1946 - 1948
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One Success After Another
There now began one of the busiest and most fruitful periods of Esmond Knight's career. In the next two years (1946-7) he worked on no less than seven films. Nor were these run-of-the-mill projects; two were Powell and Pressburger masterpieces and the third another superb Laurence Olivier adaptation of Shakespeare following in the wake of Henry V, a film which was to become the first ever foreign production to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The first of these was Powell and Pressburger's adaptation of the Rumer Godden novel about Anglo-Catholic nuns struggling to run a school and hospital high up in the Himalayas - Black Narcissus (1947).

Esmond's appearance in Black Narcissus is brief but as characterful as ever as The Old General, the man who invites the nuns to live and work in his former "house of women". Thus his character is the catalyst that brings together the ingredients for what has frequently been described as one of the most erotic films ever produced in a British film studio. With the exception of a few jungle scenes filmed in a tropical garden in Sussex and a brief flashback sequence in Ireland, the entire convent and Himalayan backdrop was recreated at Pinewood Studios by Powell and his crew, notably photographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge (both of whom won Oscars for their work) and costume designer Hein Hockreth (who had recently worked with Esmond and Wilson Barrett's company at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith).

p As The Old General - a publicity still from Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947).

To Esmond's left is May Hallat as Angu Ayah and to the right David Farrar as Mr Dean.

So it was in Buckinghamshire rather than India that Esmond filmed his scenes, joined for some of the time by Rosalind when she was at home during the school holidays. They travelled up to Pinewood together, then Rosalind would take his arm and guide him on and off the set as and when he was needed. Some observers find the stop-start process of filming very tedious and dull, but Rosalind enjoyed it immensely and loved every minute. Nor was she intimidated by Michael Powell's often overpowering personality!

The same year Esmond featured in two other films with Black Narcissus co-stars - Sabu in The End Of The River (also produced by The Archers) directed by Derek Twist and Jean Simmons in Uncle Silas. His fourth film of 1947 was the eminently forgettable The Likes of 'Er.

Of his three films released in 1948, Holiday Camp was the least significant for Esmond, who played the camp announcer; however, it did introduce to the world the Huggett family who featured in several other films and a successful and long running radio series in the 1950s.

A poster for The End of the River (1947).u

The film was directed by Ken Annakin who the following year would direct Nora Swinburne in one of her most memorable screen roles, that of Mrs Peregrine, in The Colonel's Lady, one of the four Somerset Maugham short stories that comprise the film Quartet.

Then Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger invited Esmond to play the part of Livingstone ("Livy") Montague in probably their best known film, The Red Shoes (1948). The story combines the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of that name with a love triangle based around a contemporary ballet company led by the highly charismatic character Boris Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook). Livy is the company's orchestral conductor and although incidental to the central storyline, Esmond's role is at certain moments very centre stage and includes conducting a full orchestra on several occasions. Rosalind was again at hand to guide him around the sets at Pinewood, and this time Esmond was also required to go on location, to the South of France. His co-stars included Robert Helpmann, with whom Esmond had worked before on stage in The Insect Play (Playhouse Theatre, 1938), and of course Moira Shearer whose husband-to-be, Ludovic Kennedy, had been in the Royal Navy and, on board HMS Tartar, involved in the eventual sinking of the Bismarck. In the 1970s Kennedy would interview Esmond about his experiences on HMS Prince of Wales for his book Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck and for a television documentary film, Battleship Bismarck.
Despite J. Arthur Rank's initial lack of enthusiasm for the film that Powell and Pressburger presented him with - he walked out of the premier and cancelled its showing in his cinema chain - The Red Shoes gradually developed a cult status and remains the definitive ballet film. It also remains one of Esmond's most high profile performances; tens of thousands of people who may not know his name will be familiar with the rather aloof conductor in The Red Shoes who at first treats the young composer in a very off-hand way but is won over by his music.

Whilst The Red Shoes was in production at Pinewood Studios, Laurence Olivier was putting together the cast for his film version of Hamlet to be shot at Denham Studios, and in so doing recalled several actors who had appeared with him in Henry V four years earlier - Russell Thorndike, John Laurie, Niall MacGinnis, Felix Aylmer and Esmond Knight. He also called upon new talent such as Jean Simmons to play Ophelia; Olivier had been impressed with her in David Lean's film of Great Expectations and recognised the extraordinary screen presence which had also won her the part of Kanchi in Black Narcissus.                                               Picture courtesy of the British Film Institute

A production still taken on the set of the Powell / Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948),

including  Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Anton Walbrook, Esmond and Leonide Massine. p

As Bernardo, one of the captains of the guard who report sightings of the ghost of Hamlet's father, Esmond's appearance and dialogue open the film, and when the body count reaches its climax several hours later, he is there at the end shouldering Hamlet's lifeless body. Despite numerous criticisms, such as liberties taken with Shakespeare's text (200 lines were cut from the play), the use of deep-focus photography and that at forty Olivier was a little old for the leading role, Hamlet was a huge success, winning prizes at all major film festivals. It was the first foreign film to win Hollywood's Oscar for Best Picture and the first British film to win four Oscars, the others being Best Actor for Olivier, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. In London it ran for six months in the West End, and with his hair still bleached blonde for the part, Olivier went to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood from King George VI.
p A studio portrait of Esmond taken in 1948 at a time when his career was thriving. On screen he could be seen in The Red Shoes and Hamlet, and on stage he was about to join the Royal Shakespeare Company for a season with an extraordinary company. It was also the year he took up painting.

Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight

A publicity still for Uncle Silas (1948) - in character as Dr Bryerly

Next: 1948 - 1951  Stratford, Church Stretton and the Real India