HOME
Introduction

"Knight had something special to offer. It is not often that an actor

of his high quality can be found who is ready to play those small parts

often to be found in classical drama which are not now thought to be

worth a leading actor's while and yet need to be very well acted."

W.A. Darlington


Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight

This website celebrates the life and work of a remarkable man and a fine British actor, Esmond Knight (1906-1987). His name may not be broadly known nowadays, however his work will be very familiar to anyone interested in British cinema as he has appeared in some of the finest films ever made in the UK, including Henry V, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus,  Hamlet,  Richard III,  Peeping Tom, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,  Ann of The Thousand Days. His list of credits is simply amazing, and in an acting career that spanned 60 years he also appeared regularly on stage in London's West End theatres and in television productions, including pioneering broadcasts for the BBC from Alexandra Palace in the late 1930s.

I first became aware of Esmond Knight some years ago when I developed a fascination for the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. His name kept cropping up in the credits yet I could not easily place him. I started to look closer, checking his name against the characters he played to identify the man behind them, and only then did I begin to recognise him and to appreciate the breadth and diversity of his work. Like Alec Guinness, he had the ability to absorb himself in his characters with chameleon-like skill.

The more I learned about Esmond Knight, the more I realised that I'd known his work all my life through his film appearances. He was Fluellen, the eccentric Welsh captain in Olivier's Henry V which I had seen during schooldays. He was one of the judges in the bleak courtroom trial in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, seen on TV numerous times during my youth. He was the blind old man defending the castle at the beginning of Robin And Marian whose hand-thrown arrow struck Richard the Lionheart and caused his death, a favourite film from college days. He was Livy, the aristocratic conductor in The Red Shoes, and the old general in Black Narcissus who allows the nuns use his palace as a convent and feeds them "sowsages".

Then I discovered something that was not only remarkable but came as a complete shock and made me appreciate and evaluate his work from a wholly new perspective. Esmond Knight was virtually blind. He had been injured in 1941 whilst on active service onboard HMS Prince of Wales, struck by a shell from the German battleship Bismarck, no less. Totally blind for two years, he later regained limited sight in his right eye, just enough to resume his career. For him, acting, especially on stage, was a continuous challenge to deceive the audience into believing he could see as well as the next man - and he invariably succeeded.


Photograph courtesy of Steve Crook

p A publicity still of Esmond in character as The Old General in Black Narcissus (1947), the Powell & Pressburger film of Rumer Godden's novel.

With this piece of knowledge it was impressive enough to revisit his film work and appreciate how brilliantly he succeeded in portraying sighted men in mainstream film production with absolute conviction. Watching him again in The Red Shoes alone, conducting a full orchestra and strutting around concert halls, was a revelation. But to discover that he continued to work on stage almost continuously from 1945 onwards almost beggars belief. Esmond himself made the point that he was able to do this because he had had 35 fully sighted years and knew precisely how to move and react as a sighted person. Nevertheless it was a remarkable achievement by any standards.

If this wasn't enough I subsequently discovered by reading a letter to The Times by Roland Hardless (5th May 1987), written in response to Esmond's obituary, that of all the pastimes and interests a partially sighted man might have adopted, Esmond chose painting. From the late 1940s until his death in 1987 he was a prolific artist.


Photograph courtesy of Steve Crook

p Esmond (left) as the Seven Sister Soldier in a

scene from A Canterbury Tale (1944). Next to him

is John Sweet as Bob Johnson of the US Army.

Whilst recuperating from his wartime injuries, and completely blind at the time, Esmond dictated an autobiography to his secretary, Annabella Cloudsley. Seeking The Bubble (Hutchinson & Co. 1943) recounts his life up to that point, including delightful scenarios from his childhood and early career. The last chapter finishes with Esmond having very little to do, still coming to terms with the implications of blindness and hoping - somehow, if a miracle were possible -  for a return to an acting career. Had he but known, the miracle was indeed to happen, thanks to the extraordinary skill of a controversial surgeon, and another 40 years of acting lay ahead of him. Curiously little has been written about the second half of his life which includes most of the work familiar to my generation, and the remarkable story of how he regained his sight. What a pity he didn't write a second autobiography - it would have been a fascinating read.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Esmond Knight on stage, but at least I can continue to enjoy his film performances, though I have yet to see them all. My personal favourite is A Canterbury Tale (1944), Powell & Pressburger's quirky, nostalgic look at England during the war years, and particularly the Kent where Michael Powell himself grew up as a boy. Esmond provides the narration for the opening sequence of the film, including some of the prologue from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and later appears in two brief character parts, the Seven Sisters Soldier and the Village Idiot, the latter for me being one of the most delightful cameos in all cinema and a performance that clearly brings out genuine hilarity for his fellow actors in the scene. 

John Hughes

Merstham, Surrey

May 2005

HOME