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1980 - 1987
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God's Waiting Room

In 1980 Esmond was in his 75th year. Apart from failing eyesight he was in good health and as eager and enthusiastic as ever to work. In 1981 he appeared as Cardinal Gian Battista Orsini in episode 8 of The Borgias, a TV mini series which dealt with the notorious goings on in Renaissance Italy of the family whose name is nowadays synonymous with political corruption, greed, incest and murder. Rodrigo Borgia, the first man to have bought himself the papacy and father of Lucrezia, was played by Adolfo Celi. The series was partly scripted by John Prebble who had also contributed an episode of Elizabeth R.

Also in 1981 he was among the cast of two television adaptations of Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida (as Priam) and Antony and Cleopatra (as Lepidus) - and then in 1982 came the first of two projects which, after almost thirty years, saw him involved again in productions with Laurence Olivier. For the second time, John Mortimer adapted his play, A Voyage Around My Father, for television with Olivier portraying Mortimer's own father and Alan Bates as a young Mortimer. Ironically Esmond played a judge with perfect sight, while Olivier's character was completely blind. Coincidentally at the same time Esmond was also on stage playing First Player and Gravedigger in Hamlet, with Edward Fox in the role that Olivier had portrayed so successfully on film back in 1948.

Then, in 1983, came a memorable event for all concerned, not least of all Laurence Olivier who created the last great role of his career - King Lear.  The production for television was filmed at the Granada Studios in Manchester and was directed by Michael Elliott, with Esmond playing the old man who guides Gloucester (Leo McKern) once he has been blinded - irony upon irony. Olivier was a year younger than Esmond but in poorer health, having battled with various illness for twenty years, and his frailty is clear for all to see in his performance. On set he remarked that "...when you get to my age, you are Lear, in every nerve of your body .... Here I am, at the very end of myself, in both age and experience." 

Nevertheless it did not prevent him from giving his all and pushing himself physically as he had done all his acting life. Towards the end of the play, Lear enters carrying the body of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and lays her down on the floor.  To avoid the strain of actually carrying her full body weight, the actress (Anna Calder-Marshall) was supported by wires from above, but when it came to the take the wires went limp as Olivier lifted her for real, played the scene and ended up bent over her lifeless body. The strain had been too great - not only did Olivier forget his lines as he lay there but when it had been covered by a second take and Michael Elliott called "Cut!" Olivier could not get to his feet and had to be helped by Colin Blakeley, who played Kent.



p King Lear for television, Laurence Olivier's last major role. Esmond was in the cast and the production was directed in Manchester by Michael Elliott.

Such physical commitment to a part had always been a hallmark of Esmond's approach to his work as much as that of Olivier. Without it he would probably not have retained the confidence to sustain a stage career with varying degrees of limited sight for forty years. This was evident later the same year when he once again worked at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for Michael Elliott who directed his own adaptation for the stage of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The production starred Brian Cox as Captain Ahab and Nigel Terry as Ishmael, and Esmond played two parts, the Carpenter and Captain Peleg. As the latter he was all too prepared to clamber up rigging on the stage ship and exert himself physically as and when he felt necessary to an alarming degree, and he had to be persuaded to the contrary by an anxious Michael Elliott! Moby Dick was the Royal Exchange's seasonal production of the year and ran from 22nd December 1983 to 28th January 1984.

p Michael Elliott adapted Moby Dick for the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in 1983 and had to restrain an enthusiastic Esmond, as Captain Peleg, from clambering up the rigging of the stage ship.

The following summer Esmond was involved in another production which was hardly the mild and gentle piece one might expect from an actor in his late seventies.  In August he opened in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Devils. This was John Whiting's adaptation of Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of Loudun which he had written for the RSC in 1960 and which was the subject Ken Russell's controversial film of 1971.  Again Esmond played two roles - De La Rochepozay, the Bishop of Poitiers, and Father Ambrose - and by all accounts it was an intense and bloody production of a shocking subject matter. The venue was The Pit Theatre in the Barbican, five floors down and with a claustrophic atmosphere that was too much for the lady sitting next to Rosalind at the performance she attended. Rosalind ended up with a head on her lap as the lady was unable to leave the confined space before the interval and had been overcome by both the play and the setting.

Also in 1984 Esmond appeared as a blind man in a six-part television adaptation of H G Wells' well known novel, The Invisible Man, and more notably on the cinema screen in a feature film called The Element of Crime, an enigmatic and complex thriller from Danish director Lars Von Trier (the original name of the film was Forbrydelsens Element). Michael Elphick plays a policemen who has recently returned to Northern Europe having spent some time working in Egypt, and he is now on the trail of a serial killer. His mentor is a man called Osborne (played by Esmond) whose techniques of crime solving he uses to try and crack the case and whose book on the subject gives the film its title. It's a highly original and atmospheric film which received huge critical acclaim at the time and had developed a cult following over the years. Filming was not always easy for Esmond and for one scene he had to have help guiding his legs between the tracks laid for the camera.  Nevertheless he gave an impressive performance as ever, playing Osborne with what one critic described as "ailing charm". Interestingly another recent critic of the film referred to Esmond as a "Welsh actor"!


pThe Element of Crime (1984)

His next role could not have been a greater contrast - the eccentric Sir Francis Puckerington in a television adaptation of Tom Sharpe's comic novel Blott On The Landscape. Esmond appeared in the first three episodes along with David Suchet as Blott, Geraldine James and George Cole as the MP who tries to have a motorway built through the grounds of his wife's ancestral home. First broadcast in 1985, Blott On The Landscape rarely sees repeat performances, and David Suchet much more familiar to television audiences as 'Poirot'. At the time Agatha Christie's other well known sleuth, Miss Marple, was already well established on the small screen with Joan Hickson playing the title role. In 1986 Esmond filmed his part as Mr Galbraith in an episode called Sleeping Murder which was first broadcast the following year.

t David Suchet as the anarchic handyman in Blott On The Landscape (1985) in which Esmond played Sir Francis Puckerington.

In 1986 Esmond filmed his final cinematic appearance on the cinema screen which was released in 1987 - Superman IV: The Quest For Peace - as the title suggests, the fourth in the series with Christopher Reeve as the comic book hero and the same core cast members - Gene Hackman as Lex Luther and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Esmond played one of two Elders, the other being David Garth. The film was directed by Sidney J Furie whose unusual camera angles and style had made The Ipcress File such a powerful film back in 1965.

Towards the end of 1986 Esmond was approached to appear in a televised version of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy novels, retitled The Fortunes of War for television. The semibiographical story is an account of a British couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, living and working in the Romania at the beginning of the Second World War and their subsequent travels from country to country as they flee from the advancing Germany army - first to Greece and then Egypt. The couple were played by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, themselves happily married at the time, with a strong cast including Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennett and Robert Stephens. Osmond's role as Liversage required him to fly to Cairo for filming which he did in early February 1987.

The Fortunes of War, the television adaptation of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy novels that turned out to be Esmond's last performance. He died in London the morning after he had returned from filming his part (Liversage) in Egypt.u

Just before he left for Egypt, on 10th February, Esmond was visited at his flat in Cranmer Court (which he sometimes referred to as "God's Waiting Room") by writer Hugo Vickers who was researching his biography of Vivien Leigh at the time. 13 years later, Vickers also wrote Nora's obituary for The Independent newspaper, and in it he recalled that while he and Esmond were talking about Vivien Leigh, Nora arrived home and joined in the conversation with her own memories and opinions on the subject:

"It's so difficult for those big, beautiful stars not to develop something at the end. Look at that other one, Burton's wife .. and Jennifer Jones, she was ab-solutely potty! They get spoiled.  However, you can't blame them."  She then announced that she was going out to get lunch.  "Fish in a bag, I expect!" declared Esmond Knight. "Don't be so rude to me," she called from the other room. "You'll have some lovely haddock."
Filming in Cairo was hot and tiring. Esmond completed most of his work and then returned to England on 22nd February. He was scheduled to fly back to Egypt to finish off some scenes in due course. It was a strenuous schedule for a man of 80.  The following morning, a Monday, Esmond was in the bedroom at Cranmer Court. Just as she had done twelve days earlier, Nora called out to him from another room, this time: "Would you like a cup of coffee?" to which Esmond replied, "Yes please." Nora made the drink and took it in to him. In those few ensuing minutes Esmond had suffered a heart attack and by the time she entered the bedroom he was dead.

The funeral took place the following Friday, 27th February 1987, at St Simon Zelot's Church, Milner Street, London SW3, just a few streets away from Cranmer Court, and was followed by a private cremation.  A request was made for no flowers and instead, donations were invited, if desired, to the Theatrical Ladies Guild of Charity - c/o J.H. Kenyon Ltd., 49 Marloes Road, London W8. Nora and Fran were both present at the funeral, united together in Esmond's death as they had been during his life.

t St Simon Zelot's Church, Chelsea, where both Esmond and Nora's funerals took place.

Sadly Rosalind was unable to attend - she was on stage at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, playing Maria in Twelfth Night. The run ended the following day but there were no understudies for the production and she could not be released.

Nora received over 200 letters of sympathy from friends, relatives and the general public and she insisted on replying to them all personally. At one stage she ran out of writing paper and at least one person, Maxine Audley, who appeared in two films with Esmond (Peeping Tom and The Prince and the Showgirl) received a reply on the back of an original Esmond Knight sketch of a bowman which was subsequently framed!

Nora continued to live at Cranmer Court, sometimes alone and at other times with her son Francis, who came to share the flat with her. In 1995 Nora was awarded a Civil Pension by the Queen for her contribution to the British theatre. In the same year Fran also died and five years later, on 1st May 2000, at the age of 98, so too did Nora.  Like Esmond before her, Nora's funeral took place at St Simon Zelots Church and, snubbing convention as she had often done before, her coffin left the church to the accompaniment of the Stylistics singing: "You Make Me Feel Brand New".

Esmond Pennington Knight

(1906-1987)

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