Stacks Image 18

On his return to England from Spain, Esmond discovered his part in the film to be shot in Germany was not yet certain, despite having made a screen test and met the director, Paul Martin. He was out of work again, so he and Fran went to stay with Florence Desmond, his co-star in Streamline, and Tom Campbell Black, and from there they travelled to Kent to see Uncle Chas who was making a film about falconry. They found themselves filming in the grounds of Knole House (pictured left), with Esmond playing the part of a poacher. It was one of many projects that turned into a Knight family production and a useful foil in between professional engagements. "When I was resting, as the old actors used so charmingly to put it, I did at least learn to know a hawk from a hand-saw, to shoot with a sporting gun, and to handle a moving picture camera."

John Tyrie, a friend of the Knight family, recalls an occasion when Esmond was very nearly genuinely caught poaching. John, Esmond and Chas were out shooting one morning in the grounds of a convent, on private land where they should not have been. When an irate nun confronted them in the woods, Esmond immediately went into "acting mode" and managed to convince her they were doing an enormous favour by shooting squirrels which were a huge pest. The truth was that they were shooting all kinds of wildlife, but Esmond's performance succeeding in placating the nun. When she had gone, he came out of character and gave a huge sigh of relief!

Stacks Image 89
Eventually Esmond heard that the part in the film being made at U.F.A. Studios in Germany was his and he found himself on board a Junkers aircraft bound for Berlin. The film was called Schwarze Rosen (Black Roses) and he was to star alongside Lillian Harvey, a British actress who had been making films on the Continent for many years.

An athletic Esmond with Lillian Harvey in a scene
from
Schwarze Rosen (Black Roses). They are
jumping for happiness, and old Finnish custom).

As with 77 Park Lane at Nettlefold Studios a few years earlier, three versions of the film were being made simultaneously - this time with English, German and French casts. To add to the highly international flavour, the storyline of the film was based in Finland and Esmond played the part of a patriot who organises a rebellion against the Russians! The English version was eventually released in 1937 under the title Did I betray?

Lillian Harvey, with her flair for languages, was involved in all three versions whereas Esmond was only involved in the English one. When he wasn't required at the U.F.A. Studios on the outskirts of Berlin, he spent his time sightseeing, visiting museums and art galleries, going to the theatre and observing first hand the heady and often sinister world of Nazi Germany. On one occasion he saw Hermann Göring in a hotel bar and on another, Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer came to see filming in progress. By this time all Jews had left U.F.A. and soon the studios would become entirely state controlled.

Fran joined him for some of the time on her way back from a trip to Budapest with the BBC. He also bumped into some old friends in Berlin, including an old rowing friend from Westminster School, now a diplomat at the British Embassy. Another friend, Eric John, later recalled a conversation with Esmond as they sat on the roof of the Eden Hotel:

You're a lucky man," I murmured. "Here you are living like a lord in one of the most interesting cities in Europe and it's not costing you a penny. They're actually paying you to make love to Lillian Harvey by day and to fall in love with Berlin by night. There are times when I feel you actors get the penny and the bun!"

"Perhaps we are a bit spoilt when we're working," conceded Esmond, "but our year doesn't add up to fifty-two weeks."

"It's not the most stable of professions," I admitted … adding a pause. "Have you ever thought what you would do if for some reason you were compelled to renounce acting as a career?"

Esmond thought for a moment as he contemplated the steady stream of traffic purring along under the trees towards the Kurfürstendamm, centre of Berlin's night life. "Oh I don't know," he replied, with that characteristic little nervous laugh of his. "I think I'd like to mess about with cars."

Eric John wrote these words in an article (Defeatism Defeated - Theatre World magazine, April 1942) at a time when Esmond might indeed have been compelled to put acting behind him.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, sapien platea morbi dolor lacus

Stacks Image 44


Part of the U.F.A. Studios complex
on the outskirts of Berlin where Esmond
worked in 1935 on
Shwarze Rosen - released in
the UK under the title
Did I Betray?

Esmond returned to England with a healthy bank balance plus a determination to lose his reputation for musical comedy and go back to straight theatre - "the legit, as the older professional school describe it". His initial opportunity, playing Byron in Bitter Harvest, came in early 1936 but was scuppered by an attack of jaundice which sapped his confidence and ambition almost to the point of despair. Fortunately another opportunity soon materialised and Esmond was cast as The Parasite and The Ant Commandeer in The Insect Play at the Playhouse Theatre. This deeply satirical work by the Czech writer Karel Capek was precisely what he needed and although the salary was poor, the production not only restored his self-confidence but also redirected his career the way he had hoped. It also gave him the chance to work for the first time with Robert Helpmann who played Mr Cricket and Chief of the Yellow Ants.

While still in The Insect Play, Esmond went to see Emlyn Williams' tense play, Night Must Fall, in which Williams himself played Danny, a baby-faced murderer, with a view to taking over the part while Williams took the play to New York. Initially Esmond tried to avoid simply imitating Williams' very Welsh performance by playing the role as a Cockney. But he soon began to appreciate that much would be lost from the part by doing so and he proceeded effectively to "understudy" Williams as precisely as he could. Esmond loved the part and was very comfortable playing Danny, especially as the production was expertly handled by his old school friend, Glen Byam Shaw.

His Welsh accent improved over time. After the first performance, a London critic wrote: "Knight must fall unless he learns to speak better Welsh." But later on during the run he received a letter from a Welsh woman who had seen the play asking which part of Wales he came from!

Whilst on stage in Night Must Fall in the evening, Esmond was busy during the day on a film set making Pagliacci, a cinematic version of Leoncavallo's operetta, in which Richard Tauber not only sang the arias of his own character but several others as well. The film opened on 11th December 1936 and Esmond remembers, on the same night, hearing Edward VIII's abdication speech in a radio broadcast to the nation. Meanwhile he was tempted away from Night Must Fall, unwisely as it transpired, by the opportunity to play Richard III (or "Dickie Three-Eyes" as he is known in some theatrical circles) in a new play called The King and Mistress Shore at the Little Theatre.
It only ran for a fortnight and during one performance his co-star, Joane Maude, tripped over backwards, bringing Esmond with her. As he fell, his tights ripped from top to bottom and he was forced to play the rest of the act facing
"out front".

Stacks Image 59

A scene from the light operetta Pagliacci which Esmond
(far right) filmed by day whilst performing on stage at night
as a murderer in
Night Must Fall.

Fate was playing a hand, so it would seem. Had Esmond not left the successful run of Night Must Fall and found himself suddenly available again after just two weeks in The King and Mistress Shore, he would not have been free to join the cast of Wise Tomorrow, initially in Stockport then on to the Lyric Theatre in London, in early 1937. And if he had not done so he would not have met and shared the cast with Nora Swinburne, with whom he fell in love. Their affair started secretly, but in time Fran became aware of it and showed a quite remarkable sympathy and understanding of the situation. She liked Nora and valued her friendship, and rather felt that Esmond was in safe hands with her, in a curious way. But whatever the complexities of the circumstances, Nora became a permanent part of Esmond's life from this moment onwards and ten years later she became his second wife.

Stacks Image 67

The opening scene of Wise Tomorrow - from left to right:
Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Emma Frenchman, Archibald Batty

In their April 1937 issue, Theatre World magazine reviewed Wise Tomorrow: "Stephen Powys' play, well constructed and brilliantly written, is acted by one of the strongest casts in town. Martita Hunt gives a magnificent performance as the unpleasant Diana; Nora Swinburne and Diana Churchill are admirably contrasted as the two sisters; Naunton Wayne comes to the front rank of light comedians as the philosophical Norman; Esmond Knight is sincere and likeable as Peter, and Olga Linda makes a caustic and realistic figure of Colley. Archibald Batty, Beatrix Feilden-Kaye and Emma Trechman lend excellent support, and the play enjoys a polished and well-balanced production by Athole Stewart."

Wise Tomorrow
was a reasonable success and the production lasted for several months during the first half of 1937. Although he regarded himself as miscast as a wealthy Englishman vying for the affections of a young actress, Esmond was not unduly perturbed; he was being paid a large salary to be on stage nightly with Nora Swinburne and an altogether fine cast. However, the capacity audiences anticipated during the coronation of George VI in May did not materialise due to a strike by bus drivers and, as in most other West End theatres, the cast unexpectedly found themselves playing to virtually empty houses.

Stacks Image 75

A signed publicity portrait dating from the mid-1930s when
Esmond was still under contract to Warner Brothers. The picture
was taken by Russell Westwood at Teddington Studios where
Warner's UK operation, first National productions Ltd., were then based.