Bernard Cribbins

Film

Bernard Cribbins

The Lost Interview

A never before published interview with the late Bernard Cribbins, originally conducted almost 30 years ago by Adam Jezard, in which the actor discusses his work in the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction…

I conducted this interview with Bernard Cribbins sometime in the late spring or early autumn of 1995. It had been intended, along with an interview with Sherlock Holmes television star Douglas Wilmer, for a future edition of Marvel’s Hammer Horror Monthly, however, the magazine ceased publication before either could be properly edited or published.

Sadly, I have been unable to locate the computer draft I had completed to send to the magazine’s Editor, Marcus Hearn, an electronic copy or, indeed, my recordings of the interview, but my original handwritten draft, in my spidery scrawl, was, remarkably, still in amongst my files.

This is a newly edited version of that draft.

* * *

Bernard Cribbins was born in Oldham, Lancashire, on 29 December 1928, the son of a cotton weaver and an all-round handyman, and was educated at what was, then, St Anne’s Elementary School in the town.

‘I left when I was 13,’ the actor recalled, ‘and joined the local theatre the following week, on 4 January 1941. I’d done a couple of bit parts while I was still at school and when I was leaving, they offered me a job as assistant stage manager and playing kids’ parts, such as they were. There weren’t many!’

Accepting this unusual opportunity was easier than looking for other work at the time, he said, ‘So, I took it’ with the hope of becoming an actor. ‘I was absolutely potty about cinema,’ he said, ‘I had so many role-models, particularly from action films; you know, cowboys and Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan.’

He never saw himself emulating his heroes in his own career, however: ‘I’m a character actor, always have been, though I do more funny parts than anything else.’

He played in repertory theatres, a solid training ground for actors of his generation, until he was 18, when he was called up for national service and found himself in the Parachute Regiment. During his service, he said, ‘I was in Palestine, Germany, Aldershot, and all that. I did my first jumps in Oxfordshire in 1947. I’m a hairy-arsed parachuter, very pretty and very butch!’

He returned to Oldham between three and four years later, where he met one of his new assistants in the theatre, a young woman named Gill McBarnet, who was to become his wife. They married in 1955 and remained together until her death in 2021.

With a booming film industry in Britain at the time, movies were a natural progression for Cribbins.

His first role was a small one in the 1957 film The Yangtse Incident (UK, Michael Anderson) with Richard Todd and future Doctor Who star William Hartnell. ‘I was delighted to get into films, I’d been a film buff since I was a child, a small child!’ Crooks in Cloisters (1964) Bernard Cribbins

His breakthrough, though, came a few years later in the Peter Sellers’ comedy Two-Way Stretch (UK, Robert Day, 1960), which also co-starred Lionel Jeffries and Wilfred Hyde-White. Of getting the role of dim-witted Lennie Price he said, ‘It was just one of those jobs that comes along. You need to think of it as being a bit like being an itinerant labourer. Somebody says: “Oh, his face is all right,” or “He can do that funny voice,” and they ask you, and you say, “How much?’’

‘I just jumped at Two-Way Stretch. Not only was it a lovely part—I was working with Peter, Lionel, David Lodge, Maurice Denham—but it was a lovely film that still stands up today. That was shortly before Peter shot off into the stratosphere. We had a lot of fun making that film and it shows.’

The film was a box-office hit and the three leads reunited for the similar The Wrong Arm of the Law in 1963, directed by Cliff Owen, which was another smash hit. In between times he also made other films including the almost-forgotten Norman Wisdom comedy, The Girl on the Boat (UK, Henry Kaplan, 1962).

I asked about Sellers’ reputation for being moody and demanding on set. ‘Well, he wasn’t then; he must have changed later, but I didn’t know him then. He left the sort of planes I was working on and was off doing Pink Panthers and whatever else. I never enjoyed them, it was too slapstick, but I think he was a much better actor than he was allowed to be.’

Of Lionel Jeffries, who later directed Cribbins in the 1970 film The Railway Children, he said, ‘He’s a very serious actor in that he takes his work very seriously. I mean, we all do, but maybe he takes it a little too seriously. He’s a damn good actor and you get such a lot from him when you’re playing a scene with him.’

Cribbins’ ventures into sci-fi, horror, and Hammer began with an ITV adaptation of John Lymington’s novel The Night of the Big Heat (Associated Rediffusion Television, Cyril Coke, 1960), which co-starred Melissa Stribling, known for Hammer’s Dracula (UK, Terence Fisher, 1958). Of the production, long since lost from the archives, he said, ‘I always think of it when I’m driving Redhill, Reigate, and Godstone way because there’s a big chalk pit they found there, and we filmed in it at night.’

He first acted for Hammer during summer 1960, in the Michael Carreras-directed pot-boiler Visa to Canton, playing the shifty Portuguese Pereira. ‘I did my Spanish accent,’ he recalled. ‘It was over by tea-time! There were no warm foreign locations, just Bray in the wet.’

Of Hammer Films at Bray, he recalled: ‘It was very much a factory, very brisk and business-like. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun, but you got on with the job. There was no leisurely feel about it.’

‘One of the things I remember was going into make-up on the first morning and there, on a bench to one side, was a great selection of dismembered hands and arms, all very realistic, made out of latex. You knew you were in the Hammer Films’ studio!’

In 1964, Cribbins featured in two back-to-back Carry On films: Carry On Jack—a send-up of C S Forester’s Hornblower novels, filmed as Captain Horatio Hornblower (US, Raoul Walsh, 1951) with Gregory Peck—and Carry On Spying (UK, Gerald Thomas, 1964)—a timely James Bond spoof. ‘The first one I enjoyed tremendously,’ he said. ‘The second I didn’t enjoy at all; it was a bit of hurry-up. The last one I was in was Carry On Columbus (UK, Gerald Thomas, 1992), which was really rather sad. It didn’t take off and it showed.’

He returned to Hammer in 1965 for Robert Day’s She, playing the loyal manservant and comic foil to Peter Cushing’s explorer. ‘Robert had directed Two-Way Stretch, so that might have had something to do with me getting the job,’ he laughed. ‘It was a hurry-up job, with a small budget and an awful lot of work in the desert, some in Negev in Israel.’

‘It was very, very hot, almost 100 degrees in the desert, very dry. We had to stop shooting at about 4pm because the light started disappearing in the early afternoon. And of course, you may want dramatic sunrise-type shots, but it very quickly dies away.’Bernard Cribbins

Despite making friends with co-star Cushing, it is a film Cribbins recalled with mixed emotions. ‘It was a problem because of the locations,’ he said. ‘It meant acclimatising to getting up very early and going to bed early and keeping yourself in order for a long day. Perhaps it wasn’t as hard for the cast, but it was hard for the crew, lumping all that equipment about in the heat.’

And then there were the camels. ‘We did five days on them. Johnny Richardson (actor John Richardson, who played the film’s romantic lead) and I went to Chessington Zoo for some publicity photographs as I recall. It was all very easy at Chessington, but out in the desert, using Bedouin camels, and they stink because they’ve been hobbled so they can’t get up and walk about and they do everything on their back legs. They do pong a bit and they’re followed by a herd of flies!’

One unfortunate incident marred the location filming for the actor when some of the ammunition being used for the film exploded at the wrong time. ‘I was nearly killed. I say nearly. If the injury had been two inches to the right, I’d have had my testicles blown off. I’ve got three extra holes in me now. An Israeli army guy, helping out, lost two fingers. He was a very nice young man. Still, it’s all over. Aida Young (who was an assistant producer on the film) was there the whole time, she saw me blown up! Ask her about it! I think (producer) Michael Carreras was there, too!’

There was also a lot of tension in the area because of the era’s highly charged political situation. ‘There were guards near the Jordanian border,’ Cribbins said. ‘It was frontiersville. You saw a lot of people wandering around with guns.’

He confessed he was unaware of the reported disagreements between the film’s star, Ursula Andress, who played the titular ruler, and director Day. ‘I thought everybody got on with Urs,’ he said. ‘She’s a smashing bird, I won’t hear a word against her. We went snorkelling around the coral together. She’s a smashing lady.’

Of John Richardson, who would appear in the sequel The Vengeance of She, Cribbins said: ‘I lost touch with him when we finished the picture. I heard he went and did a bit of work in Italy after his work folded up in Britain, but I don’t really know. He’s a nice lad.’

Of Christopher Lee, who portrayed the villainous high priest, Billali he said, ‘I hardly worked with him, he’s always the same: rather grand! I hardly touched him, we only spent a day or two together.’

After the location work, Cribbins and the rest of the crew returned to Britain to film the interiors at the ABPC studios in Borehamwood. ‘The sets were absolutely huge. The caves that housed the tribe, the Amahaggers—we called them “the Happy Shaggers”—were gigantic.’

The extras, he recalled, were recruited from exotic places such as Balham and were coated in cooking oil to make their skins shiny and sweaty on film, in order to match the desert settings.

Oddities abound in Cribbins’ career, including a 1965 titular TV special which, the actor candidly confessed was ‘fairly disastrous,’ even though it included a guest spot from Peter Cushing.Bernard Cribbins

‘It wasn’t so much released, as it escaped,’ he admitted ruefully. ‘Which is a pity, because 1965 would have been a good time to have your own TV show.’

He asked for Cushing to be the guest star, he recalled, because: ‘We did so many silly things making She. Peter had done a lot of music hall songs in the desert between shots, so when the show came up, I asked him to be in it.’

The BBC had also cast an opera singer, Joyce Blackham, to perform a solo and act in some comic sketches, but at the last minute she was replaced due to illness and although her stand-in sang beautifully, Cribbins recalled the sketches were under-rehearsed and the stand-in looked out of place. ‘I don’t know why it wasn’t cancelled, but that’s the way it was in those days,’ he said with some regret.

The following year saw Cribbins reuniting with Cushing for Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 AD (UK, Gordon Flemyng, 1966). The sequel to the previous year’s successful Dr Who and the Daleks (UK, Gordon Flemyng) had Cribbins replacing entertainer Roy Castle as the comic foil when the latter was unavailable.

Cribbins told me he received a lot of fan mail thanks to this film and many fans thought he had also been in the TV series [At the time of conducting this interview, Doctor Who had not, yet, been rebooted as one of the BBC Television’s twenty-first century successes]. Like a lot of his work, he said getting the role was a fluke, and it possibly came about because he became friendly with Cushing on the set of She.

‘There’s no proved way by which you say, “I’ll make the Dalek film,”’ he said. ‘You’ve got to treat these slightly iffy, spoofy things with extreme seriousness. It was all done very professionally and is extremely real. If there’s a funny edge (to your performance) you’re in trouble.’

The Dalek film was, he said, ‘A good, straightforward job, I reckon. That may sound boring, but that’s the way it’s done. You read the script and do it to the best of your ability.’

Cribbins’ other cult work included two guest spots in The Avengers and an appearance in his second Bond-spoof, Casino Royale (1967). Of the latter he said, ‘It was a horrible mess, but what else can you do with five directors and everyone putting their oar in? I was told later Peter Sellers and Orson Welles didn’t get along at all well; I was told they met one day and decided not to work together again. The two-handed gambling scene was done at different times, with one playing to somebody reading the script and then vice-versa. It’s very sad when that happens.’

Notable directors Cribbins worked with included Val Guest, who was one of Casino Royale’s directors, on the TV movie Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (ITC, 1981), and Alfred Hitchcock on his 1972 British-made thriller, Frenzy.

Of working with former Hammer director Guest, Cribbins said, ‘Dangerous Davies was a piece of cake, I absolutely loved it. Good script, nice people, and Val Guest was wonderful. He had everything, every shot, on a storyboard and there was no messing around. A most professional gentleman.’

The television film was a hit and there was talk of a sequel. The author of the source book, Leslie Thomas, even wrote a script, but despite promising several times, he never sent it to Cribbins. A later TV series in 2003-7 starred Peter Davison as the bumbling copper.

Of his work with Hitchcock, Cribbins noted: ‘It was strange. You never saw him really. But you had to do that! If someone says, “Will you do a bit in Frenzy?” You say, “Yes, please,” to a chance to work for The Governor. It wasn’t one of his best films, I don’t think, but it was nice to have worked with him.’

Like Guest, who had been a young writer in the office next to Hitchcock in their British Gaumont days in the 1930s, Hitchcock was a meticulous planner. ‘He didn’t even watch some of the takes we shot because he knew his cameraman would tell him if everything was not as it was planned. He sat around the corner and said “Action!” and “Cut!” That was it. But he knew it was all right because no one fell over or bumped into the scenery. It’s a nice way to work when you have confidence in your fellow professionals. It doesn’t matter if his methods are different because his films work.’Bernard Cribbins

We chatted a bit about The Wombles (BBC, 1973-5) – ‘I was just asked to go for a test and got it. People still come up to me and remember it, I get a huge reaction all the time’—his charity work raising money for medical research charity Sparks, doing voice-overs, and competing for work with former Daleks co-star Ray Brooks—‘He’s too busy doing voice-overs to do any other work!’—before wrapping up.

My abiding memory of interviewing Bernard Cribbins was of someone who absolutely loved his craft and his fellow professionals, and I will finish with some of these quotes: ‘I have found very few people in the film industry who weren’t nice people to get on and work with. It’s a great industry to work in.’

‘I enjoy most of the things I do in front of the camera. I love the stunt guys, which is all tied up with having been a para and done the physical side. I used to love all the action stuff, I think it’s great if you can see the actor is really doing it himself, unless it’s something like leaping off a building. Then someone will do It much better than you and make you look good, so let ‘em do it. You work with the guys; they’ll look after you.’

‘I love standing around on a film set and watching, even if I’m not in a scene, just to watch the expertise which individual people bring to their job, whether it’s the chippie or the painter or the actor. It’s all going to one thing at the end; the perfect finished product.’

Adam Jezard

Adam Jezard is a writer and journalist who has worked for many news organisations and wrote for Marvel’s Hammer Horror Magazine in the 1990s, interviewing such luminaries as Val Guest, Roy Ward Baker, Andrew Kier, Nigel Kneale, Francis Matthews, and Michael Reed. He has a degree in Drama, Theatre and Television, and one of his lecturers was Peter Sykes, director of the Hammer films Demons of the Mind (1972) and To the Devil…a Daughter (1976).

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