Book Review: Godfrey's Ghost

by Nicolas Ridley

It may have his Dad’s Army character name in the title, but anyone expecting this biography of Arnold Ridley to provide any insight into the much-loved sitcom had better turn to one of the dozens of other titles that have been written about the show.

In his own unpublished memoirs, the actor dedicated just three of the 206 pages to his time with the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard; and this account – by Ridley’s son Nicolas – fares little better. ‘The show itself is infused with a wartime nostalgia that leaves me cold,’ the author writes of his visit to a West End version of the oft-repeated comedy, ‘and having seen very little of Dad’s Army, nothing means much to me.’

Not, then, the ideal starting point to give much insight to his father’s work as Private Godfrey, the dodderiest of old duffers in the platoon. But then, few sons see their dads in the same light as their professional colleagues, and this is a volume about Ridley the father, not Ridley the actor… nor even, necessarily, Ridley the human being.

The book is partly written as a letter to Nicholas’s own son, explaining who his grandfather was, and so concerns itself far more with the nature of the father-son relationship, as seen from both sides of the equation, as it does with the trappings of showbusiness.

Nicolas was born when Arnold was 51, and the fact that his father was so old certainly play on his thoughts: memories of him not being fit enough to participate particularly vigorously in games of cricket, for example, and, more pertinently, the idea that his father had an entire, unseen life before he got to know him at all.

His father fought, and was injured, in both world wars, married three times – finally, and most meaningfully, to the glamorous accomplished actress Althea Parker - and experienced relative wealth and fame, as well as the hand-to-mouth existence of a struggling actor and playwright.

Using extracts from Arnold’s own notes, as well as some purple prose of his own, Nicolas paints an evocative portrait of how life, and society, changed in the course of one lifetime – as well as an honest appraisal of his dad’s strengths and weaknesses as a father, husband and performer.

His story follows the familiar trial for performers of his generation: military service, of which he was reluctant to speak followed by the relentless, bruising rep circuit, populated by all manner of larger-than-life characters, such as the fantasist business partner who would convince himself every rejection was a ‘yes’ or the brutal director who virtually crushed any confidence Arnold had in himself.

Dad’s Army was a virtual postscript to his life, though bringing him some much-needed income in his later years. His true calling, it appears, was as a playwright, with his greatest success being the comedy-thriller The Ghost Train, set in a waiting room on some desolate branch-line railway station. It’s not, perhaps, a household name but although it was a flop on its first outing. it’s said – admittedly by Nicolas – to be performed somewhere in the world every night to this day. It was also made into a film starring Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, a fact curiously absent from the book.

But this is as much about memories of his ursine father’s predilection for a quiet pint away from the madding theatrical crowd, about walks in the wild countryside, of his eating tripe and onions and drinking his wife’s unpalatable home-made wine as it is about his professional life. And, more importantly, about the relationship between father and son, loving but not always tender, respectful but not always close.

Secondary to that is the desire to paint a more rounded picture of his dad. Finally researching Dad’s Army in preparation for this tome, Nicolas reads up on the subject – and normally finds Arnold portrayed as a benign old cove, very much like his sitcom character. Not so, says Nicolas, he could be as grumpy and cantankerous as the best of them.

Sometimes some of the memories, especially those that concern Nicolas’s life rather than his father’s, become too inconsequential; while his musings on the meaning of parenthood can be overwrought. But while Godfrey’s Ghost is not your typical showbusiness biography – and may disappoint anyone seeking same – as a portrait of an eclectic life from a different era, it makes for an engaging read.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
September 23, 2009

  • Godfrey's Ghost: From Father To Son by Nicolas Ridley is published by Mogzilla Life, priced £9.99. Click here to order from Amazon at £6.77

Published: 23 Sep 2009

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.