Veteran actor and presenter Bernard Cribbins has been performing since the early 1940s. In 1962 he launched himself onto the music scene as an interpreter of some perfectly formed comedy records.
A Combination Of Cribbins,
Parlophone PMC 1186,
Where in the complex space time continuum should I begin chronicling the career of Bernard Cribbins? An actor for over seventy years and with enough landmark performances dotted over the decades to make him an important part of many people’s lives. Whether people know him as the voice of the Wombles, as a Jackanory regular, as Dr Who companion to Peter Cushing and David Tennant, as the voice of avian telephone advocate Buzby, as the rescuer of Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children, as the star of classic British film comedies (including three Carry On films), or as the only guest to have successfully assaulted Basil Fawlty, Bernard Cribbins occupies a special place in the pantheon of British light entertainment.
Born in Oldham in 1928, Bernard’s career started during the Second World War. After leaving school at the age of 13, he joined a local amateur dramatics group who were raising funds for warships at the Oldham Coliseum. After the fundraising was finished, and with the generous offer of 15 shillings a week salary proving too good to resist, Bernard stayed on as assistant stage manager and actor for the next eight years. During this time he managed to appear in over fifty plays, breaking only to complete his national service in Palestine with the Parachute Regiment. Keen eyed viewers will of course have spotted Bernard’s Para badge worn with pride as part of the costume of Wilf in Dr Who.
Bernard’s West End debut came in 1956 playing two roles in a musical version of The Comedy of Errors. That debut success led in turn to his casting in the revue And Another Thing, which after a provincial tour enjoyed a long run at London’s Fortune Theatre, also featuring Anna Quayle, Lionel Blair, and Joyce Blair. The songs in the revue were written by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge and their imaginative, witty, often dark and mischievous lyrics would bring Bernard Cribbins to the attention of Parlophone’s novelty record enthusiast George Martin.
Ted Dicks had quit his job as a teacher to pursue a career as a composer, collaborating with Barry Cryer on material for Danny La Rue. Ted first saw aspiring actor Myles Rudge on stage in Julian Slade’s Salad Days and the two soon became friends and writing partners. Collaborating together on And Another Thing proved their chemistry and they would go on to collaborate for many years, penning songs for Jim Dale, Joan Sims, Petula Clark, Matt Monro, Val Doonican and most successfully for Ronnie Hilton on his 1965 hit A Windmill in Old Amsterdam. The duo even produced On Pleasure Bent, an entire album’s worth of songs for Kenneth Williams to tackle in his own inimitable style.
Geroge Martin in his wisdom decided that a recording of two songs from And Another Thing would be a useful addition to the world of popular music. And so in 1960 Bernard Cribbins’ debut single Folk Song was released, with co-star Joyce Blair duetting with him on the b-side My Kind Of Someone. While not a hit itself, George Martin liked the results of his experiment enough to commission Dicks and Rudge to write some more comic songs for Cribbins to record. The results of that second experiment were a little more successful and managed to make Bernard Cribbins, briefly, a genuine 1960s recording star.
Bernard’s two Dicks and Rudge chart hits are a succinct introduction into his recording career and are still well known some fifty years on. His two most successful singles Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred both made the UK Top Ten, with Gossip Calypso (written by actor Trevor Peacock ) nudging somewhat recalcitrantly to number 25 over the Christmas of 1962-3. For whatever reason, and with a rich abundance of songs to choose from, only Gossip Calypso earned a place on Bernard’s debut album, also released in that annus mirabilis of 1962.
Most songs on the album are Dicks and Rudge collaborations. Exceptions such as Gossip Calypso fit neatly into their mad world though. For those unfamiliar with it, Gossip Calypso is a musical silliness brilliantly crafted by George Martin’s wizardry into an authentic sounding Caribbean anthem. The lyrics reach ludicrous heights of absurdity, with gossip doing the rounds concerning husbands having their kneecaps scraped, ladies wearing fruit in their hair, and obese women trapped inside trunks being freed by oxy-acetylene torches. It is hard not to picture jolly housewives leaning over fences in their hairnets and curlers while the song plays.
Other non-Dicks and Rudge songs include an upbeat jazz arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson song My Resistance Is Low, on which Bernard seems happy to display his singing ability rather than relying on daft lyrics. Bernard also tackles a straight lounge music version of the Lerner and Loewe classic I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, amidst much swirling strings and laidback piano.
It is the marriage of George Martin’s arrangements, Dicks and Rudge’s wonderfully silly lyrics and Bernard Cribbins’ deadpan spot-on delivery that make the album the comedy classic it is though. From the supremely daft Overture which sees Bernard travel with a reluctant lover around London before signifying his indifference with a well-blown raspberry, to the closing track I’d Rather Go Fishing, a clarinet-led tribute to Bernard’s favourite hobby, the album is a refreshing and entertaining listen.
The Tale of a Mouse, which relates the gratifyingly unlikely story of a mouse marrying an elephant, is a children’s song inside which can be seen the seeds of the later Dicks and Rudge work for Ronnie Hilton. Double Think manages a spoken word exploration of amorous paranoia over a gently swinging jazz trio. One Man Band sees George Martin arrange the titular musician’s instruments into a gradual crashing cacophony accompanied by some classic Dicks and Rudge lyrics. I Go A Bundle conjures up some fantastically random words (such as asparagus, aquariums and euphoniums) and drops them into what would anywhere else be a fairly serious love song.
Bernard and his collaborators do leave their comedy song comfort zone occasionally though. With Verily they successfully realise a lewd madrigal. Clad snugly in mock Tudor architecture, using such phrases such as ‘swingeth’ and ‘clout on the farthingale’ the song addresses some pressing contemporary issues such as Bernard’s woeful love life. On Sea Shanty, a passably maudlin nautical yarn is weaved with Bernard’s doleful voice and George Martin’s full sound effects library of gulls and foghorns, as HMS Cribbins gradually sinks and sings beneath the heaving storm-tossed waves.
My only regret about A Combination Of Cribbins is that it is, like Bernard’s recording career, over far too soon. He recorded a few more singles over the years and 1970’s The Best Of Bernard Cribbins gathered together the three chart hits for the first time along with some b-sides and the majority of his first album. I personally would have been quite happy if Bernard Cribbins had continued recording Dicks and Rudge songs for the next twenty years or so and racked up a sizeable library of comedy albums. But, there it is. George Martin had other projects to occupy him in the 1960s and it’s not as though Bernard Cribbins hasn’t been kept busy himself since 1962. Oh well, I shall make do with the wonderful songs they did leave behind rather than lament what could have been.
With that in mind, here is a track that has yet to make it onto any Bernard Cribbins album. Oh My Word is the (far superior) b-side to Bernard’s 1967 attempt at The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty Four. As Bernard himself said on his debut album, verily it do swingeth.