Live, In Person:
SUNDAY STORY SESSIONS
at the Polka Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon (17 January 2016)
Are you sitting comfortably, then we’ll begin…
Bernard Cribbins stumbles up the wooden steps, flounders onto the stage on all fours for all the world like a huge unwieldy Womble. Before standing to acknowledge the warm audience reception, and shuffling towards the blue-green armchair placed centre-stage. There’s a music stand to his left, and local musician Julian Butler’s keyboard still further away. Bernard Cribbins in 87. This is story-time. He begins by reading the opening chapter of ‘Wind In The Willows’, which – although he reads it with obvious affection, is perhaps a tad too long for some attention-spans. But then again, here at the 300-seater Polka Theatre, it’s not quite clear who is the target audience. The Cribbins cult-appeal spans generations, and each has its own following. Some know him through Cbeebies’ ‘Old Jack’s Boat’ or ‘Jackanory’, to others he’s the station porter in ‘The Railway Children’ (1970). Even before we get to the hit singles, the Wombles or Dr Who.
Benny Hill scored a series of successful singles before “Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West” gave him a no.1, including “Transistor Radio” which spoofed various Pop Stars, including Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. Morecambe & Wise issued singles – including their answer-disc to Gerry Goffin’s insider tongue-in-cheek “Who Put The Bomp”, responding as “We’re The Guys (Who Drive Your Baby Wild)” (HMV POP957), plus their 7” 45rpm Pop harmony-group TV routine “Boom-Oo Yatta-Ta-Ta” (1962, HMV 1240). It’s probably best not to even linger on Ken Dodd’s successful career-arc as an unlikely romantic balladeer! But there was also a big market for comedy LPs by Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams, adapting or modifying radio shows. A practice that continued with the Monty Python vinyl LPs of the 1970s.
He does talk with affection about a track called “The Tale Of A Mouse” on his tie-in LP ‘A Combination Of Cribbins’ (1962, PMC 1186). Even though ‘the love of the mouse was as big as a house,’ the tiny rodent’s romance with an elephant is doomed, so it falls in love with a horse instead! ‘Next time I come here I’ll make sure that I have it in my head and I’ll do it for you. It’s a lovely one’ he promises. It’s one of twelve tracks directed by Johnnie Spence in sessions supervised by George Martin, the comic cover-art pose, with him wearing all-over white ‘combination’ underwear belies his straight melodic interpretation of “I’ve Become Accustomed To Her Face”. Yet the album also includes his third light-hearted single of the year, “Gossip Calypso” c/w “One Man Band” (R-4961) – ‘hear all about it, Yakka-Yakka-Yak, ev-ery woman up at the window, giving out the gossip and getting it back’, written by Trevor Peacock. It enters the ‘Record Mirror’ chart at no.38 (20 December), and crossed over into the new year, peaking no higher that no.25 (3 January 1963), in a chart headed by Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield… and with the Beatles “Love Me Do” one rung higher than he was!
But by then he’d moved on to other things. In today’s ‘Jackanory’-style session, wearing a big sloppy red jumper, he reads one of AA Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’ stories, the one in which Christopher Robin puts on his Big Boots for an ‘Expotition’ to reach the North Pole. It is not one of the stories that Bernard recorded as a ‘Sunday Times: Selected Stories From Winnie The Pooh’ (2002) CD. ‘But we’re here in Wimbledon’ he enthuses, ‘so how could I not read a Wombles story?’ And he proceeds to read “Orinoco And The Rabbit Hole” – ‘getting stuck in a rabbit hole can be a very upsetting experience,’ from Elisabeth Beresford’s debut 1968 collection about the furry eco-friendly rodents whose names were apparently selected at random from a world map, Tomsk, Tobermory, Great Uncle Bulgaria and – ‘a fine figure of a Womble’, Orinoco himself. Of course, Bernard was not only the perfect narrator-voice for the two TV series of 1973 and 1975 (sixty five-minute episodes) which made them national stars, but also led ‘Orinoco’ onstage to guest on Cilla Black’s January 1974 TV special!
As with all character actors you feel you know, there’s a lot more to the Bernard Cribbins filmography than you suspect. You forget that he was ‘Mr Hutchinson’, the pretentious spoon-salesman guest in “The Hotel Inspectors” episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’ (10 October 1975). He was in three ‘Carry On’ films – ‘Carry On Jack’ (1963), ‘Carry On Spying’ (1964) and the ill-advised ‘Carry On Columbus’ (1992). He can also be seen in ‘The Avengers’ (1966 and 1968), ‘Space 1999’ (1976) and as ‘Wally Bannister’ in ‘Coronation Street’ (2003). He was also the belligerent barman in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’ (1972). And much much more.
This is Bernard Cribbins. Are you sitting comfortably, well, there’s no more…