Dad's Army: Acton Connection for Private Godfrey

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Godfrey's Ghost is published by Mogzilla Life

Godfrey Arnold Ridley as Private Godfrey in Dad's Army
Godfrey's Ghost book cover
Book cover

Nicolas Ridley (left) with Jimmy Perry at the launch of Godfrey's Ghost




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Actor's son writes moving book about his father

I am researching Godfrey’s Ghost, my book about my father, which is why I am on the telephone to Jimmy Perry, the creator and writer of Dad’s Army. At one point Jimmy asks me where I live.

‘Acton?’ he says. ‘Acton! We used to rehearse Dad’s Army in North Acton. Marvellous purpose-build rehearsal rooms in a BBC building near the station. We called it “The Acton Hilton”. Sold it now, I think. And I remember — although I shouldn’t be telling you this, should I? — that your father was always the first out of the door at lunch-time and down to the pub on the corner ... and he had a small brown attaché case, didn’t he? I think he kept his Masonic regalia in it.’

Jimmy’s right. I’d forgotten my father’s small brown attaché case and the badly-folded copy of the Daily Telegraph that he kept in it. He would always turn first to the obituaries page. ‘I’m just checking to see if I’m dead,’ he’d say. Next he’d try the crossword although I never remember him solving more than two clues.

My father, Arnold Ridley, died twenty-five years ago. He will most often be remembered as Private Godfrey, the oldest, frailest member of the Dad’s Army platoon. There are those who will know that he was once a prolific playwright, the author of The Ghost Train, the classic comedy thriller that’s still played somewhere every night of the year.

And there are others who will recall that he was the only member of the Dad’s Army team to have fought in both world wars and to have been twice invalided out of the army — once in 1916 after the Battle of the Somme and a second time after the evacuation from France in 1940. (He then joined the Local Defence Volunteers which later became the Home Guard.) But, for most people, the picture that remains is the meek, weak-bladdered bachelor living with his sisters, Dolly and Cissy, in Cherry Tree Cottage.

This is not how I remember him; this is not who he was; and it is as Godfrey that I knew him least of all. In Godfrey’s Ghost, I have tried to paint a true portrait of my father, a remarkable man — courageous, steadfast, loyal — who lived an extraordinary life and lived it well.
He was 72 when he was cast as Private Godfrey. It was a part he loved to play. Gentle, fumbling, innocently willing, Godfrey was particularly popular among the very young and the very old. ‘My sister cried last night when the bank manager was rude to you,’ wrote a ten-year old boy. ‘He shouldn’t have been because, although you’re very stupid, you do try.’

‘Private Godfrey was a wonderful invention,’ said a fellow member of the cast, ‘and perfectly cast for Arnold Ridley because he was so sweet and gentle.’ Sweet and gentle? It’s a kind tribute but is it true? For Charles Godfrey, the retired gentleman’s outfitter, the answer may be, ‘yes’, but for my father, Arnold Ridley, it would be safer to say, ‘yes and no’.

‘Sweet and gentle as long as everything was going fine,’ my father’s agent, Bill McLean, tells me, when I go to see him. ‘But he didn’t stand for fools and could more than hold his own. I remember he was rehearsing a show in Manchester. All the actors were on time (as actors usually are) but the director arrived late and, without a word, started the rehearsal. Arnold called the whole rehearsal to a halt and demanded that the director apologise for being late before they continued. Which he did. This is a sweet old man? Don’t count on it!’

Unlike Godfrey, deference played no part in my father’s make-up. He had an acute sense of what was right and what was wrong which sometimes caused him difficulties. A story (in his own words) from his time as a trainee teacher illustrates the point:
‘In July 1914 while on teaching practice at a Bristol elementary school, I succeeded in imperilling my scholastic career. A particularly irritating headmaster so aroused my hot temper by doubting my word of honour and wagging a finger under my nose that I seized him by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his trousers and pitched him out of the open window into his own playground which fortunately was heavily grassed. Although I reported myself immediately to my university tutor, I hate to think what might have resulted had not the declaration of war thrown life in general into the melting pot.’

One of the joys of writing Godfrey’s Ghost has been to bring my father back to me; to see him and to his voice again. I hope readers will enjoy learning more about Arnold Ridley. As Jimmy Perry describes him, ‘soldier, playwright, actor, inspiration for dear old Private Godfrey’, as Jimmy Perry puts it. And more than that. A wonderful father. An admirable man.

Nicolas Ridley


 September 23, 2009