I was lucky enough to get it.

The making of The Wombles was a laborious process as it was stop-frame animation. It took 60 days to create five minute of the finished episode, but I came in after they’d done the animation and had a skeletal script with the storyline and I was allowed to fill in the gaps with noises - umms and ahhhs - or even five minutes of snoring for Orinocho!

I’d go into Filmfair, check the dialogue, write in some ad libs – it was a lovely job to do. The Wombles, along with Roobarb and Bagpuss, still have a huge following and I can accurately age a person if they come up to me and say, "I used to watch the Wombles when I was five or six."

Doctor Who

It was great to be asked to do David Tennant’s last two Doctor Who specials, and great fun to do too – it’s a ripper! We weren’t given the end of the scripts so I didn’t even know what would happen at the end.

I have to say, though, that the Cardiff team are the most wonderful unit to work with. The best TV film unit I’ve ever worked with in my whole career. They are absolutely brilliant. Better than any movie I’ve done. They work so hard and do it so well.

David is a brilliant leader of the pack; he’s there, stands on his marks, says his lines and gets on with it. You haven’t, at any time, got to wait for the ‘star’ to arrive. David will miss the show enormously. Four years is a long time, longer than usual for a Doctor, and a long time travelling up the M4!

The team of writers have produced some brilliant scripts. All the writers are good but Russell is a fantastic writer and I think they’ll miss his writing.

We had our wrap part after the filming ended in May, and I was called up on stage and they gave me a picture as a memento. The top half was a picture of me with Peter Cushing from 1966 and the bottom half was a picture of me and David going into the TARDIS in 2009 and it said ‘The Doctor’s most faithful companion'.

Bernard Cribbins was talking to Garry Vaux for the book Legends of Kids TV

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