Throughout the 1950s, Esmond and Nora enjoyed a steady stream of work. They had a lovely home in Bywater Street, Chelsea, and also acquired a charming thatched country cottage in the village of Weston Turville, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where they could escape and relax at weekends, and where Esmond indulged in his passion for painting, in the attic, which had been converted into a studio. When they first bought it, the cottage was called Queensland Cottage, but Esmond had other ideas and it was soon rechristened Nora's Ark.
Bywater Street, Chelsea. The Knights lived at number 35
(the blue house on the right) from the 1940s until the 1970s.
Novelist John Le Carre used the street as the fictional home
of his spymaster, George Smiley, because, apparently, it is hard
to keep a cul-de-sac under surveillance.
In 1955 Nora was invited to play the part of Hecuba in a big-budget film, Helen of Troy. It was a pleasurable task as it meant going back to Rome for filming at the Cinnecitta Studios and working with a strong cast that included Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Cedric Hardwick, Harry Andrews, plus a young Brigitte Bardot as Andraste. Esmond was involved too, and in fact went to Italy alone ahead of Nora to coach Jack Sernase, who played Hecuba's son, Paris, in English as he had a strong French accent.
On the small screen Esmond was involved in several projects in the late 1950s. In 1957 he played Wackford Squeers in a BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, with Rosalind playing Fanny Squeers. As chance would have it, Charles Dickens described Squeers as "one-eyed", and so Esmond, not for the last time, felt no compunction about removing his glass eye for the sake of authenticity. Soon afterwards, father and daughter were again cast together in The Clandestine Years, which was broadcast in March 1958.
On the subject of glass eyes, Esmond had many made over the years of different shapes and colours. Eventually he found a man in Kent - an ex-airman - who made him such a perfect one that people often thought that it was his good eye. Whenever he went away he always took a spare in case he lost the good one. Glass eyes that were no longer used also came in handy, as Nora recounted:
"I remember once I thought the maid in our hotel was eating our chocolates so I put a glass eye in one of the empty paper holders and it seemed to stop them disappearing. I expect it gave her a fright … the seeing eye!"
In February 1958 Esmond and Nora were in the audience rather than on stage, at Lambeth Town Hall to see The Gift, a play by Mary Lumsden, which was being presented to help raise money to encourage the procedure of cornea grafting. At the time, Esmond was President of the Eye-Will Crusade, a movement intended to raise awareness of donating cornea for grafting. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that Esmond was hoping to play the lead in a television production of The Gift later the same year, although this doesn't seem to have come to fruition. Also present at this performance was Odette Hallowes, the wartime heroine who had worked for the French Resistance and been captured and tortured by the Germans. By this time Odette was also blind and together she and Esmond subsequently made a twenty-minute film with Eton College Film Unit about a boy's problems coming to terms with blindness.
Esmond and Nora next worked together on an enjoyable project that saw them travelling to Switzerland to film their scenes for a Walt Disney production, Third Man On The Mountain (1959), working with Ken Annakin who had directed Nora as 'The Colonel's Lady' in Quartet a decade earlier.
On the set of This is Your Life - from left to right: Eamonn Andrews, Rosalind Knight, Esmond and (seated) Nora Swinburne.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight
The man with "the red book" in those days was Eamonn Andrews, and for thirty minutes he talked through Esmond's life and introduced family, friends and colleagues including Balliol Holloway (the actor who worked with Esmond in his early Old Vic days), Nurse Thorday (who had looked after him in hospital in Iceland), Dr Vincent Nesfield (who had restored his sight), Enid Hayworth (the matron at Nesfield's nursing home), Michael Shepley (schoolfriend and fellow actor who worked with him in the film Henry V), Michael Buxton (a shipmate from HMS Prince of Wales who survived the sinking), Rosalind and Nora. Uncle Chas could not be there - he was in Kenya and not well enough to travel, and in fact died later the same year. But he had recorded a message for Esmond in advance which was played during the programme. Earlier that day, Chas had sent a telegram to Esmond's home that read: "All good wishes, I shall be speaking to you later, old boy, love Chas." Fortunately it didn't arrive until after Esmond and Nora had left home for the evening (Esmond thought he was going to the theatre), otherwise it would have given the game away.
Esmond with some of his guests on his This Is Your Life programme:
1. Michael Buxton****2. Rosalind Knight****3. Enid Hayworth****4. Balliol Holloway
5. Wilson Barrett****6. Nurse 'Bluebird' Thorday****7. Dr Vincent Nesfield****8. Michael Shepley
9. Esmond Knight****10. Nora Swinburne****11. Sally Duncan
A recording of the Flashback programme in which Esmond and Muellenheim-Rechberg eventually meet can be seen on a website called Big Red Book - A Celebration of This Is Your Life. The clip also explains in more detail how Uncle Chas nearly scuppered the entire Esmond episode! Another has a charming interview with Rosalind Knight, recalling her memories of the programme.
In a review of Esmond's This Is Your Life programme the next day (19th February 1957), TV critic Stanley Moss write: "If you can judge a man by his friends, Esmond Knight must be a really delightful person."
Sink The Bismarck! (1960) - the film directed by Lewis Gilbert that told the story of the Battle of Denmark Strait and the subsequent chase and sinking of the Bismarck, in which Esmond re-enacted scenes form his own life.
For Esmond it was a production with an extraordinary personal connection, for he was invited to play none other than his own commanding officer, Captain John Leach, and he found himself on a set at Pinewood Studios re-enacting moments from his own life. As Leach, he broadcast a message to the crew warning them they would soon be moving to action stations, a message he himself had heard as a crew member. As Leach he watched HMS Hood blow up and sink before his eyes, as Esmond had done in real life. Then as Leach, he staggered on the wreck of the bridge immediately after the impact of the shell from Bismarck which had blinded him, surrounded by the dead and wounded (one of whom would have been Esmond himself), shouting orders to the engine room to alter course and make smoke.
Sink the Bismarck! (1960) - Esmond portraying Captain John Leach, his own commanding
officer on board HMS Prince of Wales. In this scene the shell from Bismarck that blinded Esmond
in real life has just struck and Leach is ordering to pull away from the battle and make smoke.