1951 ended with Esmond working for Michael Powell again, but unusually on stage rather than screen. Powell's venture into theatrical production was short lived and not hugely successful. Helois, in which Esmond played at the Golders Green Hippodrome before transferring to the Duke of York's Theatre in London for a brief run. Actor / director Nigel Green was in the cast, too, and it was he who directed Esmond in April of the following year in Montserrat, a play by Lillian Hellman. The leading role was played by Richard Burton at a time when he was just starting to break into major film roles having "trodden the boards" for eight years.

The cast spent a week performing at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge prior to full production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. A newspaper article at the time suggested that the production remained an "out of town" run (by which it meant Hammersmith as well as Cambridge) as this was necessary to answer the question: "Is it too grim for the glossy West End? … Miss Hellman's story, adapted from the French play of Emanuel Robies, tell us of one Captain Monserrat, a Spanish officer appalled by the pillage and terror caused by his own army in Venezuela. Monserrat turns traitor and subsequently assists revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar to bring his people liberty. The play is extremely harrowing and relentless in its horror. Its deaths and on-stage beatings make this an 'x-certificate' play. 'Streetcar' seems subdued by comparison. It boasts three outsized performances by Richard Burton, Noel Willman and Esmond Knight."

A young Richard Burton at about the time he worked with Esmond Knight in the controversial play Monserrat.

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Work on two films, Arrow to the Heart and Girdle of Gold, was then followed in the autumn of 1952 by a theatrical season in a most unusual location - the island of Bermuda. Esmond and Nora travelled there to perform at the Bermuda Festival which ran from 27th September to 1st December at the newly-built Bermudiana Theatre in Hamilton. Esmond was rather thankful that he was still around to make the trip - on 6th September he had been at the Farnborough Air Show when a jet fighter disintegrated and fell into the crowd, killing thirty-one people (including the pilot, John Derry) and injuring many more. He was unharmed but it was a shocking experience.

The Bermuda Festival, which included concerts and an exhibition of Cecil Beaton's designs and photography as well as stage productions, was organised by the Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society which divided the year into an American and an English season (the American company that year had included Burgess Meredith). Nora and Esmond featured in five plays: Travellers' Joy, Ring Around the Moon, Family Reunion, The Magistrate and Miranda. Also in the small cast was Eric Berry, another Michael Powell regular who had appeared with Esmond in Contraband and The Red Shoes.

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The trip to Bermuda was sponsored by 'Moral Re-Armamanet' (MRA), an inter-denominational movement founded by the Christian evangelist Frank N.D. Buchman in 1938. Nora had been interested in MRA since the early 1940s when she found their philosophies helpful in not giving up hope that Esmond might regain his sight. Their teachings, which developed from Buchman's earlier work with the Oxford Group, were based on 'Four Absolutes' - honesty, purity, unselfishness, love - and the belief that personal change can lead to social change. Buchman himself put it thus: "Human nature can be changed. That is the root of the answer. National economies can be changed. That is the fruit of the answer. World history can be changed. That is the destiny of our age."

Frank N D Buchman - founder of the Moral Re-Armament movement.


The idea of encouraging moral and spiritual reconstruction to build a "hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world" was popular in a post-war world. MRA was very much associated with the man and interest began to fade after Buchman's death in 1961, although its influence is very much alive in contemporary movements such as Initiatives of Change (IofC). Nora's association with MRA continued for many years, whereas Esmond's interest did not extend beyond working professionally for them once in a while - his religious beliefs wavered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism.

On 3rd October 1952 the BBC broadcast Desert Island Discs with Esmond being interviewed about his life by presenter Roy Plomley and playing his choice of recordings to take with him to his imagined place of solitude. These were:

1) Dance of the Blessed Spirits - Gluck
2)
Shadrack - Louis Armstrong
3)
Ding Dong Merrily on High / I Saw Three Ships - Kings College Chapel Choir
4)
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 - J.S. Bach
5)
Motor Car Racing, Jersey 28th April 1949 - Eric Findon
6)
On the Plains, Fairy Trains - Thomas Weelkes (Cambridge University Madrigal Society)
7)
London 1600 - William Walton (from the soundtrack of the film Henry V)
8)
Allegro - G.F. Handel (which Allegro not known)

His book choice was The Story of Art by Sir Ernst Gombrich.

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On 29th July 1953, a new radio sitcom was introduced by the BBC, A Life of Bliss, starring George Cole as awkward, bumbling bachelor David Bliss. Esmond and Nora were both cast members in the early episodes, playing a married couple, Robert and Pamela Batten, with Rosalind making an appearance in a 1954 episode as Marie. Recording sessions took place at the Playhouse Theatre in Villiers Street and by all accounts they could often be something of a nightmare. The writer of the series, Geoffrey Harrison, was frequently late completing his scripts, to the extent that he would still be typing them at the recording sessions while Percy Edwards (the "bark" of Psyche the dog in the series) entertained the studio audience with his animal impressions. This caused particular problems for Esmond as he could not read the script, so Nora had to teach him his lines very quickly, more or less during the recording. It was extremely nerve-wracking and they soon had to give it up and leave the cast. Incredibly, under such circumstances, the series ran for 118 episodes and transferred to television in the early 1960s.

George Cole as David Bliss and Petula Clark as Penny Gay recording the radio sitcom
A Life of Bliss. In early episodes Nora played Bliss's sister and Esmond his brother-in-law. Their parts were taken over by Diana Churchill and Colin Gordon.

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In 1954 Laurence Olivier was preparing to bring a third Shakespeare play to the cinema screen. Ten years earlier he had mesmerised London theatre audiences with his performance in the title role of Richard III at the Old Vic when he returned there after finishing the film of Henry V. Noël Coward was in the audience for the first night and wrote: "I think the greatest male performance I have seen in the theatre … he is far and away the greatest actor we have." Michael Powell was there too: "Ah! What a night that was. I thought we would never stop clapping." Now Olivier was to record permanently on celluloid his legendary interpretation of the Duke of Gloucester, the evil, disfigured hunchback who becomes king, and he called upon Esmond to join the cast. Esmond had himself appeared in "Dickie Three Eyes" as the Marquis of Dorset back in the 1920s at the Old Vic. But now Olivier asked him to take over the more substantial role of Sir Richard Ratcliffe.

As Sir Richard Ratcliffe in Richard III (1955)

Thus Esmond became one of only three actors to appear in all three of Olivier's Shakespeare films, the others being John Laurie and Russell Thorndike. As usual the cast was stunning and included Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedrick Hardwick, Claire Bloom and Stanley Baker. Shooting began in September 1954 in Spain, with a bull farm outside Madrid as the location for the Battle of Bosworth, and it wasn't until some weeks later that Esmond was required at Shepperton Studios to film his scenes. In some scenes he had the additional pleasure of working with Rosalind who, aged twenty-one, appeared (uncredited) as a lady-in-waiting.

Olivier's performance in Richard III is legendary and captured for posterity a role he had perfected on stage, with its innate sense of evil and ability to draw the audience into his sinister mind. The physical changes too were extraordinary, although the limp which Esmond and Rosalind observed on set was not entirely artificial; a misguided arrow during filming in Spain had embedded itself in Olivier's calf. Richard III was equally as successful as Henry V and Hamlet had been and once again brought a new and infinitely larger audience close to the work of William Shakespeare. When the film was first screened on television in the USA by NBC simultaneously in forty-five states, on 11th March 1956, it was watched by an estimated 62 million people - more than had seen the play in theatres in England since it was first performed in 1592.

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Father and daughter at Shepperton Studios
     during the filming of Richard III (1955).