HOME
1937 - 1939
Back to: 1935 - 1937    From Berlin to Shaftsbury Avenue
Vincent Van Gogh and the Arsenal Stadium Mystery

When the run of Wise Tomorrow came to an end in the summer of 1937, Esmond and Fran took off for a holiday in Austria with Esmond's parents where he again observed the sinister influence of the Nazis, this time in the idyllic rural landscape of the Tyrol. It was here that he purchased a pair of Zeiss binoculars which were to accompany him when he was called up to join the Royal Navy four years later.

t In 1938 Esmond was due to appear in a musical about Franz Hals, the artist who painted The Laughing Cavalier, but withdrew before the show opened.

Esmond returned to England earlier than expected in response to an invitation to appear in a new musical show called The Laughing Cavalier. He was to play Franz Hals, the artist whose famous painting gave the show its name. But Esmond was not particularly impressed with the treatment given to his character and soon withdrew from the production.

Instead, ironically, he found himself playing an even more famous artist - Vincent Van Gogh. Dan McKenna was a successful Irish jockey who had decided to turn his hand to writing a play. The result was Van Gogh, which and Esmond regarded it as a remarkable achievement. "It was stark and virile writing, containing all the passion, colour and tragedy of the artist's vivid life. Dan McKenna was a wild and morose character himself, and, I think, became completely obsessed by Van Gogh story ..." The play charted the whole of Van Gogh's adult life including the incident in which he cut off his ear. Esmond came a little too close to realism during one performance, misjudging the fake stroke with a real razor and shedding real blood over the yellow furniture of the set. Ironically, whilst The Laughing Cavalier enjoyed a long run, there wasn't enough finance to present Van Gogh in the West End and it played for only four performances at the Arts Theatre Club. Depressed and disturbed, Dan McKenna was found drowned in a lake in Ireland not long afterwards.

p Esmond in the dressing room of the Arts Theatre Club, making up as Van Gogh during the

run of Dan McKenna's play of that name. Reflected in the mirror is Wilson Barrett who played Theo.

There was a little more mileage to be had from the project, however, which brought Esmond into contact for the first time with an additional and valuable source of work - television. A shortened version of Van Gogh was broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace in 1937, only months after they had begun the world's first regular service of high-definition programmes. The broadcast was live, naturally, and the action had to be limited to a small stage area in order to keep within the confines of narrow camera angles. Later the same year Esmond repeated his part as Danny in Night Must Fall for the BBC and during the next two years he was involved in a number of other broadcasts from "Ally Pally" until broadcasting was suspended for the duration of the war.

Alexandra Palace in 1936. From here Esmond took part in some of the earliest broadcasts of plays for the BBC including Van Gogh and Night Must Fall.u

Regular film work was becoming difficult to find - he only made one film in 1937 - The Vicar of Bray with Stanley Holloway. Then in 1938 his old friend Vernon Sewell invited him to appear in an adaptation (by Michael Powell) of Tolstoy's What Men Live By, a story of a disgraced angel sent down to earth as a punishment. Esmond played the angel who initially arrives stark naked, a scene filmed with some personal discomfort in a Sussex wood in mid-winter! His performance impressed Powell enough to make a mental note that as soon as an appropriate film project came his way he would offer Esmond a leading role. Unfortunately the distributors were less enthusiastic about What Men Live By and the film was shelved until 1939 when it was eventually released in British cinemas and very well received.

In July 1938 Esmond took part in one of his Uncle Chas's many productions - a film about eagles called Leopard of the Air. At that time Chas owned three magnificent eagles - Mr Ramshaw, a Golden Eagle; James, a Martial Eagle; and Coronation, a Crowned Eagle.  For the sake of the film, he wanted to fly all three at once with Chas, Esmond and their friend Leslie Hoyle releasing them simultaneously.

p Flying three eagles for Chas Knight's 1938 film Leopard of the Air. From left to right: Leslie Hoyle with Mr Ramshaw, Chas Knight with Coronation, and Esmond with James.

The young Cuban cameraman, Carlos Allones, took some remarkable footage and his work on this film was regarded by Chas as some of the finest sequences of eagles in action that he had ever secured. This image (right) of Esmond is a fine example.

Having released all three birds, their attention was so focussed on Mr Ramshaw that they lost track of the other two - Coronation and James. Chas described what happened next in his book All British Eagle:

"Where the dickens are they?" I ask myself, searching the distance for some time.

"Look out, Esmond!" I hear Lesley shout excitedly, and turn just in time to see James flying at full speed towards my nephew. In a flash Esmond's arm is stretched out to meet the oncoming shape which lands on the glove with an audible "WHOP".

"Did you get that, Carlos?"

"I think so. The focus should be right, and I got going before James landed."

Not only were film roles thin on the ground, but the work situation was not much better on stage. In 1938 Esmond appeared in The Melody That Got Lost at the Phoenix Theatre and also in a matinee to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted. Eventually financial pressures forced him back into musical theatre and he went on a summer tour with Frances playing the lead in Ivor Novello's The Crest of the Wave. He took over the lead role from Novello himself who had moved on to play Henry V at Drury Lane. Unfortunately this was not a success and Novello soon returned to reclaim his original part. The fact was that theatre audiences were dwindling, as they always do in times of national crisis.

This was September 1938 when Neville Chamberlain was travelling to and fro between England and Germany in the hope of appeasing Hitler, and the threat of war was in the air. Chamberlain achieved his object - or so he thought - with the Munich Agreement but still the theatre world struggled. Esmond joined Michel St Denis's company at the Phoenix Theatre in an excellent production called The White Guard, followed by Twelfth Night in which he played Orsino. Neither production ran for long and Esmond personally received poor notices.

In the production of Van Gogh which had run for only four performances at the Arts Theatre Club, the part of Vincent's brother Theo was played by Scottish actor Wilson Barrett, and he and Esmond had struck up a friendship. When Barrett was subsequently offered the finance to start his own repertory company, there was a condition attached -  he must find a West End name to partner him. He remember Esmond complaining in the dressing room about the quality of the parts he was being offered and that the only way to do anything about it was to manage a theatre himself.

Picture courtesy of Matthew Lloyd

p The King's Theatre, Hammersmith, where Wilson Barrett and Esmond struggled to run a repertory company in 1939 as the threat of war loomed large and theatre audiences were dwindling. Coincidentally the family who built the theatre in 1902 and owned it, the Mulhollands, were neighbours and friends of Esmond's parents.

So in the autumn of 1938 Wilson Barrett approached Esmond at a hurried lunchtime meeting in a West End pub to discuss a possible business partnership. At the time Esmond's run in Twelfth Night was grinding to a premature end and the future seemed bleak, so Barrett's proposition was a welcome one, and he readily signed an agreement to manage jointly the King's Theatre in Hammersmith.

Thus on 24th January 1939, Wilson Barrett & Esmond Knight Ltd. presented their first production, Noel Coward's three playlets collectively entitled Tonight at 8.30, with Esmond featuring in two out of the three; as Commander Peter Gilpin R.N. in Hands Across The Sea and as George Pepper in Red Peppers.

Tonight At Eight was followed by Night Must Fall in which Esmond repeated his role as the murderer Dan; Wilson Barrett played the Lord Chief Justice and Dame May Witty was also in the cast. Esmond also produced the play. Despite anxiety about the situation in Europe, the season started well and business was healthy. It was further enhanced by a visit from Queen Mary who came to see their production of George and Margaret. As one of the leading players, Esmond was introduced to her during the interval along with his co-star, Kitty de Legh, and the evening was a great success.
During their first season, between January and July 1939, the company put on 24 plays including Yellow Sands, Autumn Crocus (in which Esmond was joined by Nora Swinburne as a guest performer), You Can't Take It With You, Rain and a new play by Nicholas Phipps called First Stop North ( with Judith Furse as a guest and special designs by her brother Roger). This play gave them the distinction of being the first ever repertory company to make a televised broadcast. The BBC took them to Alexander Palace one afternoon and broadcast First Stop North in its entirety.
Esmond live on television in 1939 - the BBC took the whole production of First Stop North, a new play by Nicholas Phipps, from the King's Theatre to Alexandra Palace and broadcast it uncut. From left to right in this scene: Judith Furse, George Larchet, Wilson Barrett, Alf Millen, Phoebe Kershaw and Esmond.p
Artistically the season was a success, but financially things were less encouraging. In his book, On Stage For Notes, Wilson Barrett wrote:
" ... War was already looming, and business fluctuated wildly as Hitler went from coup to coup. In the middle of our eighth week he took Czechoslovakia and the bottom dropped out of everything for a week or two, but the company was magnificent and helped us to economise in every possible way, and by the time Nora Swinburne and Percy Heming came along to co-star with Esmond in Autumn Crocus, we were building up nicely again, only to be knocked down once more by the invasion of Albania. However, as the Referee said, nearly every theatre in town was losing money, so we were in good company, and there was nothing to do but go on and hope for better times."

The situation was not helped by the I.R.A. who tried to blow up Hammersmith Bridge! Eventually it was decided to abandon the King's Theatre and transfer the company to the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh. Due to a film commitment Esmond was unable to leave London with the rest of the company and was obliged to follow on later. He was working on The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a murder mystery based around a charity football match between Arsenal and a fictitious amateur team, The Trojans.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) in which Esmond played alongside

professional footballers from the Arsenal and Brentford Town teams.u

It combined real footage of a match between Arsenal and Brentford Town (the last match Arsenal were to play before the outbreak of war) with sequences that featured Arsenal players mixed with actors. Esmond was not only working on a film set but also playing football with professionals. Being naturally athletic, he blended in well as Raille, the Trojan substitute who is called upon to play at the last minute and scores a vital goal. The film, and particularly the football sequences, seem very dated when viewed today. Nevertheless it is well worth watching for a classic performance by Leslie Banks as the camp Inspector Slade who seems more anxious to get back to his amateur dramatic production than to find his murderer!

In May 2006, Alf Fields, the only surviving member of the pre-war Arsenal team, recalled in a newspaper interview:

"I was also in the film, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. It was a bit corny, but they took a few shots of us having a pre-match talk, all standing around talking. Then it was our job to pretend we were playing football. We had to re-enact Esmond Knight, the villain, trying to beat about three or four of us, which was a little bit difficult really. And I had only four words to say: "Yes, he looked terrible," but I had to practise them, mind!"

When filming was complete Esmond made his way to Edinburgh and caught up with the Wilson Barrett Company in time for the first night of a play called Love From A Stranger. Barrett was delighted and relieved to see him; for five weeks he had been covering for Esmond, playing two lots of roles as well as running the company. Unfortunately, however, audiences were no better in Scotland than they had been in London and the public were staying away, preoccupied as they were with what seemed the inevitability of war. In the last week of August they put on The Middle Watch, a comedy about the Royal Navy in which Esmond played the commander of a Royal Navy ship. But the small audience that came were not amused and Esmond and Wilson decided to abandon the season altogether at the end of the week. On the Friday 1st September they heard that Germany had invaded Poland and after the final performance on the following evening, Esmond dashed from the theatre to Waverley Station to catch the night train to London. 

Next:    1939 - 1940    War

HOME