How Bernard Cribbins brought magic and warmth to the world of Doctor Who
Following the sad news of Bernard Cribbins' death, Steve O'Brien looks back on what made him - and his character Wilf - a Doctor Who legend.
It was only a few weeks ago that Doctor Who fans’ hearts swelled upon seeing paparazzi shots of the at-that-time 92-year-old actor, back as fan-favourite character Wilfred Mott, alongside David Tennant and Catherine Tate for the upcoming Who 60th anniversary special.
When we last saw Wilf at the end of 2010’s The End of Time Part 2, tears in his eyes, saluting the regenerating Doctor, we were bidding adieu to him as much as to David Tennant. Then, lo and behold, 12 years later, we discover that Bernard Cribbins and Wilfred Mott are coming back – only this time it really will be goodbye.
Of course, Cribbins’ relationship with Doctor Who stretches back further than Wilf. In 1966’s feature film Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD he starred as the bumbling police officer Tom Campbell in the sequel to the previous year’s Dr Who and the Daleks.
He was already a familiar face by then, from movies such as Two-Way Stretch (1960) and The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) along with a couple of Carry Ons, 1963’s Jack and 1964’s Spying. He’d also been something of a success in the pop charts too, having scored with a trinity of comedy songs overseen by The Beatles producer George Martin – 'The Hole In The Ground' (UK No.9), 'Right Said Fred' (No.10) and 'Gossip Calypso' (No.25).
Cribbins’ return to Doctor Who 41 years later was never intended to be permanent. In 2007’s Kylie Minogue-headlining Christmas special Voyage of the Damned, the actor cameoed as a newspaper seller, still fearlessly manning his stand even when everyone else has stayed at home ("London at Christmas?" he tells the Doctor, "Not safe, is it!"), but that character was only retroactively ID’d as the grandfather of Donna Noble.
It was when Howard Attfield, who’d played Donna’s dad in The Runaway Bride, passed away before his scenes could be completed on 2008 episode Partners in Crime that Russell T Davies hit upon the idea of bringing in Cribbins as Donna’s gramps (Cribbins re-filmed the scenes that Attfield had already completed).
With any other actor it would have taken fans time to fall in love, but RTD was clearly banking on 40-plus years’ worth of affection for Cribbins. And it’s testament to how scene-stealing the actor was in that episode that Wilf pops up more and more as the 2008 series goes on. He’s heartbreaking in alternate reality episode Turn Left, as he watches immigrants being forcefully taken away by the army. "Labour camps, that’s what they called them last time," he says, tearfully. "It’s happening again."
By The Stolen Earth he’s even going toe to toe with Daleks armed with a paint gun (Cribbins’ own idea, according to Russell T Davies on Instagram). At 80 years old, he was more of a bad-ass against Skaro’s pepperpots than he was when he was 38.
When it came to David Tennant’s closing run of specials, RTD announced that each would have their own companion, flagged up in the opening titles. But few expected that final companion, in the two-part End of Time, to be Wilfred Mott. It’s a thrilling moment, to see an "and Bernard Cribbins" credit fly up after David Tennant’s name. In fact, Cribbins anchors those episodes with a tour de force performance.
When the Tenth Doctor was told, about his imminent regeneration, "he will knock three times", none of us expected those knocks to come from Wilfred Mott. But it’s Wilf who the Doctor sacrifices himself for. "Just leave me," he tells the Doctor. "I'm an old man. I've had my time." Looking death in the face, Wilf is willing to die to save his friend.
But when the Doctor tells him, "Wilfred, it's my honour," before opening the door to the nuclear-flooded control booth to allow Wilf to escape, it packs one of the hardest emotional punches in Doctor Who’s history. There are few people you’d find it easy to forgive for killing the Doctor, but Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott was one of them.
As Wilf, Bernard Cribbins made us laugh and he broke our hearts. And come the 60th anniversary he’ll likely do so again, but for even sadder reasons.
"The stars are going out," Donna Noble told her grandad in Journey’s End. On 28th July 2022, one of the brightest went out forever.
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