1942 - 1943 Return to Acting
Much of 1942 was spent working on his autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, which Esmond dictated to his secretary, Annabella Cloudsley. The book was published the following year by Hutchinson & Co. and is a fascinating account of his life up to and including New Years Day 1942, where the story breaks off with Esmond having nothing much to do, contemplating, quite contentedly, what the future might bring and expressing hopes of a revitalisation in the British theatre when the war is over. Each chapter is headed by a quote from Shakespeare, and the title is taken from the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It:
Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the bard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation,
Even in the cannon's mouth.
Although fascinating and enlightening for anyone interested in his life, Esmond was later quite disparaging towards his book. Always self-critical, he thought it was rather paltrily written and felt he could have done a much better job had he waited a few years until he was more proficient at a typewriter, which he became after the war. Rosalind remembers vividly the sound of him tapping away fast and furiously in the study of his home in Bywater Street.
Seeking The Bubble, the autobiography dictated by Esmond
in 1942 whilst still totally blind. This is the soft cover version.
The book was published in two versions, one with nine illustrations and the other, in conjunction with the National Book Association, with just the frontispiece - a reproduction of Alexander Christie's painting of Esmond as a young man wearing traditional falconers' attire with a falcon on his arm.
Occasional work came Esmond's way at this time including another radio broadcast, prophetically a piece called Henry At Agincourt with Marius Goring in which he played Henry V. He was also asked to present his own radio programme called Make And Mend in which he told stories about the navy and sailors. He had to research and plan the programmes himself as well as memorise the scripts - quite a challenge when completely blind. But it gave him a substantial project on which to focus and was a success.
But he was not making a living, and he remained grateful for the rest of his life for the help and support offered to him by St Dunstan's. This included the opportunity for Rosalind to attend Cheltenham Ladies' College as one of the college governors was also a governor of St Dunstan's, and there she remained until she began her own acting career with the Young Vic Company.
Starting in the spring of 1942, as his part towards the war effort, Esmond began giving morale boosting talks about his life and experiences to workers in factories involved in war production (of which there were thousands). He was an entertaining speaker and commanded great respect, particularly in Navy uniform as a well known actor who had "done his bit" and been blinded in action.
Esmond hoped more than anything that somehow he might be able to resume his acting career. Being totally blind was a major handicap and so he started to consult specialists to see if anything could be done to restore at least some sight in his right eye. In all he saw four of the most eminent eye specialists in the country including, in the summer of 1942, Sir Stuart Duke-Elder, the founder of the Institute of Opthalmology and said to be the finest eye surgeon in Great Britain at the time. But the response from them all was always negative, even from Duke-Elder who gave no hope at all and advised Esmond to "stop hoping and get used to the idea of being a blind man". Despite this depressing news, Esmond refused to give up hope entirely.
Sir Stuart Duke-Elder FRS (1899-1978), regarded by many as
the finest ophthalmologist of his day. Even he was unable to give Esmond hope that he would regain any sight at all in his right eye.
Meanwhile it was Michael Powell who gave Esmond the opportunity to work on a film set again. Powell had cast him in several films before the war and had badly wanted him to play the part of Lieutenant Hirth in 49th Parallel, but Esmond was unavailable having committed to the RNVR. Now, in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, he was producing a propaganda film, The Silver Fleet, and offered him a small role. Esmond was delightful but anxious that he would be able to pull it off, especially finding his way around the film set at Denham. But Powell was very reassuring and told him, "I'm sure we can work things out". On this occasion Michael Powell did not direct. Ironically the director was Esmond's old friend Vernon Sewell, the very man who had encourage him to sign up for the RNVR.
The Silver Fleet tells the story of a Dutch shipbuilder who fakes collaboration with the Germans whilst secretly encouraging resistance and ultimately sabotage of their own efforts. Esmond hoped for, and got, a nasty character to play, that of Von Schiffer, a ruthless Nazi Gauleiter, his intention being that if he played an unsympathetic character that audiences would not feel sympathy for him personally "… so that it kind of took the curse off the thing." He achieved his aim quite brilliantly, portraying Von Schiffer as an uncouth buffoon who is outwitted even when interrogating a little girl, yet never losing an underlying sense of danger.
"A little annoyance like blindness only made Esmond's torch shine brighter.
In September 1942, Theatre World magazine interviewed Esmond on the set of The Silver Fleet at Denham Studios where he described himself at the time as "a rather unglorified mixture of Erich von Stroheim and Lon Chaney." The article continued: "Playgoers who saw his breath-taking performance as the Chief Engineer of the Arts in The Insect Play a couple of years before the war will know that apart from being able to look like an inhuman tyrant, Esmond can assume the Prussian manner to perfection. He learned a good deal about the German temperament, character and customs during the summer of 1935 while living in Berlin for the making of Black Roses, in which he played opposite Lillian Harvey. Having scored such a success at the microphone, and now before the movie camera, this young actor's return to the footlights is awaited with even keener interest."
Esmond in The Silver Fleet (1943) as Gestapo officer Von Schiffer. When he filmed his scenes at Denham Studios in autumn 1942, Esmond was totally blind, but he pulled off the illusion to perfection with much rehearsal and assistance from his fellow actors. Some of the scarring around his forehead and temple from his injuries can clearly be seen.
Esmond achieved exactly what he had hoped for - the illusion that on screen (and later on stage) he was perfectly able to play fully sighted men. The part involved negotiating narrow gangplanks, climbing into the conning tower of a submarine, walking downstairs, picking up a telephone, and eating a meal - all of which Esmond managed with sympathetic direction from Sewell and the support of fellow actors. There is only one very slight giveaway which at the time would have gone unnoticed by cinema audiences. In a scene where Esmond, as von Schiffer, walks through the doorway into Ralph Richardson's office, the Nazi officer behind and to the left of him can be seen gently steering him by the elbow.
In 1942 Esmond visited Wilson Barrett at his London flat and described his technique for finding his marks whilst filming, which Barrett recalled in his book On Stage For Notes:
"… one, two, three paces into a room, half left turn, put your hand down,
there's the telephone."
Powell may have taken a chance casting Esmond, but his decision was thoroughly vindicated. The reviews when the film was released in March 1943 were excellent. The Picturegoer (March 20th 1943) wrote: "Esmond Knight, completely overcoming the disability of his blindness, scores as the ruthless Gestapo chief." Another review described his performance as "stunningly menacing".
The illusion that Esmond could see perfectly well was not restricted to his work.
"To see him in my flat, standing with his back to the fireplace, laughing and joking, taking as usual so quickly that his words tumbled over one another because his tongue couldn't keep pace with his thoughts, no one could have had any idea that he had a care in the world. The only indication one had of his blindness was when hs wife cut up his meat for him at lunch, and that hit me across the face like a whip, because he had made me completely forget it up until then."
Others were not so helpful at the dining table. In his book, As The Falcon Her Bells, Phillip Glasier recalls an incident at around this time when he and Esmond were both lunching at Chas Knight's home in Kent, Quebec Cottage, and Esmond was still totally blind. "He was amazingly cheerful, and we pulled his leg by handing him the pepper-mill when he asked for the fish paste. 'Swines,' he would mutter, 'trying to poison me!' and would roar with laughter."
Demands on Esmond's time were now made in other ways too. On El Alemain Night at Earls Court he recited a patriotic poem written especially for the occasion by the Chaplain General. Afterwards he was introduced to General Montgomery who complimented him on his recital and was later heard remarking loudly to his A.D.C.: "Blind in the left eye, you know!" On another occasion he was asked by Malcolm Sargent to appear at the Royal Albert Hall in The Bells, a piece written about the church bells that would ring in the event of an invasion or when the war was over. This time he recited a poem by Laurence Vinyon and by all accounts Sargent was delighted with his performance.
On 16th June 1943, Esmond sang in Seventy Years of Song, produced by C.B. Cochrane at the Royal Albert Hall. Cochrane wrote a charming "thank you" letter after the event which Esmond kept for the rest of his life.
And on 22nd October 1943, Trafalgar Day, he stood in front of a huge crowd in Trafalgar Square as part of a morale boosting and fund raising event and read a new poem which had been written specially for the occasion by the poet laureate, John Masefield.
Long since, I knew the sailors of the fleet,
The Navy's lion-hearts, the undismayed;
Death's suddenest, most dreadful, they would meet
As an old ship mate, who a visit paid.
Ocean has added to her death since then;
Science and purer courage are her need;
Man, grown in skill, is deadlier to man;
These, with grown virtue, dare the greater deed.
Reading John Masefield's poem in Trafalgar Square,
22nd October 1943. Fran is to his left holding the text.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight