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1955 - 1960
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"Esmond Knight, This Is Your Life!"

Throughout the 1950s Esmond and Nora enjoyed a steady stream of work. They had a lovely home in Bywater Street, Chelsea, and also acquired a charming thatched country cottage in the village of Weston Turville near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where they could escape and relax at weekends, and where Esmond indulged his passion for painting in an attic that had been converted into a studio. When they first bought it, the cottage was called Queensland Cottage but Esmond had other ideas and it was soon renamed  Nora's Ark.

Whereas Nora worked steadily on stage and in occasional films, Esmond gradually attracted more television towards the end of the decade. The medium was by no means new to him - he had been involved in a number of pioneer television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace in the late 1930s.

t Bywater Street, Chelsea. Esmond and Nora lived at number 35 (the blue house on the right) from the 1940s until the 1970s. John le Carre used the street as the fictional home of spy George Smiley because, apparently, it is hard to keep a cul-de-sac under surveillance.

In 1955 Nora was invited to play the part of Hecuba in a big-budget film, Helen of Troy (1956). It was a pleasurable task as it it meant going back to Rome for filming at the Cinecitta Studios and working with a strong cast that included Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Cedric Hardwicke, Harry Andrews, plus a young Brigitte Bardot as Andraste. Esmond was involved too and in fact went to Italy alone ahead of Nora to coach Jack Sernase, who played Hecuba's son Paris, in English as he had a strong French accent.

Once the shooting started Esmond got rather bored waiting about and shadowing Jack Sernase. As chance would have it, one of the early scenes involved a High Priest making a lot of announcements, but the elderly Italian actor playing the part kept forgetting his lines. The director, Robert Wise, decided to replace him, and Nora suggested Esmond. The next morning Esmond was on the set, resplendent in a white beard, wig and robes, and word perfect with his lines.  In other scenes he had to stand at the side of Priam's throne with nothing to say, and one afternoon, after a good lunch with wine, he found it difficult to stay awake, much to the amusement of the other actors who dubbed him the "high" High Priest!

Helen of Troy has not survived the test of time the way other historical epics of the 1950s have, possibly due to the lack of Hollywood star names in key roles. Nevertheless some critics regard it as underrated with a good script, strong cast and Robert Wise's excellent direction.

Esmonds' only stage appearance in 1956 was in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, an adaptation of Herman Wouk's novel, which opened on 21st May at the Bristol Hippodrome and then transferred to the Hippodrome in London. A fellow cast member was Robert Hardy who became a close friend. In particular they shared an interest in archery and the fascination for the power of the longbow which had started for Esmond before the war.

A page from the programme of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial during its pre-West End run at the Bristol Hippodrome, May 1956. Esmond shared the stage with Lloyd Nolan, Robert Hardy, Nigel Stock and Alec McGowan.u

In the same year, Esmond came to the defence of Dr Vincent Nesfield, the surgeon who had given him sight back in his right eye. Nesfield came under criticism in the House of Commons for supposedly raising false hopes by charging £500 for eye operations to help victims of a type of blindness called retrolental fibroplasia (caused by giving new-born babies too much oxygen). Although not mentioned by name, Nesfield acknowledged that he was the subject of the criticism and denied the accusations. In a follow-up article to a report of the criticism in the Daily Express on 24th July 1956, Esmond was quoted:

"To me Vincent Nesfield is a God. He gave me back my sight when everyone else said it was impossible. It took three major operations and he would not charge a penny. He is a most remarkable man. He is unorthodox and that has got him into trouble with other doctors. I know he was struck off the Medical Register some years ago, but obviously he is able to do things which others cannot do." Esmond explained that he could not identify things at a distance: "But I can SEE. Only one man said I would see again. And he made it come true." 
It would appear that the complaints against Nesfield were not pursued any further and no doubt Esmond's comments were a contributing factor.

Laurence Olivier never seemed to be far away in Esmond's career at this time, and in 1957 they were again working together at Pinewood Studios on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's stage play The Sleeping Prince. This of course was the famous pairing of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in a light romantic comedy about an American showgirl working in a London music hall who has a brief affair with the Prince Regent of a fictitious European principality (Carpathia) at the time of the Coronation of King George V in 1911. The on-screen chemistry between Monroe and Olivier in the finished film works surprisingly well, knowing as we do now from many sources of the off-screen difficulties involved in the bringing together of a highly professional, controlled actor of Olivier's calibre (who was also director and producer) with an intuitive, disorganised and untrained actress with an entourage which included a drama coach (Paula Strasbourg), and who was a notoriously poor time keeper.

t The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) in which Esmond appeared alongside Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.

Esmond, who plays Hoffman, has with most of the other cast members since told of the great sense of control and dignity which Olivier demonstrated under what were clearly extremely stressful times acting with and directing Marilyn Monroe. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff described it as "the most dreadful experience of his (Olivier's) life." It must have been a comfort at least for him to know that the rest of the cast (and crew) were solid, reliable and able to give him what he wanted in the first or second take.

On the small screen Esmond was involved in several projects in the late 1950s. In 1957 he played Wackford Squeers in a BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, with Rosalind playing Fanny Squeers, and soon afterwards father and daughter were again cast together in The Clandestine Years which was broadcast in March 1958. As chance would have it Charles Dickens described Squeers as "one-eyed" and so Esmond, not for the last time, felt no compunction about removing his glass eye for the sake of authenticity.

On the subject of glass eyes, Esmond had many made over the years of different shapes and colours. His left eye lid had also been damaged and this made it difficult to get a perfect fit on the socket. Eventually he found a man in Kent - an ex-airman - who made him such a good one that people often thought that it was his good eye. Whenever he went away he always took a spare in case he lost the good one. Glass eyes that were no longer used also came in handy, as Nora recounted:

"I remember once I thought the maid in our hotel was eating our chocolates so I put a glass eye in one of the empty paper holders and it seemed to stop them disappearing. I expect it gave her a fright, the seeing eye!"

In February 1958 Esmond and Nora were in the audience rather than on stage at Lambeth Town Hall to see The Gift, a play by Mary Lumsden, which was being presented to help raise money to encourage the procedure of cornea grafting. At the time Esmond was President of the Eye-Will Crusade, a movement intended to raise the awareness of donating cornea for grafting. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that Esmond was hoping to play the lead in a television production of The Gift later the same year, although this doesn't seem to have come to fruition. Also present at this performance was Odette Hallowes, the wartime heroine who had worked for the French resistance and been captured and tortured by the Germans. By this time Odette was also blind and together she and Esmond subsequently made a 20 minute film with the Eton College Film Unit about a boy's problems coming to terms with blindness.

Esmond and Nora next worked together on an enjoyable project that saw them travelling to Switzerland to film their scenes for a Walt Disney production, Third Man On The Mountain (1959), working with Ken Annakin who had directed Nora as 'The Colonel's Lady' in Quartet a decade earlier.

Towards the end of the 1950s, two events occurred that took Esmond back in time to the day that changed his life - 24th May 1941, the day he was injured onboard HMS Prince of Wales. The first of these took place on 18th February 1957 when Esmond was the subject of a TV programme which is now all too familiar, but in those days was quite new - This Is Your Life.

On the set of This is Your Life - from left to right: Eamonn Andrews, Rosalind, Esmond and (seated) Nora Swinburne.u

 Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight

The man with "the red book" in those days was Eamon Andrews and for thirty minutes he talked through Esmond's life and introduced family, friends and colleagues including Balliol Halloway (actor who worked with Esmond in his early Old Vic days), Nurse Thorday (who had looked after him in hospital in Iceland), Dr Nesfield (who had restored his sight), Enid Hayworth (the matron at Nesfield's nursing home), Michael Shepley (schoolfriend and fellow actor who worked with him in the film Henry V), Michael Buxton (a shipmate from HMS Prince of Wales who survived the sinking), Rosalind and Nora. Uncle Chas could not be there - he was in Kenya and not well enough to travel, and in fact died later the same year. But he had recorded a message for Esmond in advance which was played during the programme. Earlier that day Chas had sent a telegram to Esmond's home that read, "All good wishes, I shall be speaking to you later, old boy, love Chas." Fortunately it didn't arrive until after Esmond and Nora had left home for the evening (Esmond thought he was going to the theatre), otherwise it would have given the game away.




 p Esmond with some of the guests on his This Is Your Life programme:

1 - Michael Buxton,  2 - Rosalind Knight,  3 - Enid Hayworth,  4 - Balliol Holloway,

5 - Wilson Barrett,  6 - Nurse 'Bluebird' Thorday, 7 - Vincent Nesfield,  8 - Michael Shepley,

9 - Esmond Knight,  10 - Nora Swinburne,  11 -  Sally Duncan

The final "mystery guest" was intended to be Burkard, Baron von Muellenheim-Rechberg of Wiesbaden, third gunnery officer on the German battleship Bismarck - or as Esmond scribbled in a personal note in the great scrapbook of his life, "the man who blew me to blazes." Unfortunately on the day of the show Muellenheim-Rechberg was ill and could not take part. However six months  later a Flashback programme about the making of This is Your Life was recorded and this time the surprise was belatedly sprung on Esmond and the two finally met.  Only 107 out of 2,000 men survived the sinking of Bismarck and Muellenheim-Rechberg (pictured left with Esmond after the recording of the follow up programme) was the senior surviving officer. Before the war he had been an assistant naval attache under Ribbentrop at the German embassy in London and his English was excellent, so he and Esmond were able to talk easily together about their experiences, sixteen years after they had faced each other as enemies in the Battle of Denmark Strait. When they were introduced to each other in the BBC television studio they had in fact been corresponding for some years but this was the first time they had actually met - or rather the second if you included their previous encounter in battle (as Esmond pointed out in the inscription on the above photograph sent to Muellenheim-Rechberg as a memento of their meeting). After the show they continued to talk in the green room and remained good friends for the rest of their lives.

A recording of the Flashback programme in which Esmond and Muellenheim-Rechberg eventually met can be seen on a website called Big Red Book - A Celebration of This is Your Life. The clip also explains how Uncle Chas Knight nearly scuppered the entire Esmond episode! Another has a charming interview with Rosalind Knight recalling her memories of the programme.

In a review of Esmond's This Is Your Life programme the next day, 19th February 1957, TV critic W. Stanley Moss wrote: "If you can judge a man by his friends, Esmond Knight must be a really delightful person."

The second event was the decision by Twentieth Century Fox two years later to make a film called Sink The Bismarck!, the story of Bismarck's brief maiden voyage from the point of view of all concerned including the British Navy ships, the Bismarck itself and the Admiralty in London. It was a reasonably accurate and well reconstructed account of events which of course included the Battle of Denmark Strait in which Esmond had played a part.

Sink The Bismarck!(1960) - the film directed by Lewis Gilbert that told the story of the Battle of Denmark Strait and the subsequent chase and sinking of the Bismarck, in which Esmond re-enacted scenes from his own life. u

For Esmond it was a production with an extraordinarily personal connection, for he was invited to play none other than his own commanding officer, Captain John Leach of the Prince of Wales, and he found himself on a set at Pinewood Studios re-enacting moments from his own life. As Leach he broadcast a message to the crew warning that they would soon be moving to action stations, a message he himself had heard as a crew member. As Leach he watched Hood blow up and sink before his eyes, as indeed Esmond had done in real life. Then as Leach he staggered on the wreck of the bridge immediately after the impact of the shell from Bismarck which had blinded him, surrounded by the dead and wounded (one of whom would have been Esmond himself), shouting orders to the engine room to alter course and make smoke.

Photograph: British Film Institute

p Sink the Bismarck! (1960) - Esmond portraying Captain John Leach, his own commanding

officer on board HMS Prince of Wales. In this scene the shell from Bismarck that blinded Esmond

in real life has just struck and Leach is ordering to pull away from the battle and make smoke.

 

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