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1970 - 1979
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A One Man Triumph
In the 1970s Esmond featured in a number of highly acclaimed television productions, notably historical dramas, and mainly for the BBC.  In 1971 he appeared with Sir Ralph Richardson in She Stoops To Conquer, directed by Michael Elliott.  Richardson was at his eccentric best.  During one scene they were seated together at a table; the set was lit by a large number of candles and the molten wax from them dripped everywhere.  In a bored moment between takes, Richardson picked a bit up and ate it. Turning to Esmond he said: "Would you like to try some candle grease? It's awfully good!" 

The same year Esmond  appeared in the second of six episodes of Elizabeth R, the memorable series which followed hot on the heels of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Glenda Jackson gave a remarkable performance as Elizabeth I, spanning her  entire reign and ageing 45 years in the process. Esmond's episode, The Marriage Game, in which he plays the Bishop de Quadra, deals with the complex and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to provide a suitable husband for the Virgin Queen. 

t Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R.

At the forefront of the cast, playing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was Esmond's friend Robert Hardy.  They had long shared an interest in archery and it was the topic of many conversations between the two men. Their talks sowed the seeds of a project which would soon come to fruition for Esmond - presenting a staged account of the Battle of Agincourt from the point of view of one of the archers, perhaps as a one-man show.  But for the time being it remained just an idea.

Since the critical mauling of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell had struggled to maintain a career of any kind in the film industry and during the 1960s he had found work mostly in Australia, where he directed They're A Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969).  In 1972, however, he and Emeric Pressburger joined forces again to make a film financed by the Children's Film Foundation, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a story of a schoolboy who loses his pet mouse during a visit to the Tower of London. Having fallen asleep in a lesson at school, the boy is sent home but mysteriously turns yellow on the underground journey. Esmond plays the doctor who examines him and gives assurance that there is nothing seriously wrong with him. Esmond was one of the few Powell and Pressburger 'regulars' involved in the production (this was his 11th film for Powell), the other most notably being cinematographer Christopher Challis.  It was a good piece of work in its own right and won the 'Chiffy' award - best Children's Film Fountation production - two years running. Unfortunately it did little to restore Powell's reputation and apart from a documentary about the making of one of his earlier films, Return to the Edge of the World (1978), this was to be the last film he directed. His reputation remained tainted for some years to come and the tide did not turn for Powell until Martin Scorcese and other admiring American film directors raised the profile of his work and restored his reputation as one of Britain's finest directors.


p The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) - Esmond's 11th and final film for Michael Powell.
The same colour featured in Esmond's next film, Yellow Dog (1973), in which he again worked with Robert Hardy. No doubt archery and Agincourt were topics of conversation between takes once more, and they remained in the forefront of Esmond's mind when he went up to Manchester later the same year to appear as Dr Warburton in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion with Edward Fox, Joanna David and Nora at the Royal Exchange Theatre, under the direction of Michael Elliott. At that time the Royal Exchange organised a series of late night shows after the main performance of the evening as part of the Manchester Festival. People could stay on, have supper and a drink and enjoy some further entertainment from artists such as Gerald Harper, Eleanor Bron, Frank Muir and Edward Fox. Esmond was invited by James Maxwell (who had been in the Old Vic company with him in the early 1960s) to take part but he said that he had no party pieces to offer. Maxwell told him to go away and give it some serious thought as he was booking him to perform whatever it was in October - Esmond had just six weeks to come up with something!

Agincourt - The Archer's Tale was a huge success. Rosalind Knight was present at the first performance on 23rd October 1973 and with the rest of the audience she was spellbound by Esmond's extraordinarily evocative narrative and delivery. Drawing on various historical sources, including ballads and contemporary accounts, he told his tale from the point of view of a Wiltshire farmer who leaves his home in the year 1415 to follow his King to France where, as part of a small, depleted army he helped to fight and win a battle in a muddy field near Agincourt against hugely superior French forces.  The victory was even the more impressive considering the condition of the men by the time they reached Agincourt - half-starving, cold, wet and mostly suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery. The archers' prowess with a longbow made a major contribution to the victory, with a killing range of 200 yards or more, and a firing rate of up to four dozen arrows a minute. At close range, arrows could pierce the best armour and an arrow storm was capable of driving back the most determined opposition.

t In character for Agincourt - The Archer's Tale, which Esmond researched, wrote and performed.

Picture courtesy of St Dunstans.

For his performance Esmond dressed authentically and carried a specially constructed longbow, taller than him by more than a foot.  Such was the success of the show that Esmond was invited to repeat his performance many times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially he toured the north-west of England giving performances in schools, civic halls and theatres. In November alone he appeared in Audenshaw, Stockport, Delph, Altringham, Bury and Hyde.

In October 1974 a shortened version, under the title Our King Went Forth to Normandy, was given on BBC Radio, and in August 1978 he gave four more performances at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park. The summer before he had also appeared at the Open Air Theatre as the Chorus in Henry V with the New Shakespeare Company, returning there 38 years after playing Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream as he waited for his call up into the Royal Navy.

Despite the deterioration of his already limited eyesight, Esmond continued to work regularly. In 1974 he appeared in A Fall of Eagles, an ambitious drama about the fall of three European dynasties - the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns - with a magnificent cast including Michael Aldridge, Pamela Brown, Barry Foster, Marius Goring, Curd Jurgens, Patrick Stewart ... and Nora Swinburne! During the production he was interviewed by the St Dunstan's Review in which he gave an insight into the particular technical problems he sometimes encountered:

"I always hope that on the set there are going to be one or two light-houses or beacons as I call them.  The property man is very important to me.  They often say, 'Is there anything I can do, Esmond, to make this a bit easier for you?'  I had to do a bit in a thing which was shown on T.V. last Saturday. I was an old general in a wheelchair. I had to turn my chair and wheel across the set missing a table or two on the way to get to where my crutches were leaning.  When I turned my chair round I couldn't see anything at all.  It was an absolute blank.  So I said to the director, 'Would you mind if I asked Jimmy, the props, to put a beacon somehow on that table?'  So we got a newspaper, the end of which hung over the edge of the table, and there happened to be a light which just caught it and that was a lovely beacon.  I could go straight towards it.

"In Fall of Eagles I am playing the part of a Russian General. We have to stop the old Czar's train and I have to get on board to tell him that the delegates of the Duma have requested him to resign.  We shot this in a period railway carriage on the flats of Norfolk, but there again I had a very strong light pointing in my eyes.  They had to give me an eye line every time. The Czar was sitting down and I was inclined to be looking there and they'd say, 'No, it's here, Esmond.'  Then, when he gets up, he's not here but he's there and the camera was there, you see, and you've got to be very tricky.  You must never look smack into the lens of the camera - it immediately spoils the illusion.  But all the time people are nice enough to employ me and take that little extra bit of trouble."    (Reproduced courtesy of St Dunstans)

Whilst Esmond was happy to continue working for as long as anyone would employ him as an actor, Nora decided it was time for her to retire, initially after the run of The Family Reunion in Manchester, although she was persuaded by Michael Elliott to postpone the decision until 1975 as he wanted her for another production in Manchester. Thus her swan song was with Esmond in another T.S. Eliot play  - The Cocktail Party - and this time the venue was Manchester Cathedral. Nora later wrote: "I thought to end up in a Cathedral, in the round, in an Eliot play, was a lovely way to go out."

t Cranmer Court, Chelsea. Esmond and Nora moved there from Bywater Street in the mid-1970s.u

Soon after returning to London both Esmond and Nora were struck down with a bad bout of 'flu. Struggling up and down the three flights of stairs in their Bywater Street house was a real ordeal, and it was this that made them decide to look for a more manageable property. It had to be in Chelsea as Esmond knew it so well and could find his way around safely.  They were fortunate enough to find a light, spacious and moderately sized flat in Cranmer Court, a large complex in Whiteheads Grove overlooking Sloane Avenue. Number 53 Cranmer Court remained their new home and it remained so for the rest of their lives.

In 1976 Esmond appeared in an even more spectacular period production, "I, Claudius" (left), the BBC's 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves' novels charting the life and family of the Roman Emperor Claudius (played superbly by Derek Jacobi) as he writes his memoirs at the end of his life.  Esmond appeared as Domitius in the third episode, Waiting In The Wings, which deals with the wanton behaviour of Julia in Rome while her husband is banished from Rome to the island of Rhodes. Claudius is still a child at this time and, while playing, he catches a wolf cub dropped by an eagle from above him, which is interpreted by a priest as a sign that Rome will one day be injured and Claudius will protect it.

In the same year Esmond made a dramatic appearance on the big screen at the beginning of Richard Lester's film Robin and Marian (1976), playing a blind old man defending a besieged castle (left). For authenticity's sake Esmond removed his glass eye for the part in which he taunts Robin (Sean Connery) and King Richard (Richard Harris) from the battlements. Using an old frying pan as a shield he is not taken seriously by the enemy below until he hurls an arrow down at Richard which lodges in his neck and ultimately causes the Lionheart's death. The filming was done in Spain and Nora accompanied Esmond on location where they not only met Sean Connery but also Audrey Hepburn who plays Marian.

Robin and Marian was followed closely by a part in The Man In The Iron Mask, an American production for television of Alexander Dumas' classic novel, directed by Mike Newell and starring Richard Chamberlain as Louis XIV of France and his twin brother Philippe, the prisoner in the mask. Esmond plays Armand, father of Louise de la Valliere (Jenny Agutter), the old man imprisoned in the next cell to Philippe and who is shown kindness by him. Also in the cast was Patrick McGoohan, with whom Esmond had appeared on television ten years before in an episode of Danger Man, and Brenda Bruce, who played the prostitute so memorably murderedin the opening sequence of Peeping Tom!

t A scene from the 1976 TV production of The Man In The Iron Mask. Esmond played Armand, Jenny Agutter's father and Richard Chamberlain's fellow prisoner.

Other television work parts at this time included the Coroner in a 1978 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (with Jeremy Brett as Maxime de Winter, Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and Joanna David as the second Mrs de Winter), and as an Old Capulet in a Romeo and Juliet. On stage he again worked for Michael Elliott at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, both as Maramaladov in Crime and Punishment with Leo McKern and Tom Courtney, and repeating his role as Dr Warburton in The Family Reunion with Edward Fox and Joanna David. The production opened on 27th March 1979 and subsequently transferred to London, playing from 18th April to 12th May 1979 at The Roundhouse, and from 19th June 1979 at The Vaudeville Theatre.

Towards the end of the year, Esmond repeated his one-man performance for the BBC who produced a version of The Archer's Tale, this time filmed partly on location as well as in the studio. It was broadcast on BBC2 on 30th October 1979.

The cast of The Royal Exchange Theatre's

1979 production of The Family Reunion



(From left to right) Back Row:  Esmond Knight, William Fox, Constance Chapman,

Edward Fox, Daphne Oxenford, Jeffry Wickham, Hilda Schroder;

Front Row: Avril Elgar, Pauline Jameson, Joanna David, Harry Walker


Next:  1980 - 1987  God's Waiting Room
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