Keeping Busy with Bernard Bibby

Bernard Bibby leaning against his homemade ballet bar in his front room

Keeping Busy with Bernard Bibby

In the limelight

At the beginning of March 2020, we met with Bernard Bibby (Eliot, 1993-95: Electronic Engineering) at his house in Sittingbourne. Bernard, in addition to being a Kent alumnus, is a retired sound engineer and qualified electrician, charity ambassador and fundraiser, and an extra in film and television. 

And since the age of 71 he has been taking dance classes; this led to him becoming a media sensation, with the story of his ballet dancing being shared nationally and internationally.

In 2015, after the passing of his wife, Celia Bibby (an alumna herself – Keynes, 1980-83: Social Psychology), Bernard joined a ballet class in Rochester to keep active and social.

“Celia was a very positive, outgoing person. And so the first thing I did was to sell the television set and cancel my TV licence. I know I will get to a point where my body will give up and I'm going to have to sit around. But for now, I like being out with people.”

The ballet class proved to be good exercise, great fun and an opportunity to have a laugh with the rest of his classmates. When exam season approached, the teacher, Clare, asked the class if they would like to take the Royal Academy of Dance Grade One exam. Bernard signed up for it as it meant another class and another hour’s exercise each week.

Results from the exam arrived and the unperturbed Bernard was handed a piece of paper with his result. Unbeknown to Bernard, his classmates were filming as he looked down to see the result: PASS – BRONZE AWARD.

The moment, caught on camera, was uploaded to the internet and picked up by the BBC. Weeks of interviews and media appearances followed, including local media outlets, ITV Meridian, BBC Breakfast, the Times, and Metro. His moment in the spotlight was shared further afield by the NY Post, an English-speaking radio station in Spain, in Vietnam and all across the internet.

The initial rush had passed and life seemed to be returning to normal when the phone rang again. It was the production company who were making The Russell Howard Hour for Sky One; they wanted to feature Bernard in the ‘Good Deeds’ section of the programme.

“So they came down here and spent the day to film me doing all sorts of things. They came back on a Saturday and had me walking up and down the high street waving at everybody. And then I was invited to London to what was the old BBC television centre for the recording of the show.”

Biscuits on a plate in Bernard's kitchen
Now it's calmed down a bit,

I can get back to normal living, like being untidy. For a man living on his own this house has never been so tidy, I can assure you. It's not natural!”  

The first light of day

Bernard was born in Bexley, Kent and spent the first 21 years of his life there. He left school at 15: “I escaped secondary modern school. I didn’t have a qualification to my name, never passed anything. The bronze award for ballet was the first thing I ever won.”

When he proposed to Celia, he was given two conditions: that they did not move in with in-laws and that they wouldn’t rent a house – only buy.

Bernard agreed to the conditions and Celia said yes. He was working for Jennings Vox at Dartford (most notably of AC15 and AC30 amplifiers fame), making sound systems for musicians and bands including The Shadows, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In the evenings and at weekends he repaired electrical appliances and rewired houses to raise the extra money for the Bibbys’ own home.

“Today it doesn't sound a lot of money, but I raised the two hundred quid deposit on a £2,000 bungalow. We got married and moved into our brand-new home.”

“Our first baby, Elizabeth, came along. It was a two-bedroom bungalow. We sort of logically said, well, we've got to move. So we looked around all over the place, and ended up with this old building in Sittingbourne just across the park from Borden Grammar School.”

“But it was a wreck of a place when we moved in. We had to take off the outside walls because they were soaking wet. We put a new roof on, installed all the central heating, all the plumbing, all the electrics. That, to me, is just what you do.”

A new career opportunity arose and Bernard hit the road and took to the skies, doing sales and marketing for Electro-Voice. He supplied audio and related communication products to UK and European broadcasting and recording studios, and entertainment companies.

The light of his life

Celia attended night school to add maths and science to her eight O levels from school. After completing another course at a technical college in Rochester, she applied to the University of Kent at Canterbury and enrolled on a three-year BA Social Psychology course. She graduated in 1983 and started a business in relaxation therapy. She wrote a book, The Business of Learning to Relax: Stress Management for the New Millennium and worked with companies in the City of London to adopt her approach.

“She had an illness which mucked up life a bit, so she decided that she'd have a complete change of direction and she went and did a Master’s course at Birmingham.”

An antibiotic which was given to Celia to treat an infection had caused anaphylaxis. At this point, Bernard was running a building facilities company, which had started with him doing odd jobs for people after leaving the travelling sales job. He built the company to the point where he had 20 subcontractors working for him and was accepting contracts for local school refurbishments.

“The minute Celia went down with the illness, she never worked again. And that led to me walking away from the business and just handing it over to the boys, which meant the house went. We lost everything that we'd built up from scratch. It can happen to anybody; it’s nothing unusual.”

In the 90s Bernard came to the University of Kent to study Electrical Engineering – to formally gain a qualification in a subject he had worked in and around since leaving school.

“I went up there on an open day and said: ‘Look: I'm an old man, I've practically been in electronics all my life. But going for job interviews, they all want bits of paper. Experience doesn't mean anything now.’ And so I thought well, let's see if I can get that bit of paper.”

A mature student with a wife and two teenage children, Bernard drove in every day. He was welcomed by his fellow students, many of whom were only just older than his own children.

“Perhaps because I didn’t come in and try and act like ‘the Dad’, they just treated me as one of the boys.”

“I was late one night coming into this last lecture at six o'clock. I came in and thought have I come to the wrong place? All the lights were out. And there everyone was with one cake, one candle and then they turn the lights on – it was my 50th birthday. Even the lecturer was hiding round the corner.”

Life, and Celia’s health, meant Bernard was not able to finish his degree, but he is happy to have had the experience.

Bernard dressed as a wizard to fundraise

Bernard and Celia spent time volunteering

and fundraising for a number of charities, including Demelza Children’s Hospice, Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex, and Help for Heroes.

For one project they set up a community radio station for the 28 days leading up to Christmas, specifically to raise money for Demelza and the air ambulance. Another charity at the time had brought children over from Chernobyl. Bernard invited them all for a Christmas party at the radio station, and even arranged for the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK to call to wish them a Merry Christmas.

“I don't worry about titles. They're what people hide behind. My attitude is that if you don't ask somebody a question it’s the same as a ‘no’, but if you do ask, they might just say ‘yes’.”

In January 2015, Celia passed away: “She never made 70 and that wasn’t right. She gave a lot to the community. And when it happens, you go through things. You have to sort things out.”


It was at this point that Bernard sold the television set and started ballet. He has also been working as an extra in film and television. With no TV, he has never seen himself in any of the parts! 

“I've watched people in the business and they have been so busy watching themselves, they've modified their behaviour. I'm too old to modify myself – I'm me.”

He has been an extra for a number of productions, his first being Christopher Robin with Ewan McGregor, which entailed five days’ filming down at Dover.

Bernard did one day's filming with The Nevers (HBO), released in 2021: “It’s a Victorian science-fiction thing. There were bodies walking around with big cuts in their head and all stitched up. And I was in the secret pub, they called it, and the camera's behind me. That was good fun. I'll have a go at anything for a laugh.”

This is in addition to his ambassadorial work for the dedicated male cancer charity, Orchid. He has delivered talks at a number of organisations and sports clubs throughout Kent.

“My opening line is, ‘I'm a bit like a politician: I go around the county, talking a load of balls’. The women roar with laughter, but the blokes are a little bit hesitant. And I explain that all the tests and checks they’re unsure about could save their lives.”

Bernard Bibby laughing
I'm a bit like a politician: I go around the county, talking a load of balls.

Bernard Bibby

Lights. Webcam. Action.

Then came the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. “All the things I set up to keep myself busy just stopped.”

Life had changed. His ballet class had moved to Zoom, so the visits to cafés with his fellow dancers for a chat and something to eat stopped. The cancer awareness talks stopped and the work as an extra was initially reduced.

However, since the easing of restrictions in summer 2021, classes have resumed and Bernard has a talk about male cancer scheduled for a local Round Table Association.

“I’m ticking over, seeing how things develop.”

Combined with ballet, other fundraising and volunteering, and his work as an extra – Bernard Bibby is a busy man.