Invisible Ink: No 78 - Arnold Ridley

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The Independent Culture

Here's a sweet story. Arnold Ridley was a one-time elementary school teacher from Bath, born in 1896, who fought in the First World War and longed to be on the stage, but suffered injuries at the Somme – his left arm was badly damaged, he was bayoneted in the groin, and was prone to blackouts from a fractured skull.

It seemed his injuries might end his dreams of a career on the boards, but his passion for the theatre and its memorabilia remained, and he joined Birmingham Rep in 1918, taking a wide variety of roles before retiring when the physical wounds and mental trauma began troubling him again.

One evening he was stranded at Mangotsfield railway station, near Bristol, and was inspired to write a play about a mysterious train that appeared at night on a branch line, only subsequently to vanish. The station through which it passes is considered to be haunted, and a group of stranded passengers have to solve the riddle of The Ghost Train. The 1923 comedy-drama was a massive hit in London and was filmed in 1941 as a vehicle for Arthur Askey – so annoying here that it was a wonder the rest of the cast didn't make him vanish too.

Encouraged by its success, Ridley became the prolific author of more than 30 plays between the wars, including Keepers Of Youth, The Flying Fool, and The Wrecker, which concerned a train driver who comes to believe that his engine is possessed by a malevolent spirit.

After failing to establish a new British film company, Ridley rejoined the Army in time for the Second World War and saw active service in France, where he suffered flashbacks and shell shock all over again.

He adapted an Agatha Christie novel, Peril At End House, for the West End, and later returned to acting, appearing in The Archers as Doughy Hood in the 1960s.

We remember Ridley now, not for his writing, but for his role in Dad's Army as the mild-mannered Private Godfrey. It's ironic to think that a man who fought in the two biggest wars of the 20th century should find his equilibrium playing a committed pacifist. He continued to appear in the show into his eighties – he even appeared in the stage version, which coincided with his 80th birthday – and was made an OBE. He married three times and died in 1984, aged 88.