My dad’s army of talent, by son of Private Godfrey

PUBLISHED: 14:10 18 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:37 07 September 2010

There was so much more to actor Arnold Ridley than doddery Private Godfrey – a war hero who wrote more than 30 West End plays, his son Nicolas tells Bridget Galton THE oldest member of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon – Private Charles Godfrey – is a Dad s

There was so much more to actor Arnold Ridley than doddery Private Godfrey - a war hero who wrote more than 30 West End plays, his son Nicolas tells Bridget Galton

THE oldest member of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon - Private Charles Godfrey - is a Dad's Army favourite.

But Arnold Ridley, the actor who played him, was 51 when his only child Nicolas was born, which meant he barely met his grandson Christopher.

Now Nicolas has written a tender, moving portrait of his "self-deprecating, gently humorous" father to help his son understand the granddad he never knew.

Although playing the weak-bladdered bachelor and "bear of very little brain" was a happy time for Ridley, his son feels a need "to prise Arnold Ridley from Private Godfrey, to free him from age and frailty, to revive and restore him".

He adds: "The book grew from an anxiety that my three children when they saw old doddering Godfrey would mistake him for their grandfather. He was so much more than that. I wanted to tell parts of his story that would otherwise be lost and share his philosophy of life that helped him survive many reversals of fortune; by accepting things as they were, not wishing they were otherwise, by confronting reality without deceiving yourself and accepting bad luck without bitterness or regret.

"My admiration for him has little to do with his public achievements. He was for me, remarkable because he was my father and, because through love, courage and this well-grounded philosophy, he lived his life so valiantly and well."

Arnold Ridley was 72 when he landed the Dad's Army role and his eventful life saw him serve in two world wars, find early fame as a West End playwright, lose his money and live the hand-to-mouth existence of the jobbing actor.

Co-writer David Croft feared he wouldn't live long enough to complete the first series and, while filming in a graveyard near Thetford, James Beck who played cockney spiv Private Joe Walker, joked to Ridley: "Hardly worth your leaving is it Arnold?"

Ironically Beck died shortly afterwards from pancreatitis aged 44, while the 81-year-old Ridley recorded the 80th and final episode broadcast on Remembrance Sunday 1977.

The final lines of Ridley's (unpublished) memoir read: "One is supremely fortunate to be kept working busily amongst such comrades and true friends for 10 years preceding and after one's eightieth birthday."

Ridley was born in Bath, in 1896, and remembered crying aged five as the bells tolled for the death of Queen Victoria. His father Bob was a boxer, fencer and footballer who taught gymnastics at various schools around Bath. Young Arnold attended Miss Silverside's private seminary - where he won a recitation prize - then Bath City Secondary School before training as a teacher at Bristol University, where he acted in drama society productions.

In 1915, he enlisted with the Somerset Light Infantry and was wounded three times, receiving "a blighty one" at the Somme in autumn 1916 which mangled his left arm and hand. After leading a group of stragglers back through no-man's land to the British front line, he was put forward for a medal, but turned down - an irony since conscientious objector Private Godfrey won the Military Medal for stretcher bearing during the same battle.

Ridley's wounds were untreated for several days and, when he eventually underwent surgery, he was"quite certain

that my hand would be amputated.. which would reduce me to Home Service and save my life."

He later told his son he was inconsolable with fear and frustration that the surgeons saved his hand but he was discharged anyway in 1917.

Twenty-two years later he returned to France as a major with the British Expeditionary Force. But within hours of reaching Cherbourg he suffered terrible shell shock, reliving his recurrent nightmare of being called back to serve in France.

Evacuated out of Bolougne in 1940, he was again invalided out because of his nerves and thereafter wouldn't talk about the Second World War.

Between the wars Ridley acted in repertory theatre, spent four years selling shoes and writing plays, before hitting the jackpot with the hugely popular thriller The Ghost Train in 1925.

It made his fortune and he wrote more than 30 plays for the West End. But Nicolas notes sadly that "by the time Dad's Army became a success, it wasn't generally remembered he had written anything at all".

A disastrous investment in a play, then a film company led to financial ruin and, in the same period, a 1926 marriage to an old Bath friend and a 1939 marriage to a stage manager both failed.

In 1945, Ridley met West End actress Althea Parker. It was a happy marriage, Nicolas was born two years later, and he poignantly recalls growing up with an ageing dad (nickname Old Bear or OB) who could barely bowl a cricket ball and was once humiliatingly mistaken for his grandfather.

As a child, he would beg God to let his dad live a few more years, and it's clearly a source of sadness that he never knew Arnold in his cricket and rugby playing youth or as the successful playwright. However, there were happy days at Lord's cricket ground together with scorecards and fish paste sandwiches: Arnold wearing a misshapen panama hat and following the action with wartime field glasses.

The family moved to "a cold, large flat" in Highgate West Hill in 1960. Ridley enjoyed pints, or his beloved "actor's gin", at the local Duke of St Albans and befriended the vicar of St Anne's Henry Whittingham who was an ardent Archers fan (Ridley played baker Doughy Hood).

Nicolas fondly recalls how he enjoyed calling attention to his late-found fame by wearing dark glasses on the 214 bus from Parliament Hill Fields.

"The show's success restored my father's faith in himself," he says. "But my relationship with Private Godfrey has remained distant. For many he is a national treasure, but I feel no affection for him. But my children say I needn't have worried about them mistaking Arnold Ridley for Godfrey, they picture him from the stories I have told over the years."

Ridley died in 1984. His funeral was held as St Anne's and his ashes buried alongside his parents in Bath Abbey cemetery.

o Godfrey's Ghost by Nicolas Ridley is published by Mogzilla Life priced £9.99.


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