Whether tarred with the same brush as Powell, or by coincidence, Esmond's film work dwindled for a number of years after Peeping Tom. But he was busy elsewhere with television providing a steady stream of work and some interesting roles. In 1961 he featured with a young Julie Christie in the BBC's A For Andromeda, a remarkably advanced science-fiction story for its day, in which an alien transition results in the building of a supercomputer, a genetic experiment, and the subsequent cloning of a female technician (Christie) with an alien mentality.
(Left) Esmond as Professor Reinhart in the BBC's 1961 ascience fiction series A For Andromeda.
(Right) Julie Christie, who played the female technician, cloned and renamed Andromeda.
The power of the story was largely due to the fact that it was written by Sir Fred Hoyle, a renown astronomer, regarded as one of the most creative scientists of the 20th century, who added technical accuracy and authenticity to the storyline. The series of seven episodes were broadcast during October and November 1961. It was hugely popular, with thirteen million people watching the final episode. The story was told in flashback, each episode beginning with Esmond, as Professor Reinhardt, recalling the main events. Reinhardt is the astronomer managing the team of scientists who build the supercomputer. The series was so successful that a sequel followed the next year, The Andromeda Breakthrough, although neither Esmond nor Julie Christie was involved (Christie was unavailable and replaced by Susan Hampshire). Until recently nearly all of A For Andromeda was thought to have been lost, with only a few brief clips and tele snaps (photographs of the TV screen) remaining. But in 2006 a complete episode (The Face of the Tiger - Episode 6) was returned to the BBC who have subsequently released a DVD of this, plus the remaining fragments, and the whole of The Andromeda Breakthrough.
Plans for a National Theatre had been voiced as far back as 1848, and almost a century later, on the last page of his 1943 autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, Esmond himself had added his support for the idea: "In this new, shall we say National Theatre, let us have new ideas, new actors, new producers, new plays." As it turned out his prophetic words were in line with Olivier's own thinking and this indeed is what came to be. Ironically the "new actors", in Olivier's vision of the future, did not include Esmond. He was one of a number of past colleagues who offered their services but were politely refused. A few big names, no more, were all he needed to launch the theatre and beyond that he planned to build an entirely new company with a new generation of actors. "It was so hurtful," Esmond later admitted to Anthony Holden, Olivier's biographer, "that I wished I had never asked him in the first place." Esmond was not alone in feeling this way; there was no Ralph Richardson in the new company, no John Gielgud, and no John Laurie. Eventually, The National Theatre Company gave its first performance, Hamlet, on 22nd October 1963 with Peter O'Toole in the leading role and a cast that included Michael Redgrave, Diana Wynyard and Max Adrian.
On stage at the Mermaid Theatre in 1965
with Sonia Dresdel in Dandy Dick.
He astounded Rosalind on occasions, too. She recalls walking through Chelsea one morning and seeing Esmond on the other side of the road. She was in a hurry and so carried on walking. He called out: "Rose, is that you?" - which astonished her, considering the distance between them. Unfortunately, as the 1960s progressed, the quality of sight began to wane. Esmond again consulted Dr Nesfleid who put it down to old age, but in fact it was glaucoma and the misdiagnosis had unfortunate consequences, as it delayed essential treatment for some years. When the glaucoma was identified in the early 1970s, he was able to take pills and eye drops to keep the pressure down in an effort "to hang on to the vision I do have", as he himself put it. But by then the damage had been done and the limited and highly precious sight deteriorated more rapidly as a result. Meanwhile Esmond appeared in several television plays - notably To Bury Caesar in which he again effected an accent, which he had long ago mastered, to play Springwood, a sleazy Welsh tabloid journalist. He then accepted an invitation to join the Mermaid Theatre Company for its 1964-65 season and worked on a very varied programme ranging from Oedipus Rex to Dandy Dick, by way of a new musical - Four Thousand Brass Halfpennies. In Dandy Dick, he was revisiting a piece he had filmed with Will Hay thirty years before.
During his time at the Mermaid, Esmond spent several days at Shepperton Studios filming yet another of his brief but memorable screen appearances, this time in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, based on John Le Carré's superb cold war spy novel. He plays the eldest of three judges presiding over a tribunal in East Germany that sits in closed session to determine whether or not its chief spymaster, Mundt, is a double agent. Wearing a neatly cut suit and steel-rimmed glasses, Esmond walks into the courtroom, takes his place and for the most part sits silently listening to the proceedings. He is passive, yet his manner is extremely authoritative, like an older and mute version of von Schiffer, the character he portrayed in The Silver Fleet in 1943. When he speaks his only line - "If there is communication between the two witnesses, Leamas will be taken out and dealt with" - there is real menace in his delivery.
As one of the three tribunal judges in John Le Carre's
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965).
Esmond speaks one chilling line.
Photograph courtesy of the British Film Institute
The whole cast of The Spy Who Came In from The Cold is excellent, including minor characters played by Michael Hordern and Rupert Davies (as George Smiley, who supposedly lives in Bywater Street, Chelsea - opposite Esmond's home in real life). Richard Burton, as Leamas, a burnt-out, embittered agent bordering on alcoholism, gives arguably his finest screen performance. He and Esmond had worked together before, on stage in Monserrat in 1952, and there were other old colleagues on set with whom he had work at various times - Claire Bloom (1948 Stratford season), Cyril Cusack (Gone To Earth) and Robert Hardy (The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial).
At the 1966 Edinburgh Festival Esmond appeared in two plays staged by the Pop Theatre - The Winter's Tale and The Trojan Women, and in the latter he received high critical praise for his performance as "the pompous, bone-headed solder Menelaus". Conditions at The Assembly Hall were not easy, even for fully sighted actors, with cramped, make-shift dressing rooms, a route march to the open stage in the main hall, and entrances to be made along dark, sloping aisles through the audience. Nevertheless, in an interview with journalist Mamie Chrichton published in the Scottish Daily press, Esmond made it clear that he expected no special favours:
Few of the large audiences know that Esmond Knight needs a sixth sense to his colleagues' five, and that the way he wants it to be. "I must be judged solely by my performance as an actor," he said calmly. "After 23 years of near-blindness, I've developed my own way of remembering moves. Counting steps, watching shadows, so that it becomes subconscious and all my conentration can be given to the performance." Now he puts on his make-up. On stage he wears no visual aid. Offstage he wears glasses with a thick lens over his seeing eye. "With my glasses on I can see you," he said. "But I have no idea what you look like. Without them I would be aware only of a vague shadow. Fortunately acting is a job you rehearse. In London, before coming to Edinburgh, they marked out a space exactly the size of the Assembly Hall stage. It wasn't too difficult adapting to the real thing." Minutes before, I had seen Moira Redmond take him by the hand, laughing and chatting as she set him on his way round the corners and down the steps from the dressing rooms. It was as easy and natural as passing the sugar, and accepted in the same spirit. It hasn't been quite so easy for the ladies of the company to be composed over their souvenirs of this Festival season - small, framed paintings, mostly lively seascapes, painted and given by Esmond Knight!
The late 1960s saw Esmond working, but not as hard as he would have liked. A mild heart attack, gradually deteriorating sight and turning sixty in 1966 all conspired gradually to slow him down whether he was happy about it or not. In a Christmas card to some friends dated December 1967, featuring a painting of his on the front, he wrote: "It does not promise very well for us at the moment. However, one day, I'll get to see you again." The heart attack occurred at Nora's Ark, their weekend cottage in Weston Turville. Esmond was taken back to Bywater Street and ordered to rest - to stay in his study and not to go up and down stairs. It was a great shock to him and he did everything he was told, to the extent that he made a full recovery.
But it was a warning, and from then onwards he had to pace himself. On one occasion, Rosalind was walking with her father and Sally Duncan, a nurse from Vincent Nesfield's nursing home who had helped Esmond recuperate after his eye operations. Over the years Sally had become a good friend of the Knights and when she married and moved to the north of England she became a regular in the audience at the Royal Exchange Theatre, especially if Esmond, Rosalind or Nora were on stage. They were walking one weekend in Lime Park in Derbyshire and Esmond complained that his heart beat was racing. Sally immediately insisted that they slow their pace, and from then onwards all seemed well.
Things were not entirely grim and Esmond continued to be involved in major productions. That same year he appeared on stage in Bernard Shaw's Getting Married at the Strand Theatre in the West End, with a strong cast that included Ian Carmichael, Googie Withers, Moira Lister, Alec Clunes, Roland Culver and Raymond Huntley.
Nora and Esmond played husband and wife, the Kingstons, who cared for Anne Boleyn
during her incarceration in the Tower of London in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).
1969 was also a busy year for Esmond on stage. At the Greenwich Theatre he appeared in two productions - Spithead and Martin Luther King, the latter a play with music featuring Nina Baden-Semper and Derek Griffiths. Then at the Hampstead Theatre Club he appeared with Eric Thompson (father of Emma Thompson), in The Black Swan Winter. In a review in the magazine Play and Players (July 1969), critic Robert Cushman wrote: "Eric Thompson supplies the hero with all the wistful charm his author has wished on him, Margery Mason adds another to her individualised line of ineffectual mothers, and Esmond Knight's stumpy talent, too often expended on sub-Dickensian grotesques, is marvellously matched as the father.'
The Sunday lunch scene from The Black Swan Winter which opened
at the Hampstead Theatre Club on 5th May 1969. Left to right:
Eric Thompson, Veronica Hurst, Margery Mason, Esmond Knight.
At about the same time as Anne of the Thousand Days was first showing in cinemas, Esmond took a trip to Eastbourne for a performance of a very different kind. He had been invited by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to preside over the naming ceremony of a brand new lifeboat - the Vincent Nesfield.
A third of the cost of the boat had been raised by Mrs Joyce Giddins, an Eastbourne resident whose life had been saved forty years earlier by the same surgeon who had restored the sight in Esmond's right eye. Nesfield, aged 89, was also at the naming ceremony on Eastbourne beach on 9th April 1969.
A press photograph of the naming ceremony for the RNLI lifeboat Vincent Nesfield, performed by Esmond on Eastbourne beach on 9th April 1969 in the presence of Vincent Nesfield himself, who was then in his 90th year.
Photograph courtesy of The Times
The Vincent Nesfield was a 237ft 'Oakley' class self-righter. She was built in 1968 in Littlehampton at a cost of £38,000 and was first shown publicly at the International Boat Show at Earls Court in January 1969. This particular boat became a member of the RNLI's Reserve Fleet and, rather than stationed permanently in one location, she moved around the coast of Britain covering for stations which were temporarily without their own boat.
A postcard of RNLR Vincent Nesfield and her crew when she was stationed at Llandudno - date unknown.
One of her service calls took place on 19th December 1981 when she tried to rescue the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, Solomon Browne, which had got into difficulties helping a coaster, Union Star, off the Cornish coast. In atrocious conditions, the eight-man crew of Solomon Browne managed to rescue four men, despite their lifeboat being lifted twice onto the deck of the Union Star, before encountering problems themselves. Vincent Nesfield, stationed at Sennen Cove, was launched but unable to round Land's End to reach the other two boats. She was launched a second time and joined other rescue craft, but too late to save the crews of the Solomon Browne and Union Star who all perished. The average lifespan of a lifeboat is approximately twenty years and they cannot be resold once withdrawn from service; so the Vincent Nesfield was eventually broken up in Arklow in December 1991. she left behind her an impressive record. During her period of active service she answered ninety-eight calls and was responsible for saving thirty-nine lives.
September 1961 and the front cover of the Radio Times advertises the
BBC's forthcoming new science fiction serial - A For Andromeda.
Clockwise from the left: Esmond, Peter Halliday, Julie Christie, Mary Morris.
The image was subsequently used in 2006 by the BBC on the cover of the
DVD of what remains of A for Andromeda and the whole of the sequel,
The Andromeda Breakthrough.