The legendary British actor Bernard Cribbins has left us at the age of 93.
It’s been a rough week in the Whoniverse, with Doctor Who fans mourning the passing of the Unbound Doctor himself David Warner on Sunday. And sadly, on Thursday 28th July, Doctor Who fans woke up to the sad news that the actor Bernard Cribbins had also died.
Bernard Cribbins’ acting career began in 1956
To say that Bernard Cribbins was an acting legend is probably not an understatement. His career was so long and far-reaching that it has touched the lives of countless generations of children, not to mention the lives of grown-ups too. For some, Bernard Cribbins was the voice of the classic children’s TV show The Wombles. For others, he was the definitive Mr Perks in the 1970 edition of The Railway Children with Jenny Agutter. And still to others, he was the UK’s most obsessive spoon salesman in the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Hotel Inspectors.’
As an actor with such a lengthy and multi-faceted career, it should come as no surprise that he found his way into the Doctor Who universe. But interestingly, this actually began in one of the Dalek movies of the 1960s. In Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., Cribbins played a hapless police officer called Tom who stumbled into Peter Cushing’s TARDIS and soon found himself in the London of the distant future which just so happened to have been invaded by Daleks.
This 1966 movie was in fact a remake of the classic William Hartnell story The Dalek Invasion of Earth and, just to put it in context, Bernard Cribbins had already been acting for over a decade when he took the role, and was 44 at the time. Some of his most memorable and iconic performances were still to come.
Bernard Cribbins returned to Doctor Who in 2007
His role as Donna Noble’s grandfather Wilfred Mott must surely feature among these. Bernard Cribbins re-entered the Whoniverse at the peak of New Who’s popularity, and later went on to become the official companion in David Tennant’s last adventure ‘The End of Time.’
Curiously, the original plan was for Bernard Cribbins to have just a brief cameo in Doctor Who. He appeared in a single scene in the 2007 Christmas special ‘Voyage of the Damned’ playing a London newspaper seller, and after the untimely passing of Howard Attfield (the actor who played Donna Noble’s dad) it was decided to bring back the newspaper seller in Series Four and reveal his true identity – the grandfather of companion Donna Noble, Wilfred Mott.
This was a part that Bernard Cribbins embraced wholeheartedly, colouring Mott with youthful energy, paternal wisdom and physical humour aplenty, displaying the full range of Cribbins’ acting abilities. One end of the scale we have moments like the scene in ‘Journey’s End’ where Mott – somewhat comedically – decides to attack a Dalek with a paint gun, a scene which was included at Cribbins’ request.
But conversely, we have the scene in ‘The End of Time Part Two’ where a teary-eyed Wilf begs the Doctor to take his revolver and save his own life. “Please don’t die,” he stammers. “You’re the most wonderful man and I don’t want you to die…”
Apparently, the casting of Bernard Cribbins caused something of a minor embarrassment for the then-showrunner Russell T Davies. As the writer revealed in his book The Writer’s Tale, a miscommunication between the BBC and Cribbins’ agent led the actor to believe that he had been cast as the new Doctor Who companion, rather than Donna Noble’s grandfather. And whilst this misunderstanding was apparently resolved in good humour, Davies took the idea to heart and made Bernard Cribbins the companion for the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration story.
After the news of Bernard Cribbins’ passing broke, Russell T Davies took to Instagram to offer his own personal tribute, saying: “I love this man. I love him.”
“…He knew everyone! He’d talk about the Beatles and David Niven, and how he once sat on the stairs at a party impersonating bird calls with TH White. Then he’d add ‘I said to Ashley Banjo last week…’ He loved being in Doctor Who.
“He said ‘Children are calling me grandad in the street!’ His first day was on location with Kylie Minogue [in ‘Voyage of the Damned’] but all eyes, even Kylie’s, were on Bernard. He’d turned up with a suitcase full of props, just in case, including a rubber chicken. And what an actor. Oh, really though, what a wonderful actor.
“We once took him to the TV Choice Awards and sent him up on his own to collect the award, and the entire room stood up and cheered him. That’s a lovely memory.
“…I’m so lucky to have known him. Thanks for everything, my old soldier. A legend has left the world.”
Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss also paid tribute to the actor. “There was no one quite like Cribbins,” he said. “A gifted comic actor with an incredible seam of pathos and real heart. From Sellers to Star Turn, Wombles to Wilf. I once gushed to him about his lovely performance in Hammer’s She. That afternoon he was off to play 5 aside – aged almost 90.”
But there is still more to come from Bernard Cribbins. The actor continued to work right up until his death, and there is at least one TV performance that has yet to be broadcast. And like any legendary actor of TV and film, there is a certain degree of immortality and it’s a cliche (but it’s true) to say that Bernard Cribbins will continue to live on through the mammoth body of work that he left behind, be it in the Carry On movies or cult comedy classics such as The Plank with Eric Sykes, or in his plethora of Doctor Who episodes (and films!)
What is your favourite memory of Bernard Cribbins? Let us know in the comments below.
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