Arnold Ridley Collectors’ Guide

  • Brilliant British actor, playwright and author ended career in most popular role
  • From the British Army, via The Wrecker and The Ghost Train to Dad’s Army
  • Many beloved tales burst forth from the rich wellspring of his imagination
  • Detailing the highlights of a diverse, 60-year theatre, film and TV career
  • All officially released editions of his major big and small screen works

This article started out as a mere subsection of this one, listing the screen adaptations of The Ghost Train. But there are so many it grew and grew, until it made more sense to spin it off into a full-blown available-filmography detailing all those based on Ridley’s written works. Enjoy!

You can't beat the old 'uns: L-R: Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, John Laurie, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender and James Beck in Dad's Army (1968–1977)

You can’t beat the old ‘uns. L-R: Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, John Laurie, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender and James Beck in Dad’s Army.


Contents

Except where noted, all films are based on eponymous plays


Introduction

A Portrait of the artist as a young man: Arnold Ridley, circa mid-1920s

A portrait of the artist as a young man: Arnold Ridley, circa mid-1920s

Arnold Ridley (1896–1984) was an accomplished actor, playwright and screenwriter who, like fellow thespian John Laurie, is now chiefly remembered for his late-life appearances in the sitcom Dad’s Army (1968–1977). He’s also been mentioned more recently for being the great-uncle of Daisy “Star Wars” Ridley, who was born six years after he died. But it’s due to the entirety of his own fascinating, lengthy career that his son Nicolas paid tribute to him in a touching memoir, which also includes his father’s final, previously unpublished novel.

The Life and Work of Arnold Ridley 2009 exhibition programme


Dad’s Army

Coming full circle: left, Ridley the Somme veteran and right, playing a Somme veteran.

Coming full circle: left, Ridley the Somme veteran and right, over 50 years later, playing a Somme veteran.

Ridley was predominantly a playwright and stage actor until his 60s and thereafter could always be relied on for his stock-in-trade: strong supporting characters and walk-on parts in more than 60 different films and television programmes. But he’s best known to modern audiences as the deceptively doddering Private Godfrey throughout nine series and numerous spin-offs of Dad’s Army, one of the most enduringly popular sitcoms of all time. Initially derided by his platoon, it transpired Godfrey had hidden depths, being a hero of the Battle of the Somme. This somewhat reflected Ridley’s real-life experiences: as a young man, he was seriously injured at the same offensive and subsequently invalided out of the army with the rank of Lance Corporal.

BBC News: The real-life wars of Dad’s Army actor Arnold Ridley

Via both his acting and plays, Ridley has made hundreds of appearances on BBC Radio from 1936 until the present day, including, from 1956–1973, a recurring role as Doughy Hood in long-running serial The Archers. Naturally, the majority of Ridley-related programmes are not readily available but there are frequent repeats on various stations, especially BBC Radio 4 Extra. One that can be enjoyed anytime is his 3 November 1973 appearance on Desert Island Discs; amongst other topics, he touches on his time as a real-life Home Guardsman after being discharged from the army a second time on health grounds during WWII.

Any self-respecting (or future) fan of Dad’s Army will need at least some of the following…


Home video

The original series and its film and TV spin-offs have seen official releases in three countries to date. Apart from a plethora of piecemeal best-of collections, here are all of them:

The 2016 film remake attempted to recreate the old magic with a completely new cast. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”, but all concerned attack their roles with gusto and succeed to varying degrees. It’s been released in the same countries as the original series:

Trailer 2 | Clips: Arrival, Butchers, Camouflage | Behind the scenes: Legacy, Women of Walmington | Interviews: Catherine Zeta and Toby Jones, Bill Nighy


Radio series

From 1973–1975, 67 of the 80 TV series episodes were rewritten as radio plays and performed by all of the original cast. The exception was James Beck (Private Walker), who was replaced after the first series following his tragically early death at the age of 44. Not only are they often as good as the the TV episodes, in some ways they actually improve on them as they’re not limited by budgetary constraints. If a scene calls for a tank or location shoot, it only needs to be described, perhaps with a few sound effects thrown in for good measure!


Stage show and later radio series

There have been several different modern productions but the original stage show featured the entire TV series cast and toured the UK for a year from September 1975. An album was released during its run and is a handy keepsake of the event.

The immediate post-war sequel It Sticks Out Half a Mile was created by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles, who had written the TV series radio adaptations. Comprised of a 1981 pilot and 1983 main series, it includes most of the old favourites as they attempt to renovate a derelict seaside pier.


Soundtracks


Books


The Ghost Train

French poster for The Ghost Train aka Le Train Fantôme (1927)

French poster for The Ghost Train (1927)

Getting back to Ridley himself, it’s for his perennially popular 1923 play The Ghost Train (Español) that his writing skills will be forever remembered. It went on to spawn numerous film and TV adaptations, the first being a 1927 German-British co-production also known as Der Geisterzug, and one of several such films directed by Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. He also helmed the German-British Haus Nummer 17/Number 17, the 1928 silent original of Alfred Hitchcock’s talkie remake, and the Austro-British Champagner/Bright Eyes, a 1929 quasi-remake of Hitchcock’s Champagne. Even more symmetry comes in the fact that Bolváry’s do-over starred Betty Balfour and Jack Trevor, both of whom featured in Hitchcock’s precursor. Small world, isn’t it? Ruth Alexander wrote an eponymous novelisation of Ridley’s play a year or so before the film; she later performed similar duties for Hitchcock’s Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rome Express. Unfortunately, however, the first Ghost Train hasn’t been officially released on home video as yet.

Note that despite being hosted on Archive.org, the play is not in the public domain. Its copyright expires at the end of 2054; Ridley’s 1984 death plus 70 years. Further copyright is generated in the translated and simplified versions: Spanish translator Emilio González del Castillo apparently died in 1940, so no extension there. Regarding the simplified version, I can’t find any biographical information about its adapter “Michael West, M.A., D.Phil (Oxon)” but if Ridley predeceased him, its expiry date will be West’s death plus 70 years.

The film remakes came thick and fast, with a 1931 version helmed by wunderkind comedian-actor-director Walter Forde, an unjustly forgotten star of early C20th British stage and screen. There are many, many films of his – see for yourself! – squirrelled away in the BFI National Archive that really deserve to be better known.

In this case, as with several films listed here, there are various direct Hitchcock connections. For instance, it stars husband and wife variety duo Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, and Hitchcock regular Donald Calthrop; the latter two featured in Elstree Calling, with Calthrop also appearing in four other films for the Master of Suspense. The 1931 first sound version of The Ghost Train is mostly lost, although some footage was repurposed for Forde’s own 1941 remake. What does survive of the first is all compiled on the BFI Player and here:

The play’s next cinematic outing came by way of a pair of 1933 multiple-language version films, Kísértetek vonata and Trenul fantoma, from Hungary and Romania respectively. Unfortunately though, neither has been released on home video but there’s a lo-res copy of the latter on YouTube. 1934 saw Un train dans la nuit, a retitled French production that’s sadly all but sunk without trace.

The Ghost Train aka De spooktrein (1939) Dutch poster

Dutch poster

An obscure British TV play was broadcast on the 20th and 25 December 1937; almost needless to say, it’s long since vanished into the ether. Next came the 1939 Dutch remake, De spooktrein, which has been released on a non-subtitled DVD and officially uploaded to YouTube by the Eye Filmmuseum with optional German subtitles.

Though Forde’s first 1931 attempt at the story is largely absent, thankfully, it’s much better news where his own 1941 remake is concerned as it survives in excellent condition. A primary Hitchcock connection is that it stars chisel-cheekboned Linden Travers, who played ‘Mrs.’ Todhunter in Lady. There’s been only one official release to date:

  • UK: Network DVD (2019)

This is by far and away the most bootlegged film in this survey, with crappy copies being included on an inordinate number of US DVD-Rs (Acme TV, GI Studios, LWF, Nostalgia Family, Reel Vault, Serpent Films) and anonymous efforts like this and this. The same transfer also appears on defunct UK outfit Firecake Entertainment’s DVD and standard definition BD-R The Old Dark House Mystery Collection (alt). There are numerous complaints about their collective (lack of) quality on Amazon and elsewhere, so give ’em all a wide swerve.

Richard Murdoch, Linden Travers and Peter Murray-Hill

Richard Murdoch, Linden Travers and Peter Murray-Hill get the willies at the thought of those awful bootlegs

Several more TV versions followed, including a live-broadcast 1948 staging starring Ridley himself which is almost certainly lost. But the next in line survives very healthily: the German TV movie, Der Geisterzug (1957), can be had on an excellent though non-subtitled DVD.

  • Germany: Pidax DVD (2010)

A third German version bearing the same title was broadcast on TV in 1963 followed by the last to date, Spøgelsestoget, a 1976 Danish TV version, but neither are readily available.

Audio recordings

Christmas Night 1932 saw the broadcast of George Edwards’ first production for Lux Radio Theatre Australia.

A version specially recorded for a 1951 Decca LP featured Ridley himself alongside Claude Hulbert, whose brother Jack starred in the 1931 film version.

Following BBC Radio productions in 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1969, the play was more recently revisited in 1998 for BBC Radio 4. Sadly, this appears to have been the only version broadcast since.

Among their many other excellent offerings, Fantom Films’ full length 2010 recording is available on a 2-CD set.

Lastly, here’s a 2017 stage performance by the Wayward Theatre Company at the Minnesota Transportation Museum.


The Wrecker (1929)

Going back to the silent era, Ridley’s very next play, 1924’s The Wrecker, was also a sizeable success. It was co-written with Bernard Merivale; the pair also collaborated on the story for Seven Sinners and others. The Wrecker concerns a criminal bus company owner seeking to discredit the rail service at any cost, in order to benefit his business. Like The Ghost Train, the play was novelised in 1927 by Ruth Alexander. A British-German silent film adaptation arrived in 1929, hot on the heels of The Ghost Train’s first big screen outing. Most notably, The Wrecker’s centrepiece is a spectacular staged train crash that’s the equal of the one in Buster Keaton’s The General three years before. Again, it replicated the success of the parent play, and outtakes from the crash, captured with 22 cameras, later appeared in Seven Sinners and the 1931 and 1941 remakes of The Ghost Train. The crash was hugely expensive so it made sense to get as much, ahem, mileage out of it as possible. The Wrecker has seen only one legitimate release so far:

  • UK: DVD (Strike Force, 2010)

9.5mm version


The Warren Case (1934)

Co-leads Richard Bird and  Nancy Burne, who had more than a touch of the young Anna Neagle about her

Co-leads Richard Bird and Nancy Burne, who had more than a touch of the young Anna Neagle about her.

Based on Ridley’s play The Last Chance, this neat little crime thriller has a few unique twists to distinguish it from many other similar quota quickies being churned out at the time. Six years earlier, third-billed Diana Napier played the farmer’s daughter in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife, under her birth name Molly Ellis. Extras on the sole licensed DVD consist of an image gallery and PDF of the original pressbook.

  • UK: Network DVD (2016)

Edward Underdown and Diana Napier

Edward Underdown and Diana Napier


Seven Sinners (1936)

Seven Sinners aka Sju syndare (1936) Swedish poster

Seven Sinners aka Sju syndare Swedish poster

The Launder-Gilliat scripted Seven Sinners is very strongly recommended and not to be confused with the 1940 Dietrich-Wayne film. Based on a story by regular creative pairing Ridley and Bernard Merivale, it takes its cue from The Wrecker, and its tone and pacing earned it contemporary comparisons with the best of Hitchcock. Looking at it now, it seems inevitable that the screenwriting duo were working their way up to making the definitive train thriller with the Master. So far, there’s only one official DVD; among others, avoid the lo-res bootleg from prolific US pirates the Nostalgia Family, which is fronted by the above poster artwork, and this grisly anonymous effort.

  • UK: Network DVD (2009)


Easy Money (1948)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Arnold Ridley, circa mid-1920s

A superior portmanteau film that’s a clever meditation on the love of money being the root of all evil. The moral is that it can’t buy happiness – unless post-war audiences were purchasing tickets to an enjoyable night out at the flicks, whereupon they could learn from others’ mistakes. February 2021: the eBay seller of this deluxe pressbook has helpfully photographed every page, providing a wealth of info about how the film was marketed at the time.


Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953)

Barbara Murray in Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953) by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2019

Barbara Murray in Meet Mr. Lucifer by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2019

This sharp satire, one of the unjustly lesser known Ealing comedies, is based on Ridley’s play Beggar My Neighbour. It’s an astoundingly prescient, salutary warning about the dangers of watching television, from back when the medium was still in its infancy. It is, of course, no ordinary television but one possessed by the devil, which wreaks havoc on the lives of several successive owners. The cream of 1950s British acting talent is on display here, in fact dozens of household names – well, my household anyway – and though it’s really deserving of a full restoration and HD release, for now it can only officially be had as part of a DVD set.


Second Fiddle (1957)

Thorley Walters and Lisa Gastoni in Second Fiddle (1957)

A lighthearted romantic comedy revolving around gender politics and women in the workplace – or whether they even have a right to be there at all. Notable for being the final film of incredibly prolific director Maurice Elvey, it’s not to be confused with the identically titled 1939 US film with Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power.

  • UK: Network DVD (2015)

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2 Comments

  1. Mickdick
    February 01, 14:10 Reply
    Excellent Arnold Ridley detective work, Brent, which will provide diversion in these days when much needed. Michael Eaton
    • Brent Reid
      February 01, 19:21 Reply
      Thanks so much, Mick – that means a lot! Really missing you and everyone in our extended film family. Hope we can all be together again soon. Bx

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