The Ghost Train – written by Arnold Ridley, best known as Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey – has got an extra resonance for Jeffrey Holland.
Jeffrey, who plays Saul Hodgkin in the show which plays Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from June 1-6, remembers Ridley well.
“I did the stage show of Dad’s Army for a year. It was amazing. It was the most wonderful event of my theatrical career. I ended up playing Private Walker on the tour. John Bardon had played it in the West End, and he didn’t want to do the tour, and so there I was playing Private Walker, aged 29, standing on stage with people like Arthur Lowe!
“It wasn’t a massive role. They put the character into the stage show because it was such a good foil for Captain Mainwaring (Lowe) to play off.
“By that time Arthur Lowe had become Captain Mainwaring rather than Arthur Lowe. It was just all rolled into one. He wasn’t pompous. That would be the wrong word. He was quite a shy man, actually, but he was very conscious of his position as the leading man.
“When my son was born, I left the show and raced to the bedside of my wife. She had had some problems obstetrically, and I left the show at the end of the matinee. I told the boys they would have to cover for me that night. But the next morning I was summoned to Mr Lowe’s dressing room to be given a dressing down for being unprofessional. I explained the situation, and he harrumphed. And of course, the first flowers to be sent to my wife were from Mr and Mrs Lowe!”
As for John le Mesurier as Sgt Wilson: “Well, he was so laid back. John was like that in real life.”
And that was part of the Mainwaring/Wilson dynamic – state-school Mainwaring versus public-school-educated Wilson, the two men a class apart.
“And of course, it really didn’t matter to Wilson at all. But it mattered a lot to Mainwaring.”
As for Arnold Ridley, Jeffrey recalls him as a “sweetheart”: “And he really did speak in that old-fashioned way (you get in The Ghost Train). He was such a lovely old chap. He had just barely survived the Battle of the Somme. He had been bayoneted rather badly. It had left him with a permanent weakness in an arm and leg.”
And yet despite that, Ridley had gone on to find fame in the 1920s as one of this country’s bright young things of the playwriting world. The Ghost Train was his biggest success, his classic comedy thriller about a group of travellers (including a newlywed couple, an estranged couple, a self-indulgent young dandy and an elderly spinster with a parrot) stranded in the waiting room of an isolated railway station.
“It’s 90 years old this year, and I think it works very well when you do it straight. People often send it up, and Arnold hated that. They do it because it is old-fashioned. It is set in the 1920s when everyone spoke in this particular way, when there was lots of ‘I says!’ and people saying things like ‘I am deuced angry.’ But you can do it. You have just got to have the courage of your convictions and play it straight.”
It’s the only one of Ridley’s plays to have survived to see the light of day regularly in the 21st century: “I think he wrote about six plays, but then he suffered from writer’s block. He had such great success, and then it all really rather went wrong for him as a writer.”