There now began one of the busiest and most fruitful periods of Esmond's career. In the next two years (1946-47) he worked on no less than seven films. Nor were these run-of-the-mill projects; two were Powell and Pressburger masterpieces and another superb Laurence Olivier adaptation of Shakespeare, Hamlet, which was to become the first ever foreign production to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The first of these was Powell and Pressburger's adaptation of the Rumer Golden novel about Anglo-Catholic nuns struggling to run a school and hospital high up in the Himalayas - Black Narcissus (1947).
Esmond's appearance in Black Narcissus is brief but memorable and as characterful as ever as The Old General, the man who invites the nuns to live and work in this former "house of women". Thus his character is the catalyst that brings together the ingredients for what has frequently been regarded as one of the most erotic films ever produced in a British film studio. With the exception of a few jungle scenes filmed in a tropical garden in Sussex (Sheffield Park) and a brief flashback sequence in Ireland, the entire convent and Himalayan backdrop was created at Pinewood Studios by Powell and his crew, notably cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge (both of whom won Oscars for their work) and cost designer Hein Heckroth (who had recently worked with Esmond and Wilson Barrett's company at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith).
As The Old General - a publicity still from Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947).
To Esmond's left is May Hallat as Angu Ayah and to the right David Farrar as Mr Dean.
So it was in Buckinghamshire rather than India that Esmond filmed his scenes, joined for some of the time by Rosalind when she was at home during the school holidays. They travelled up to Pinewood together, then Rosalind would take his arm and guide him on and off the set as and when he was needed. Some observers find the stop-start process of filming very tedious and dull, but Rosalind enjoyed it immensely and loved every minute. Nor was she intimidated by Michael Powell's often overpowering personality!
Behind the scenes at Pinewood Studios during
the filming of Black Narcissus. Esmond is on the
left wearing some but not all of the beard for
his role as The Old General, plus his off-screen,
thick-lensed glasses. Centre is the director,
Michael Powell, and on the right, actor
Anton Walbrook who, although a regular
in Powell & Pressburger productions (49th Parallel,
The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,
Oh … Rosalinda!!) does not appear in this film
so was presumably visiting the set.
The same year, Esmond featured in two other films with Black Narcissus co-stars - Sabu in The End of The River (also produced by The Archers) directed by Derek Twist, and Jean Simmons in Uncle Silas. His fourth film of 1947 was the eminently forgettable The Likes of 'Er.
Of his three films in 1948, Holiday Camp was the least significant for Esmond, who played the camp announcer; however, it did introduce the world to the Huggett family who featured in several other films and a successful and long-running radio series in the 1950s.
A poster for The End of the River (1947).
The film was directed by Ken Annakin who the following year would direct Nora Swinburne in one of her most memorable screen roles as The Colonel's Lady, one of the four Somerset Maugham short stories that comprised the film Quartet.
Then Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger invited Esmond to play the part of Livingstone ("Livy") Montague in probably their best known film, The Red Shoes (1948). The story combines the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of that name with a love triangle based around the contemporary ballet company led by the highly charismatic Boris Lermantov (played by Anton Walbrook). Livy is the company's orchestral conductor and although incidental to the central storyline, Esmond's role is at certain moments very centre stage and includes conducting a full orchestra on several occasions. Rosalind was again at hand to guide him around the set at Pinewood, and this time Esmond was also required to go on location to the South of France. His co-stars included Robert Helpmann, with whom Esmond had worked before on stage in The Insect Play (Playhouse Theatre, 1938), and of course Moria Shearer whose husband-to-be, Ludovic Kennedy, had been in the Royal Navy and, on board HMS Tartar, involved in the eventual sinking of the Bismarck. In the 1970s, Kennedy would interview Esmond about his experiences on HMS Prince of Wales for his book, Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck, and for a television documentary film, Battleship Bismarck.
Despite J. Arthur Rank's initial lack of enthusiasm towards the film that Powell and Pressburger presented him with - he walked out of the premier and cancelled its showing in his cinema chain - The Red Shoes gradually developed a cult status and remains the definitive ballet film. It also remains one of Esmond's most high-profile performances; thousands of people who may not know his name will be familiar with the aloof conductor in The Red Shoes who at first treats the young composer / conductor, employed by Lermantov without his knowledge, in a very off-hand way but is won over by his music.
Whilst The Red Shoes was in production at Pinewood, Laurence Olivier was putting togetherthe cast for his film version of Hamlet to be shot at Denham Studios, and recalled several actors who had appeared with him in Henry V four years earlier - Russell Thorndike, John Laurie, Niall MacGinnis, Felix Aylmer and Esmond Knight. He also called upon new talent in Jean Simmons to play Ophelia; Olivier had been impressed with her in David Lean's Great Expectations and recognised the extraordinary screen presence which had also won her the part of Kanchi in Black Narcissus.
A production still taken on the set of the Powell / Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948), including Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Anton Walbrook, Esmond and Leonide Massine.
Picture courtesy of the British Film Institute
As Bernardo, one of the captains of the guard who report sightings of the ghost of Hamlet's father, Esmond's appearance and dialogue open the film, and when the body count reaches its climax several hours later, he is there at the end shouldering Hamlet's lifeless body. Despite numerous criticisms, such as liberties taken with Shakespeare's text (200 lines were cut from the play), the use of deep-focus photography and that at forty Olivier was a little too old for the leading role, Hamlet was a huge success, winning prizes at all major film festivals. it was the first foreign film to win Hollywood's Oscar for Best Picture and the first British film to win four Oscars, the others being Best Actor for Olivier, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. In London it ran for six months in the West End, and with his hair still bleached blonde for the part, Olivier went to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood from King George VI.
A studio portrait of Esmond taken in 1948 when his career was thriving. On screen he could be seen in The Red Shoes and Hamlet, and on stage he was about to join the Royal Shakespeare Company for a season with an extraordinary company. It was also the year he took up painting.
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
A publicity still for Uncle Silas (1948) - in character as Dr Bryerly