Dad's Army: Acton Connection for Private Godfrey
Actor's son writes moving book about his father
‘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.
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.
‘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:
September 23, 2009