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

Peeping Tom and the Sixties

The 1960s began for Esmond in controversy with his involvement in a film that created an uproar when it was first released - Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Critics did not hold back their feelings: "the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing," said one; "thoroughly nasty" said another. C.A. Lejeune wrote: "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom."  It seems tame nowadays in comparison to what has gone on since and, ironically, the critics (including some of those who slated it when it was first released) hail it as a "masterpiece", a "supreme achievement in British horror cinema". The story, of a focus-puller (Mark Lewis) working in a film studio who by night sadistically murders women with a sharpened tripod and films their terrified faces as they die, was scripted by Leo Marks and was certainly strong stuff for the time. It was released several months before even the release of Hitchcock's Psycho and the furore it generated effectively did for Michael Powell's career.

Esmond's contribution was to play Arthur Baden, a director whose film Mark Lewis works on by day. On set Baden desperately tries to coax a believable performance out of a glamorous but wooden actress (Shirley Anne Field), becoming more and more frustrated as she fails to deliver. It's a comic sideshow to the real plot and a classic example of Esmond's work - a relatively small yet larger-than-life and memorable role. Inevitably after such a critical mauling, Peeping Tom sank without trace for many years .... until the late 1970s when Michael Scorsese, and others, recognised that beneath the superficial layer of a lurid thriller was a sophisticated study of voyeurism and the emotional complexities caused by filming and being filmed. Famously, Dilys Powell, the cinema critic for The Sunday Times who had described Peeping Tom as "essentially vicious" in 1960, later said that when she died and went to heaven, the first thing she would do was apologise to Michael Powell.
p As Arthur Baden, with Shirley Ann Field in the infamous Peeping Tom (1960).  
Whether tarred with the same brush as Powell or by sheer coincidence, Esmond's film work dwindled for a number years after Peeping Tom. But he was busy elsewhere with television providing a steady stream of work and some interesting roles. In 1961 he featured with a young Julie Christie in the BBC's A For Andromeda, a remarkably advanced sci-fi story for its day, in which an alien transmission results in the building of a supercomputer, a genetic experiment, and the subsequent cloning of a female technician (Christie) with an alien mentality.

t As Professor Reinhart in the BBC's 1961 science fiction series A For Andromeda.

Julie Christie who played the female technician, cloned and renamed Andromeda.u

The power of the story was largely due to the fact that it was written by Sir Fred Hoyle, a renown astronomer regarded as one of the most creative scientists of the 20th century, who added technical accuracy and authenticity to the storyline.  The series of seven episodes were broadcast during October and November 1961. It was hugely popular with 13 million people watching the final episode. The story was told in flashback, each episode beginning with Esmond, as Professor Reinhardt, recalling the main events. Reinhardt is the astronomer managing the team of scientists who build the supercomputer. The series was so successful that a sequel followed the next year, The Andromeda Breakthrough, although neither Esmond nor Julie Christie was involved (Christie was unavailable and replaced by Susan Hampshire). Until recently nearly all of A for Andromeda was thought to have been lost, with only a few brief clips and telesnaps (photographs of the TV screen) remaining. But in 2006 a complete episode (The Face of the Tiger - Episode 6) was returned to the BBC who have subsequently released a DVD of this, plus the remaining fragments, and the whole of The Andromeda Breakthrough.

In the same year Esmond appeared in episode 20 (titled Vacation) of the series Danger Man with Patrick Magoohan. He played Arthur Baron, an extremely wealthy businessman who appears to be the target of a contract killer.  As in so many of his roles, he convincingly portrays a perfectly sighted character, in this case a crack shot who handles a rifle and moves around the set without the slightest indication that every move has been thoroughly choreographed.

On stage, 1961 saw Esmond equally busy, playing along side Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg in The Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Plummer, Eric Porter and Gwen Ffrangcon Davies in Becket, Vanessa Redgrave again in The Lady From The Sea, and Trevor Howard in Two Stars For Comfort. The following year he returned to where it all started for him - as a member of the Old Vic Company for the 1962-3 season with Leo McKern, Charles Gray, Russell Hunter and Adrienne Corri. The Artistic Director was Esmond's son-in-law, Michael Elliott.  As circumstances would have it, this turned out to be the last season for the Old Vic Company and they gave their final performance, Measure For Measure, on 15th June 1963 with Esmond in the role of Pompey. The Old Vic then became the home of the newly formed National Theatre Company under the direction of Laurence Olivier, pending construction of the purpose built theatre on the South Bank.

The Old Vic photographed in 1963 when Esmond was a member of the company there. p

 Picture courtesy of Rob Wilton 


p Measure for Measure was the Old Vic's last production before the new National Theatre Company took over residence. Esmond played Pompey.

Plans for a National Theatre had been voiced as far back as 1848, and almost a century later, on the last page of his 1943 autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, Esmond himself had added his support for the idea: 

"In this new, shall we say National Theatre, let us have new ideas, new actors, new producers, new plays." 

As it turned out his prophetic words were in line with Olivier's own thinking and this indeed is what came to be. Ironically the "new actors", in Olivier's vision of the future, did not include Esmond. He was one of a number of past colleagues who offered their services to Olivier but were politely refused. A few big names, no more, were all he needed to launch the theatre and beyond that he planned to build an entirely new company with a new generation of actors. "It was so hurtful," Esmond later admitted to Anthony Holden, Olivier's biographer, "that I wished I had never asked him in the first place."  He was not alone in feeling this way, however; there was no Ralph Richardson in the new company, no John Gielgud, and no John Laurie. Eventually The National Theatre Company gave its first performance, Hamlet, on 22nd October 1963 with Peter O'Toole in the leading role and a cast which included Michael Redgrave, Diana Wynyard and Max Adrian.

During the late 1950s early 1960s, the quality of Esmond's sight was at its peak.  In a 1958 newspaper interview, Nora told reporter Anthony Wigens that Esmond often cycled in the country around their weekend cottage, was painting quite prolifically in water-colours and oils and regularly went to the theatre and cinema, sitting in the first or second row.  "And if you saw him crossing a busy street," she said, "you wouldn't know there was anything wrong with him."  He astounded Rosalind on occasions too.  She recalls walking through Chelsea one morning and seeing Esmond on the other side of the street. She was in a hurry and so carried on walking. He called out: "Rose, is that you?" -  which astonished her, considering the distance between them. Unfortunately as the 1960s progressed the quality of his sight began to wane.  Esmond again consulted Vincent Nesfield who put it down to old age, but in fact it was glaucoma and the misdiagnosis had unfortunate consequences, as it delayed essential treatment for some years.  When the glaucoma was identified in the early 1970s, he was able to take pills and eye drops to keep the pressure down in an effort "to hang on to the vision I do have", as he himself put it. But by then the damage had been done and the limited and highly precious sight deteriorated more rapidly as a result.
Meanwhile Esmond appeared in several television plays - notably To Bury Caesar in which he again affected an accent, which he had long ago mastered, to play Springwood, a sleazy Welsh tabloid journalist. He then accepted an invitation to join the Mermaid Theatre Company for its 1964-65 season and worked on a very varied programme ranging from Oedipus Rex to Dandy Dick, by way of a new musical - Four Thousand Brass Halfpennies.  In Dandy Dick Esmond was revisiting a piece he had filmed with Will Hay thirty years before.
On stage at the Mermaid in 1965 with Sonia Dresdel in Dandy Dick. p

During his time at the Mermaid, Esmond spent several days at Shepperton Studios filming yet another of his brief but memorable screen appearances, this time in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, based on John le Carre's superb cold war spy novel.  He plays the eldest of three judges presiding over a tribunal in East Germany that sits in closed session to determine whether or not its chief spymaster, Mundt, is a double agent. Wearing a neatly cut suit and steel-rimmed glasses, Esmond walks into the court room, takes his place and for the most part sits silently listening to the proceedings.  He is passive, yet his manner is extremely authoritative, like an older and mute version of von Schiffer, the character he portrayed in The Silver Fleet in 1943.  When he speaks his only line - "If there is communication between the two witnesses, the prisoner Leamas will be taken out and dealt with" - there is real danger and menace in his tone and delivery.

t As one of the three tribunal judges in John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). Esmond speaks one chilling line.

Photograph courtesy of the British Film Institute

The whole cast of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is excellent, including minor characters played by Robert Hardy, Michael Hordern and Rupert Davies as George Smiley (who supposedly lives in a house in Bywater Street, Chelsea - opposite Esmond's home in real life). Richard Burton, as Leamas, a burnt-out, embittered agent bordering on alcoholism, gives arguably his finest screen performance.  He and Esmond had worked together before, on stage in Montserrat in 1952, and there were other old colleagues on set with whom he had worked at various times - Claire Bloom (1948 Stratford season), Cyril Cusack (Gone To Earth) and Robert Hardy (The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial).

At the 1966 Edinburgh Festival Esmond appeared in two plays staged by Pop Theatre - Winter's Tale and The Trojan Women, and in the latter he received high critical praise for his performance as "the pompous, bone-headed soldier Menelaus". Conditions at The Assembly Hall were not easy even for fully sighted actors with cramped, make-shift dressing rooms, a route march to the open stage in the main hall, and entrances to be made along dark, sloping aisles through the audience. Nevertheless, In an interview with journalist Mamie Chrichton published in the Scottish Daily Press, Esmond made it clear that he expected no special favours:

...... Few of the large audiences know that Esmond Knight needs a sixth sense to his colleagues' five, and that's the way he wants it to be.

"I must be judged solely by my performance as an actor," he said calmly. "After 23 years of near-blindness, I've developed my own ways of remembering moves. Counting steps, watching shadows, so that it becomes subconscious and all my concentration can be given to the performance."

......Now he puts on his own make-up. On stage he wears no visual aid. Offstage he wears glasses with a thick lens over his seeing eye.

"With my glasses on I can see you," he said. But I have no idea what you look like. Without them I would be aware only of a vague shadow. Fortunately acting is a job you rehearse. In London, before coming to Edinburgh, they marked out a space exactly the size of the Assembly Hall stage. It wasn't too difficult adapting to the real thing."

Minutes before I had seen Moira Redmond take him by the hand, laughing and chatting as she set him on his way round the corners and down the steps from the dressing rooms. It was as easy and natural as passing the sugar, and accepted in the same spirit.

It hasn't been quite so easy for the ladies of the company to be composed over their souvenirs of this Festival season - small, framed paintings, mostly lively seascapes, painted and given by Esmond Knight!

The late 1960s saw Esmond working, but not as hard as he would have liked.  A mild heart attack, gradually deteriorating sight and turning sixty in 1966 all conspired gradually to slow him down whether he was happy about it or not. In a Christmas card to some friends dated December 1967, featuring a painting of his on the front, he wrote: "It does not promise very well for us, at the moment. However, one day, I'll get to see you again."  The heart attack occurred at Nora's Ark, their weekend cottage in Weston Turville, Buckinghamshire. Esmond was taken back to Bywater Street and ordered to rest - to stay in his study and not to go up and downstairs. It was a great shock to him and he did everything he was told, to the extent that he made a full recovery.

But it was a warning, and from then onwards he had to pace himself. On one occasion, Rosalind was walking with her father and Sally Duncan, a nurse from Vincent Nesfield's nursing home who had helped Esmond to recuperate after his eye operations. Over the years Sally had become a good friend of the Knights and when she married and moved to the north of England she became a regular in the audience at the Royal Exchange Theatre, especially if Esmond, Rosalind or Nora were on stage. They were walking one weekend in Lime Park in Derbyshire and Esmond complained that his heart beat was racing. Sally immediately insisted that they slow their pace, and from then onwards all seemed well.

Things were not entirely grim and Esmond continued to be involved in major productions. That same year he appeared on stage in Bernard Shaw's Getting Married at the Strand Theatre in the West End, with a strong cast that included Ian Carmichael, Googie Withers, Moira Lister, Alec Clunes, Roland Culver and Raymond Huntley.

Dr Who The Space PiratesOn the small screen he made appearances in a number of popular series - Danger Man, Z Cars, The Troubleshooters, The Champions and a number of BBC plays for series such as Thirty Minute Theatre and The Wednesday Play. In 1969 he featured in Dr Who at the time when Patrick Troughton (pictured right) played the time-travelling main character. The story was called The Space Pirates and Esmond played Dom Issigri, an old prisoner whom the doctor meets when captured by the pirates. Although much of this particular series was wiped by the BBC, Esmond's performance was not lost entirely; the soundtrack exists and was released in 2003 as part of the BBC Radio Collection.

In 1969 Esmond made appearances in two major film productions.  The first was as a blind ballad singer in Where's Jack?, directed by James Clavell, a story of highwaymen in 18th century England starring Tommy Steele as the main character, Jack Shepard, and a cast which included Stanley Baker, Sue Lloyd and Alan Badel. The film was made at Ardmore Studios in Ireland and Nora travelled there with Esmond to watch the production unfold. It was a pleasurable experience for both, with Esmond working and making money and Nora resting and enjoying a holiday in a country that she quickly fell in love with. They discovered a restaurant in Dublin called Othello's which became a favourite, especially after their first visit when a caring waiter endeared himself to Esmond by telling him that he had put his mustard "at twelve o' clock"! The second film was Anne of the Thousand Days with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold playing out Maxwell Anderson's telling of the love affair between Henry VIII and 'bold spirited' Anne Boleyn.

t Nora and Esmond played husband and wife, the Kingstons, who cared for Ann Boleyn during her incarceration in the Tower of London in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).

Esmond and Nora appear together as Kingston and Lady Kingston, the husband and wife whose sombre function it is to keep Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London and ultimately to administer her execution.  Although Nora continued to work on stage and television, Anne of the Thousand Days  was her penultimate screen appearance. Her final role was less weighty, namely with Frankie Howard in a screen version of the television comedy series Up The Chastity Belt (1971)!

1969 was also a busy year for Esmond on stage. At the Greenwich Theatre he appeared in two productions, Spithead and Martin Luther King, the latter a play with music featuring Nina Baden-Semper and Derek Griffiths. Then at the Hamstead Theatre Club he appeared with Eric Thompson (father of Emma Thompson) in The Black Swan Winter. In a review in the magazine Plays and Players (July 1969), critic Robert Cushman wrote: "Eric Thompson supplies the hero with all the wistful charm his author has wished on him, Margery Mason adds another to her individualised line of ineffectual mothers, and Esmond Knight's stumpy talent, too often expended on sub-Dickensian grotesques, is marvellously matched to the father."

p The Sunday lunch scene from The Black Swan Winter

which opened at the Hampstead Theatre Club on 5th May 1969.

Left to right: Eric Thompson, Veronica Hurst,

Margery Mason, Esmond Knight.

At about the same time as Anne of the Thousand Days was first showing in cinemas, Esmond took a trip to Eastbourne for a performance of a very different kind.  He had been invited by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to preside over the naming ceremony of a brand new lifeboat - the Vincent Nesfield.

A third of the cost of the boat had been raised by Mrs Joyce Giddins, an Eastbourne resident whose life had been saved forty years earlier by the same surgeon who had restored the sight in Esmond's right eye. Nesfield, aged 89, was also at the naming ceremony on Eastbourne beach on 9th April 1969.

t A press photograph of the naming ceremony for the RNLI lifeboat Vincent Nesfield, performed by Esmond on Eastbourne beach on 9th April 1969 in the presence of Vincent Nesfield himself, who was then in his 90th year. Photograph courtesy of The Times

The Vincent Nesfield was a 37ft 'Oakley' class self-righter. She was built in 1968 in Littlehampton at a cost of £38,000 and was first shown publicly at the International Boat Show at Earls Court in January 1969. This particular boat became a member of the RNLI's Reserve Fleet and, rather than stationed permanently in one location, she moved around the coast of Britain covering for stations which were temporarily without their own boat.

One of her service calls took place on 19th December 1981 when she tried to rescue the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, Solomon Browne, which had got into difficulties helping a 1,400 coaster, Union Star, off the Cornish coast. In atrocious conditions, the eight-man crew of Solomon Browne managed to rescue four men, despite their lifeboat being lifted twice onto the deck of the Union Star, before encountering problems themselves. Vincent Nesfield, stationed at Sennen Cove, was launched but unable to round Land's End to reach the other two boats.  She was launched a second time and joined other rescue craft, but too late to save the crews of the Solomon Browne and Union Star who all perished.

A postcard of RNLR Vincent Nesfield and her crew when she was stationed at Llandudno - date unknown.u

The average lifespan of a lifeboat is approximately 20 years and they cannot be resold once withdrawn from service, so the Vincent Nesfield was eventually broken up in Arklow in December 1991. She left behind her an impressive track record. During her period of active service she answered 98 service calls and was responsible for saving 39 lives.


p September 1961 and the front cover of the Radio Times advertises

the BBC's forthcoming new science fiction serial - A For Andromeda.

Clockwise from the left: Esmond, Peter Halliday, Julie Christie, Mary Morris.

The image was subsequently used in 2006 by the BBC on the cover of the

DVD of what remains of A for Andromeda and the whole of the sequel,

The Andromeda Breakthrough.q

 

Next:  1970 - 1979  A One Man Triumph
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