Why I hate Private Godfrey: Actor Arnold Ridley's son on how Dad's Army belittled his father's awesome heroism

Arnold Ridley

Forgotten hero: Arnold Ridley as Private Godfrey

When my father was awarded an OBE 'for services to the theatre', I refused to go to Buckingham Palace to see him receive it. I was too angry on his behalf.

The OBE seemed to me a poor, overdue reward for his service to his country - though he appeared pleased enough to receive his decoration.

Like me, he was fully aware that the honour had nothing to do with his frontline service in both World Wars; nor even his later success as a playright.

It was in recognition of his late-flowering fame as the dim-witted Private Charles Godfrey in the TV series Dad's Army.

And dear old Godfrey, if you recall, was famously the only conscientious objector in the Home Guard platoon of Walmington-on-Sea.

The irony of my father being given an OBE for playing a conscientious objector was hard to bear.

For my father, Arnold Ridley, had been one of the brave young men who went 'over the top' at the Battle of the Somme. He ended up being wounded three times and suffered from shellshock, blackouts and haunting nightmares.

And he never received any recognition at all for his courage and sacrifice.

My father talked about his experiences of World War I only reluctantly, but I knew that the 'war to end wars', with its sucking mud, rats the size of cats and appalling death toll, had caused him untold anguish.

All those horrors had come flooding back when, in September 1939, he went to war once more, returning to France with the British Expeditionary Force - this time with the rank of major.

In an unpublished memoir written towards the end of his life, he recalled: 'Within hours of setting foot on the quay at Cherbourg, I was suffering from acute shell-shock again. It took the form of a mental suffering that can best be described as an "inverted" nightmare.

'I (had) suffered badly from nightmares between the wars. They always took the same form. Somehow or other, my discharge had gone wrong and I was back in the Army again. Not amid shot, shell, bayonet and other horrors, but merely back in France awaiting orders to go up to the front line once more. These dreams were so real that sometimes it would take me an hour or more to persuade myself that what I had dreamed was impossible.

'Now it was no longer impossible. My dream had caught up with me. My real and conscious life was now my nightmare - a nightmare from which I had no awakening.'

He never wrote anything more about World War II.

'To recount the events of this time, I would have to relive them. I have no intention of reliving them. I am too afraid,' he explained simply. 

My father was already over 50 by the time I was born in 1946, so to me he was always elderly.

Indeed, he had been born at the end of the previous century and could remember hearing the bells toll for the death of Queen Victoria.

Each night, I used to say a private prayer, asking God to let him live another 20 years.

Arnold Ridley with his son, Nicolas

Arnold Ridley with his son, Nicolas. The actor suffered nightmares over what he had experienced in two World Wars

Once, when he took me as a small boy to Lord's to watch the cricket, an acquaintance stopped and asked: 'And is this your grandson?'

It was a kindly meant question, expecting a proud response.

'No! No!' I said quickly, so furious that I was close to tears. But my father smiled indulgently.

Growing up, I'd often see him reading books by generals, historians, politicians - always about World War I.

Before long, he'd be asleep, with the open books scattered about his armchair, like bodies laid out in a field.

Once, I woke him suddenly, tapping him urgently on the shoulder, as young children do. He sprang to his feet and had his hands round my throat before he saw me.

The instincts of trench warfare never left him - but it was an incident we never discussed.

Later, I learned from my mother that if we needed to wake him, it was best to knock gently on the door and wait until he remembered he was safe.

By the time I came along, all my father's greatest theatrical triumphs were in the past.

Long before Dad's Army, he'd been rich and famous - with his name in lights in St Martin's Lane as the author of a sell-out play called The Ghost Train.

Dad's Army

Hit: Dad's Army ran from 1968 until 1977. Little did many fans know that Arnold Ridley had fought in two World Wars

Through most of my childhood, though, he endured the hand-to-mouth existence of the ageing actor who struggles for small parts - Doughy Hood, the baker in The Archers; Guy Atkins, the vicar in Crossroads; Alderman Pratt in Carry On Girls; a gardener in Z Cars; an 'elderly gent' in The Avengers - and is harried by bank managers, bullied by bailiffs, pursued by implacable tax inspectors.

To my mother and me, he was always just Old Bear - or OB for short - a name that stuck because he'd once played a bear and apparently looked more convincing out of his costume than in.

As he grew older, and the acting parts dried up, his agonising fear was that he might never work again.

Then, to his great surprise, Dad's Army came along - and from 1968 to 1977, he played Godfrey, the oldest Home Guardsman in the platoon, in 80 TV episodes.

As guileless Godfrey in his tin hat, he became a kind of national treasure. Not to me, though: even now, I tend to be brusque and sullen when people introduce me as 'Godfrey's son'.

Recently, I sat down to watch several episodes of Dad's Army, but I still didn't warm to Godfrey.

His deference irritated me, as did his requests to be excused. And why did he have to look so gaga?

The trouble is that a well-drawn TV character can seem so complete that it's sometimes difficult to distinguish the actor from the man.

Even some of OB's Dad's Army colleagues made a point of telling me that he was perfectly cast 'because he was so sweet and gentle'.

Well, it's true there wasn't a malicious bone in OB's make-up - but he certainly wasn't sweet.

Once, as a young man, doing teaching practice as part of an education degree, he actually threw a headmaster out of a window.

He recalled: 'He 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 his neck and the seat of his trousers - and pitched him out into his own playground, which fortunately was heavily grassed.'

For OB, World War I intervened at just the right moment. Instead of having to face disciplinary action for his impetuosity to his headmaster, he was drafted to his regiment's reserve battalion, stationed at Crownhill on the outskirts of Plymouth.

Then aged 20, he vividly remembered marching three miles in a rainstorm and waiting half an hour, soaked to the skin, until the regimental sergeant-major emerged to call the recruits to attention.

'Don't none of you think you're going to see your homes and mothers and dads no more 'cause you ain't,' he barked. 'We sent out a draft to our First Battalion at Wipers three weeks ago and where are they now? I'll tell yer - they're all bleeding well dead! And that's where you buggers will be in a couple o' months time - all bleeding well dead!'

It was Lance Corporal Ridley's introduction to hell. For more than a year on the frontline, he fought on while comrades died all around him.

Enlarge   Arnold Ridley

Characters: Arnold Ridley (top centre) with the cast of Dad's Army

Once, he told me, he passed out on the battlefield and was woken by the sound of appalling screams. He realised he was in a shell-hole. On the other side of it, the man who'd presumably carried him there had just been mortally wounded by shrapnel, and was screaming with pain as he clung to life.

Did his unknown companion ask my father to spare him further agony - or did the screaming simply become insupportable?

The question was too terrible for me to ask him. But the screaming had to be stopped - and it was L/Cpl Ridley who did the deed.

After leaving the shell-hole, he led a group of stragglers back through no-man's-land to the British frontline.

All the soldiers were recommended for the Military Medal - but an officer, spotting that my father was nominally in command, recommended him for the DCM - the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The other members of the party duly received their MMs but my father was turned down for the DCM and received nothing. He told the story ruefully, with little bitterness. This was simply how things were, he said.

But I knew how hurt he'd been; the MM was the only recognition he'd hoped for, and he didn't even get that.

Of his time on the front, OB later recalled: 'The mental suffering was far in excess of the physical. To anyone of sense and imagination, it was quite clear that the vital question wasn't "if" I get killed, but when I get killed. Battalions were wiped out, not once but time after time.

'One's only hope was that one might receive a "Blighty one"- an injury severe enough to get you repatriated, but not so bad that it would kill you. That is why the war correspondents could rightly describe the wounded as being so cheerful.'

In September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, where 58,000 British troops lost their lives, my father finally received his 'Blighty one'.

'I was badly wounded - particularly in my left arm and hand,' he wrote in his unpublished memoirs. '(But) I was left for some days behind the uncaptured German frontline - and it was some time before I received medical first aid at Le Tréport, where I was admitted by mistake into a Canadian hospital.'

What OB didn't put in his account was that he woke up with a start that night because a terrible weight was pressing down on his chest. Someone was kneeling on him, sewing him into a sheet. He'd been sleeping so deeply that they assumed he was dead.

Afterwards, he had several operations. 'I was quite certain that my hand would be amputated, and I felt a strong measure of disappointment when I found that it hadn't been. The loss of a hand would, at the worst, reduce me to Home Service and save my life. I was 20. Rather young to welcome a prospect of being maimed for life!'

It was only after his return to Britain that he was deemed unfit for service, even though his hand had been saved.

As a final irony, in Torquay in 1917, my father was handed a white feather - the symbol of cowardice given to young men who weren't in uniform - by a tall young woman wearing a foxfur. Little did she realise that he had served with such courage, and been stood down from duty.

He accepted the feather and said nothing. He felt, I believe, the aching guilt of those who survive; the wretched knowledge that they, too, should have died.

Always a keen amateur actor, after the war he took it up professionally playing numerous parts in repertory. But the roles petered out and he ended up working for four years in a shoe shop in Bath, scribbling plays in his spare time.

It was one of these, The Ghost Train, set in a railway waiting room, that made it to the West End, where it became an unexpected hit.

Within months, there were four tours of it on the road, productions in the U.S. and Australia and a German silent film.

Dad's Army

Fame: Arnold Ridley (second right) was only paid £63 per episode for Dad's Army

My father was suddenly rich. For the first time in his life, he travelled first-class, ate in expensive restaurants and holidayed in fashionable French resorts (though he had no great liking for 'abroad' - his favourite places were British railway stations.)

Then he invested in a film. Big mistake: the distributor went bust, and OB was urged to file for bankruptcy. He opted instead to repay every creditor over the course of many years.

Subsequent plays never repeated the success of the first, and he made the final mistake of selling the amateur rights of The Ghost Train for £200. Today, the play is still performed by amateur theatre companies all over world - it's said to be staged somewhere every night of the year - and the royalties would have transformed my parents' lives.

But OB refused to indulge in regret. By the time he married my mother Althea, a glamorous actress he'd met during a casting for The Ghost Train, he was broke.

It turned out to be an exceptionally happy marriage. Yet, apart from their deep affection for each other and a common bond of fortitude, they couldn't have been more different in temperament. While Althea was gregarious, OB liked to engage with the rest of the world on his own terms.

Even at his own dinner parties, he'd rise from the table at 10pm and announce he was going to bed. If my mother went out during the day, he'd stand, stiff with anxiety, at the window to look out for her return.

But Althea was always late. The tension would mount as OB checked his watch and occasionally paced around the room. On her arrival, no mention would be made of either her lateness or his vigil.

'An anxiety complex is a disease like any other,' OB explained. 'There's no logic to it. No reasoning with it.'

His anxieties abated somewhat when Dad's Army came along in 1968, giving him a degree of security (it would run for 80 episodes) that he hadn't known for decades; it also restored his faith in himself.

He'd almost missed landing his role, though. The producer David Croft had been worried that, at 72, OB might not live long enough to complete the first series.

'That cuts the ground from under you a bit,' OB's agent Bill McLean told me. 'Can't negotiate too hard!'

Which may explain why, for the first series, John Le Mesurier was paid £261.10s.0d per episode, Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn £210, John Laurie £105, James Beck £78 and my father £63.

Once, while filming in a graveyard, James Beck, who played Private Joe Walker, turned to my father and said, 'Hardly worth your leaving, is it, Arnold?'

But it was James Beck who died suddenly - at 44. And by the time the final series was filmed in 1977 - when OB was 81 - John Le Mesurier was suffering from cirrhosis, Arthur Lowe from narcolepsy and John Laurie from emphysema.

After a final engagement as the 'King' in Jack and the Beanstalk in Lincoln, OB at last grew too frail even to continue living at home. He ended his days in Denville Hall, the home for retired theatricals in Northwood, Middlesex - a great improvement on his past theatrical digs. But he longed to be with Althea.

However much he missed her, though, she missed him more. Each morning, she drove 15 miles to be with him. And each evening, before it grew too dark, she drove home, exhausted.

After watching her go, OB would make his way to the bar for a gin, which he drank in his room while waiting for her call to say she'd arrived home safely. Then he went to bed, secure in the knowledge that she'd be back the next day. He died in March 1984 at the age of 88, after a fall.

Althea was never quite happy again. And when she died in 2001, seven years after my father, my son commented: 'Granny has joined OB.'

My father had been alone long enough. I could picture the scene: OB waiting, pacing the platform, checking his wristwatch against the station clock. He was early, of course, and inevitably my mother was late.

  • Adapted from Godfrey's Ghost by Nicolas Ridley, published by Mogzilla Life, £15.99 hardback, £9.99 paperback. Copyright © 2009 Nicolas Ridley. To order a copy (p&p free) call 0845 155 0720.