Bernard Cribbins – actor, storyteller and “pop star for three months” is pretending to be aghast at the idea that, as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who, he killed the 10th Doctor. How does it feel to be responsible for the on-screen demise of David Tennant, the best-loved Time Lord since Tom Baker? Bernard pleads a defiant ‘not guilty’ – it was the fault of writer Russell T Davies, who, it must be noted, cunningly wrote Wilf’s life-and-death predicament as an act of accidental heroism. And besides, Tennant “was going anyway”.
It’s Saturday 16 January, and Bernard – I’ll continue to be informal here, as calling the voice of The Wombles by his surname feels wrong – is at the BFI on London’s South Bank, where he’s holding court in front of a sold-out, 450-strong audience of paying fans. The occasion, billed as ‘Bernard Cribbins in conversation’ and chaired by the BFI’s Justin Johnson, is a public celebration of the actor’s win at last November’s Children’s BAFTAs, where he picked up the Special Award for his outstanding creative contribution to the film and television industries.
As if any further enticement was necessary, today’s talk will be followed by a screening of the peculiarly punctuated 1966 film Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD, in which Bernard plays Special Constable Tom Campbell, his first ever role in the Doctor Who universe (one of its universes anyway – as any fan of the original series will tell you, Peter Cushing’s movie Doctor was a non-canonical, human inventor whose surname actually was Who).
The BFI lists the event as “especially for kids”, but hardly anybody here seems to have got the memo. Though there are some young ‘uns in attendance – and some very bright ones, judging by the questions they ask – the audience is comprised largely of 30- and 40-somethings, children from another generation: those that grew up watching The Wombles, Jackanory and, yes, those 1960s Dalek movies.
One of my earliest memories is of watching Dr Who And The Daleks on TV and crying when it ended – simply because it had ended. These days, I’ve been known to get something in my eye during Doctor Who, usually when Bernard Cribbins starts emoting. His goodbye to the Doctor in Journey’s End is as good as the series has ever got, a masterclass in character acting that works unfailingly, whether or not you’ve seen the preceding 60 minutes of story.
It’s no surprise to learn that Bernard is no-nonsense when it comes to his work, having little time for on-set prima donnas. Today, he expresses his admiration for his Doctor Who co-star David Tennant, a man who he says is always on time, always hits his mark and always does the job to the best of his abilities, making him second only to the late David Niven when it comes to professional favourites.
In fact, Bernard seems awed by the entire BBC Wales Doctor Who production team, citing them as the best, most professional crew that he’s ever worked with. Asked whether he’d ever consider returning to the show, he says that he’d love to if he was asked, providing that the scripts were good.
He’d like to see a Wilf action figure, too, though there’s nothing in the pipeline. Given Wilf’s popularity and the breadth of the Doctor Who toy range, which has accommodated much more minor characters, this seems to me like a sizable oversight. Come on, who wouldn’t love a 5″ Wilf, complete with Dalek-busting paint gun, sitting on their shelf?
It could have all been quite different. Bernard says that, in the mid-’70s, he was briefly in the running to replace Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. He had a meeting with producer Barry Letts and was asked what he could bring to the role. Being an ex-military man, he replied: “I can swim, and I can fight.” Letts assured him that there’d be no fighting: the Doctor wasn’t that kind of hero. The job, of course, went to Tom Baker. Special Constable Tom Campbell’s victory against the Daleks on the big screen clearly counted for nothing.
Bernard says that he’s not seen Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD for some time. He recalls that, while filming, a certain Dalek voice sounded quite different in its live, on-set, undubbed form. It had an Australian accent, ending with a rising inflection, which led to Bernard and his co-star Peter Cushing having to fight something far more terrifying than Daleks: fits of the giggles.
There’s laughter today during the film’s screening, and not all of it intended by its director or writers – firstly when the Doctor examines what looks like the inside of an old transistor radio and describes it as “highly advanced” technology, and then when a Dalek emerges from the Thames and starts to wobble with the lapping waves. It’s fond laughter, though. I get the impression that most of those in attendance today know enough about the tropes of pulp, archive sci-fi to enjoy the film on its own terms, without that tired old passion killer known as irony.
Bernard stays to watch the film from a seat near the back of the theatre and, as the end credits roll, he makes his way out of a side entrance, where he’s mobbed by autograph seekers, most of them clutching pictures of Wilf. In an age where fame is often fleeting, undeserved and lavished largely on the young, it’s reassuring to see people clamouring to meet an 81-year-old man with a genuine talent who’s been using it for most of his life – to entertain in a way that’s unique, inclusive and wonderful.
Heck, the appreciation is so warm that it’s practically glowing. And with Russell T Davies tucked up at home, this is one scene that’s entirely the fault of Bernard Cribbins.