When Bernard Cribbins met David Tennant: Dr Who

The cast and crew of long-running sci-fi drama Dr Who have paid tribute to the late Bernard Cribbins – hailing him a “true legend”, who leaves behind an incredible legacy.

Following the 93-year-old actor and singer’s death at the end of July, there has been a huge outpouring of grief from the show business community.

He first became a member of the cast of Dr Who in 1966, when he played a starring role as police constable Tom Campbell in the film, Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150, alongside Peter Cushing as the Doctor.

Campbell accidentally entered Dr Who’s spaceship, the Tardis, mistaking it for a real police box, while apprehending armed robbers at a London jewellery shop. The policeman accompanied the Doctor into the future, alighting in London in 2150, following a devastating attack on earth by the Daleks. Campbell assisted Dr Who in battling the time traveller’s most deadly enemies to save the planet. Afterwards, Campbell was returned to 1960s London, just in time to foil the jewellery robbers.

Little did Cribbins know he would return to the set of the TV series many times, playing different characters and becoming a Dr Who legend. Most recently, he had made regular appearances in his popular role as Wilfred Mott, whose granddaughter, Donna Noble, was the Doctor’s travelling companion.

In a poignant twist, just weeks before his death, he filmed a special Dr Who 60th anniversary show alongside David Tennant as the Doctor. The two had appeared in many episodes together while Cribbins was playing Mott. Tennant is one of the most popular actors to play Dr Who in the show’s history.

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on 23rd November 1963 and stars of the cult show over the past six decades had been invited back to celebrate. The 60th anniversary special is due to be broadcast on BBC1 in 2023.

Road to stardom

Cribbins was born in December 1928 and left school at 13 to work backstage at a local theatre, where he soon started acting in minor roles. He then served an apprenticeship with Oldham Repertory Theatre. National Service interrupted his acting career. Serving in Palestine with the Parachute Regiment, he received the General Service Medal in 1948.

He returned to the stage, making his West End debut in 1956, at the Arts Theatre, in A Comedy of Errors. The same year, he won his first television role, playing Thomas Traddles in the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

His first film role was in the war movie, Yangtse Incident, in 1957. In 1959, he supported Tommy Steele in the comedy, Tommy the Toreador, followed by a supporting role in another British comedy, Make Mine a Million, with Arthur Askey and Sid James.

Career highlights

Cribbins’ film career took off in the 1960s, when he was a regular in the legendary Carry On movies, as well as the leading role in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150. However, his most iconic roles were in numerous TV series.

Everyone remembers the famous kids’ animated series The Wombles, where he provided the voice of the narrator and all the characters too. The series ran from 1973 to 1975 on BBC1. It was years ahead of its time, as it was all about a group of furry creatures who picked up rubbish left on Wimbledon Common and recycled it into useful items.

Cribbins also played Jolly Jack in Worzel Gummidge, the ITV kids’ series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow who came to life. Between 1966 and 1991, Cribbins was the regular Storyteller in Jackanory, appearing in 114 episodes. He also played Officer P Brain in Super Gran, the children’s TV series about a grandma with amazing superpowers.

Dr Who

Cribbins’ character in Dr Who, Wilfred Mott, had a recurring role in many of the Time Lord’s adventures between 2007 and 2010. He helped the tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant between 2005 and 2010, to save humanity from destruction on multiple occasions.

Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott in Dr Who with David Tennant and Catherine Tate

Tennant’s first appearance as The Doctor began when he appeared at the conclusion of an episode called The Parting of the Ways, which marked the final appearance of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor in June 2005.

When Bernard Cribbins met David Tennant, they were filming the special Christmas 2007 Dr Who episode, Voyage of the Damned. Cribbins’ character drew from real life by having his own Parachute Regiment insignia emblazoned on Mott’s cap to create the grandfather’s backstory.

During in an interview in 2013, Cribbins spoke of the funny moment when he was first on set with Tennant and had to get into the Tardis. He said he recalled how he had been in the Tardis more than 40 years earlier, as Constable Campbell in the Dr Who film.

Describing how he had got into the Tardis as Wilfred Mott, alongside Tennant as the Doctor, Cribbins had said to his co-star, “Do you know the first time I was in this thing was in 1966?”

As they closed the door of the Tardis and heard the director say, “Okay, cut, that’s a print,” Tennant looked incredulously at Cribbins. Tennant seemed astonished at the connection, saying, “I wasn’t even born then. Amazing!” Cribbins admitted this made him laugh at the time.

He and Tennant always had a good working relationship during their three years together – something Tennant acknowledged when he paid tribute to Cribbins after his death. Appearing on News at Ten to remember his colleague, Tennant described Cribbins as “genuinely lovely”, with a “warmth and a twinkle about him”. He also paid tribute to “the legend” on his Twitter account, sharing an emotional scene and writing, “In memory of Bernard Cribbins.”

Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T Davies, who created the iconic character of Wilfred Mott and worked with Bernard, also posted an emotional message. He said, “I love this man. I’m so lucky to have known him … a legend has left the world.”

Final appearance

It has emerged that only weeks before his death, Cribbins renewed his onscreen camaraderie with Tennant when they filmed scenes for the 2023 Dr Who 60th anniversary special. They will now be broadcast posthumously.

Cribbins filmed the scenes from a wheelchair on 16th May this year, reuniting with Tennant and Catherine Tate, whose character Donna Noble was his onscreen granddaughter. They were spotted filming in Camden, London, with Tennant wheeling Cribbins’ wheelchair towards the Tardis, wearing his famous brown jacket and flat cap.

The star has been hailed a national treasure following his death.

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