It is with a real sense of sadness at the Doctor Who Companion that we learnt that the wonderful Bernard Cribbins has died, aged 93. To sum up his 80-year career – he left school at 13 to become an assistant stage manager and started acting – on stage, screen, radio and music in a few paragraphs would be an impossible task.
His talent spans some of the greatest British cultural achievements over the last century including voicing the Wombles (1973-75), a memorable guest starring role in Fawlty Towers (1975), a regular and prolific reader for the BBC series Jackanory, diverse movie roles in the Carry On series, Albert Perks in The Railway Children (1970), and barman Felix Forsythe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). In the 1960s, he also had a successful parallel singing career releasing novelty records including The Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred.
Of course, he was also much loved in the Doctor Who world, first in the 1966 film Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), playing Tom Campbell. (I went to see the film just a few weeks ago at the cinema with my kids, and it still captivates the young imagination.) But just when that seemed a footnote in a long and successful career, he featured as a cameo as Wilfred Mott in the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned, watched by more than 13 million viewers. Such was his impact in the small role, when a replacement was needed for the character of Geoff Noble after actor Howard Attfield sadly died, Bernard was welcomed back as Wilf, revealed to be Donna’s grandad, for much of Series 4 of the revived show.
It’s hard to describe the impact that Bernard had in that series, but with commanding performances by the leads – David Tennant and Catherine Tate – he managed to not only hold his own, but elevate the character to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. So much so that when arguably the most popular Doctor of all time bowed out in two festive specials – The End of Time Parts One and Two – Wilf was chosen as the Tenth Doctor’s final companion. In fact, the Doctor chose Wilf’s life over his own. Quite a journey from a brief appearance manning a newspaper stand two years before.
What Bernard Cribbins brought to the role was humour, genuine pathos, determination, passion, and buckets of charisma. He lit up the screen in every scene he appeared and the Doctor Who universe, where Wilf is one of thousands of characters, is truly enhanced by his presence. Defying the absurd notion that young actors should be companions, Wilf was taken to the hearts of millions of people young and old in his late 70s and 80s.
His character became so dear that I even wrote a short story featuring him in the DWC’s 2021 Annual, which you can still download for free now.
And, whisper it, we may not have seen the last of Wilfred ‘Wilf’ Mott…
For me, I have a special memory of the great man. On Sunday 12 May 1996, I took my mother to our local arts centre, the Riverhouse Barn in Walton-on-Thames to see An Evening with Bernard Cribbins. He was a patron of the Riverhouse at the time, living nearby. I am not sure quite what I was expecting. But Bernard in his gentle and friendly way took us on a tour of his incredible career to that point, a mixture of jokes, tall tales, and anecdotes. It culminated in performances of his aforementioned greatest hits and questions from the audience. Sadly, I was too timid to ask about his ’60s encounter with the Daleks, but it was a delight just to be there in the room with a legend.
He made a return appearance at the Riverhouse, 22 years later. Sadly, I couldn’t make it. But my friend and fellow Doctor Who fan – and founder of the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra – the very talented Stephen Alexander was. And he was given the chance to perform with Mr Cribbins…
‘When I watched Bernard Cribbins bring to life one of my favourite Doctor Who characters, I never dreamed that I’d get to meet him, let alone work with him one day. But in 2018, I got an email from the Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, where Bernard was set to do another of his popular appearances.
‘They wanted to know if I would be willing to accompany him on the piano while he sang one or more of his famous songs. Of course, I leapt at the chance. There was initially talk of doing Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred – so I practised both – but I was then told that Bernard had decided he did not want to sing the latter, as the timing of the song was, “a bit too complicated for [his] old brain now”.
‘So Hole in the Ground it was. I turned up early to have a rehearsal with Bernard before the show, and honestly, he was everything I had expected and more. The twinkle in his eye as he asked if the ‘nubile ladies’ he had requested were going to be there.
‘Getting to perform with Bernard and support this entertainment legend was wonderful and surreal, but the highlight for me was sitting in the green room with him and his wife, listening to his many tales and his irreverent wit, which never seemed to switch off.
‘Though Bernard had said he would not sing Right Said Fred, the producer did ask me privately if I would play a little bit of it as exit music for Bernard at the end of the show. This I did, but Bernard, thinking I was spontaneously playing it for him to sing to, shot me a look of amused annoyance, sang it pretty much perfectly (ably supported by the audience), and then promptly whacked me with his papers as he left the stage.
‘He brought joy to generations and will be fondly remembered to say the least.’
Bernard Joseph Cribbins OBE (29th December 1928 – 27th July 2022), we salute you.