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1951 - 1955
Back to: 1948 -1951  Stratford, Church Stretton and the Real India
"Dickie Three Eyes"
1951 ended with Esmond working for Michael Powell again, but unusually on stage rather than screen. Powell's venture into theatrical production was short lived and not hugely successful. Helois, in which Esmond played Hugo, a servant to Abelard, opened on 22nd October 1951 and also played at the Golders Green Hippodrome before transferring to the Duke of York's Theatre in London for a brief run. Actor / director Nigel Green was in the cast too and it was he who directed Esmond in April of the following year in Montserrat, a play by Lillian Hellman. The leading role in Montserrat was played by Richard Burton (below) , at a time when he was just starting to break into major film roles having "trodden the boards" for eight years.

The cast spent a week performing at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge prior to full production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. A newspaper article at the time suggested that the production remained "out of town" run (by which it meant Hammersmith as well as Cambridge) as this was necessary to answer the question: "is it too grim for the glossy West End?  ....Miss Hellman's story, adapted from the French of Emanuel Robies, tells of one Captain Monserrat, a Spanish officer appalled by the pillage and terror caused by his own army in Venezuela. Monserrat turns traitor and subsequently assists revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar to bring his people liberty. The play is extremely harrowing and relentless in its horror. Its death and on-stage beatings make this an 'x-certificate' play. 'Streetcar' seems subdued by comparison. It boasts three outsized performances by Richard Burton, Noel Willman and Esmond Knight."


p A programme from the week

long run of Montserrat, Cambridge

Arts Theatre 1952, with Richard

Burton (above left) in the lead role.

Work on two films, Arrow to the Heart and Girdle of God, was then followed in the autumn of 1952 by a theatrical season in a most unusual location - the island of Bermuda. Esmond and Nora travelled there to perform at the Bermuda Festival which ran from 27th September to 1st December at the newly built Bermudiana Theatre in Hamilton. Esmond was rather thankful that he was still around to make the trip - on 6th September he had been at the Farnborough Air Show when a jet fighter disintegrated and fell into the crowd, killing 31 people (including the pilot, John Derry) and injuring many more. He was unharmed but it was a shocking experience.

The Bermuda Festival, which included concerts and an exhibition of Cecil Beaton's designs and photography as well as stage productions, was organised by the Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society which divided the year into an American and an English season (the American company that year had included Burgess Meredith). Nora and Esmond featured in five plays: Travellers' Joy, Ring Around the Moon, Family Reunion, The Magistrate and Miranda. Also in the small cast was Eric Berry, another Michael Powell regular who had appeared with Esmond in Contraband and The Red Shoes.

The trip to Bermuda was sponsored by 'Moral Re-Armament' (MRA), an inter-denominational movement founded by the Christian evangelist Frank N D Buchman in 1938. Nora had been interested in MRA since the early 1940s when she found their philosophies helpful in not giving up hope that Esmond might regain his sight. Their teachings, which developed from Buchman's earlier work with the Oxford Group, were based on 'Four Absolutes' - honesty, purity, unselfishness, love - and the belief that personal change can lead to social change. Buchman himself put it thus: "Human nature can be changed. That is the root of the answer. National economies can be changed. That is the fruit of the answer. World history can be changed. That is the destiny of our age."
p Frank N D Buchman - founder of the Moral Re-Armament movement.
The idea of encouraging moral and spiritual reconstruction to build a "hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world" was popular in a post-war world. MRA was very much associated with the man and interest began to fade after Buchman's death in 1961, although its influence is very much alive in contemporary movements such as Initiatives of Change (IofC). Nora's association with MRA continued for many years whereas Esmond's interest did not extend beyond working professionally for them once in a while - his religious beliefs wavered somewhere between atheist and agnostic.
On 29th July 1953 a new radio sitcom was introduced by the BBC, A Life of Bliss, starring George Cole as awkward, bumbling bachelor David Bliss. Esmond and Nora were both cast members in the early episodes, playing a married couple, Robert and Pamela Batten, with Rosalind making an appearance in a 1954 as Marie. Recording sessions took place at the Playhouse Theatre in Villiers Street and by all accounts they could often be something of a nightmare. The writer of the series, Geoffrey Harrison, was frequently late completing his scripts, to the extent that he would be still typing them at the recording sessions while Percy Edwards (the "bark" of Psyche the dog in the series) entertained the studio audience with his animal impressions. This caused particular problems for Esmond as he could not see to read the script, so Nora had to teach him his lines very quickly, more or less during the recording. It was extremely nerve wracking and they soon had to give it up and leave the cast. Incredibly under such circumstances the series ran for 118 episodes and transferred to television in the early 1960s.
p George Cole as David Bliss and Petula Clark as Penny Gay at the microphone recording the radio sitcom A Life of Bliss. In early episodes Nora Swinburne played Bliss's sister and Esmond his brother-in-law. Their parts were taken over by Diana Churchill and Colin Gordon.
At about this time Esmond was involved in the production of a film about the Black Prince called The Dark Avenger which was eventually released in 1955 and starred Errol Flynn and Peter Finch. His role was to provide some of the dialogue and also to coach actress Joanne Dru to improve her English accent. He found the task rather dull and no doubt would have been happier acting in it. This project also coincided with his being involved in a car accident.  He was travelling in a taxi which was involved in a collision and Esmond sustained a nasty blow to the face which split his lip almost to the nose and involved some very painful stitching that had to be performed without anaesthetic. When he had suitably recovered he went the USA with Maureen Stapleton to appear with Lee J Cobb in The Emperor's New Clothes, initially in Detroit and then in New York at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. It was not a success and the brief run ended abruptly with the matter-of-fact words of the production's accountant: "We close Saturday".
In 1954 Laurence Olivier was preparing to bring a third Shakespeare play to the cinema screen. Ten years earlier he had mesmerised London theatre audiences with his performance in the title role of Richard III at the Old Vic when he returned there after finishing the film of Henry V. Noel Coward was in audience for the first night and wrote: "I think the greatest male performance I have seen in the theatre .... He is far and away the greatest actor we have." Michael Powell was there too: "Ah! What a night that was. I thought we would never stop clapping." Now Olivier was to record permanently on celluloid his legendary interpretation of the Duke of Gloucester, the evil, disfigured hunchback who becomes king and he called upon Esmond to join the cast. Esmond had himself appeared in "Dickie Three Eyes" as the Marquis of Dorset. back in the 1920s at the Old Vic. But now Olivier asked him to join the cast of his film version in the more substantial role of Sir Richard Ratcliffe.
  p As Sir Richard Ratcliffe in Richard III (1955)
Thus Esmond became one of only three actors to appear in all three of Olivier's Shakespeare films, the others being John Laurie and Russell Thorndike. As usual the cast was stunning and included Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedrick Hardwick, Claire Bloom and Stanley Baker.  Shooting began in September 1954 in Spain, with a bull farm outside Madrid as the location for the Battle of Bosworth, and it wasn't until some weeks later that Esmond was required at Shepperton Studios to film his scenes as Sir Richard Ratcliffe. In some scenes he had the additional pleasure of working with Rosalind who, aged 21, appeared as a lady-in-waiting in her first, uncredited, film appearance.
Olivier's performance in Richard III is legendary and captured for posterity a role he had perfected on stage, with its innate sense of evil and ability to draw the audience into his sinister mind. The physical changes too were extraordinary, although the limp which Esmond and Rosalind observed on set was not entirely artificial; a misguided arrow during filming in Spain had embedded itself in Olivier's calf.  Richard III was equally as successful as Henry V and Hamlet had been and once again brought a new and infinitely larger audience close to the work of William Shakespeare. When the film was first screened on television in the USA by NBC simultaneously in forty-five states, on 11th March 1956, it was watched by an estimated audience of 62 million - more people than had seen the play in theatres in England since it was first performed in 1592.

t Father and daughter at Shepperton Studios

     during the filming of Richard III (1955).

Next:  1955 - 1960  "Esmond Knight, This Is Your Life"
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