In the 1970s Esmond featured in a number of highly acclaimed television productions, notably historical dramas, and mainly for the BBC. In 1971 he appeared with Sir Ralph Richardson in She Stoops To Conquer, directed by Michael Elliott. Richardson was at his eccentric best. During one scene they were seated together at a table; the set was lit by a large number of candles and the molten wax from them dripped everywhere. In a bored moment between takes, he pick up a bit and ate it. Turning to Esmond, he said: "Would you like to try some candle grease? It's awfully good!"
The same year Esmond appeared in the second of six episodes of Elisabeth R, the memorable series which followed hot on the heels of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Glenda Jackson gave a remarkable performance as Elizabeth, spanning her entire reign and ageing 45 years in the process. Esmond's episode, The Marriage Game, in which he plays the Bishop of Quadra, deals with the complex and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to provide a suitable husband for the Virgin Queen.
Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R.
At the forefront of the cast, playing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was Esmond's friend, Robert Hardy. They had long shared an interest in archery, and it was the topic of many conversations between the two men. Their talks sowed the seeds of a project which would soon come to fruition for Esmond - presenting a staged account of the Battle of Agincourt from the point of view of one of the archers, perhaps as a one-man show. But for the time being it remained just an idea.
Since the critical mauling of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell had struggled to maintain a career in the film industry and during the 1960s he had found work mostly in Australia, where he directed They're A Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969), the latter featuring a young Helen Mirren. In 1972, however, he and Emeric Pressburger joined forces again to make a film financed by the Children's Film Foundation, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a story of a schoolboy who loses his pet mouse during a visit to the Tower of London. Having fallen asleep in a lesson at school, the boy is sent home but mysteriously turns yellow on the underground journey. Esmond plays the doctor who examines him and gives assurance that there is nothing seriously wrong with him. Esmond was one of the few Powell / Pressburger 'regulars' involved in the production (this was his eleventh film with Powell), the another most notably being cinematographer Christopher Challis. It was a good piece of work in its one right and won the 'Chiffy' award - best Children's Film Foundation production - two years running. Unfortunately it did little to restore Powell's reputation and apart from a documentary about the making of one of his earlier films, Return to the Edge of the World (1978), this was to be the last film he directed. His reputation remained tainted for some years to come and the tide didn't turn for Powell until Martin Scorsese and other admiring American film directors raised the profile of his work and restored his reputation as one of Britain's finest directors.
The same colour featured in Esmond's next film, Yellow Dog (1973), in which he again worked with Robert Hardy. No doubt archery and Agincourt were topics of conversation between takes once more, and they remained in the forefront of Esmond's mind when he went up to Manchester later the same year to appear as Dr Warburton in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion with Edward Fox, Joanna David and Nora at the Royal Exchange Theatre, under the direction of Michael Elliott. At the time, the Royal Exchange organised a series of late night shows after the main performance of the evening as part of the Manchester Festival. People could stay on, have supper and a drink and enjoy some further entertainment from artists such as Gerald Harper, Eleanor Born, Frank Muir and Edward Fox. Esmond was invited by James Maxwell (who had been in the Old Vic Company with him in the early 1960s) to take part but he said that he had no party pieces to offer. Maxwell told him to go away and give it some serious thought as he was booking him to perform whatever it was in October. Esmond had just six weeks to come up with something!
Agincourt - The Archer's Tale was a huge success. Rosalind Knight was present at the first performance on 23rd October 1973 and with the rest of the audience was spellbound by Esmond's extraordinarily evocative narrative and delivery. Drawing on various historical sources, including ballads and contemporary accounts, he told his tale from the point of view of a Wiltshire farmer who leaves his home in the year 1415 to follow his King to France where, as part of a small, depleted army he helped to fight and win a battle in a muddy field near Agincourt against hugely superior French forces. The victory was even the more impressive considering the condition of the men by the time they reached Agincourt - half-starving, cold, wet and mostly suffering from diarrhoea or dysentry. The archers' prowess with a longbow made a major contribution to the victory, with a killing range of 200 yards or more, and a firing rate of up to four dozen arrows a minute. At close range, the arrows could pierce the best armour and an arrow storm was capable of driving back the most determined opposition.
In character for Agincourt - The Archer's Tale, which
Esmond researched, wrote and performed.
Picture courtesy of St Dustan's.
For his performance Esmond dressed authentically and carried a specially constructed longbow, taller than him by more than a foot. Such was the success of the show that Esmond was invited to repeat his performance many times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially he toured the north-west of England giving performances in schools, civic halls and theatres. In November alone he appeared in Audenshaw, Stockport, Delph, Altringham, Bury and Hyde.
In October 1974 a shortened version, under the title Our King Went Forth to Normandy, was given on BBC radio, and in August 1978 he gave four more performances at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park. The summer before he had also appeared at the Open Air Theatre as the Chorus in Henry V with the New Shakespeare Company, returning there thirty-eight years after playing Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream as he waited for his call-up into the Royal Navy.
Despite the deterioration of his already limited sight, Esmond continued to work regularly. In 1974 he appeared in A Fall of Eagles, an ambitious drama about the fall of three European dynasties - the Romans, the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns - with a magnificent cast including Michael Aldridge, Pamela Brown, Barry Foster, Marius Goring, Curd Jürgens, Patrick Stewart … and Nora Swinburne! During the production he was interviewed by the St Dustan's Review in which he gave an insight into the particular technical problems he sometimes encountered:
Whilst Esmond was happy working for as long as anyone would employ him, Nora decided it was time to retire, initially after the run of The Family Reunion in Manchester, although she was persuaded by Michael Elliott to postpone the decision until 1975 as he wanted her for another production. Thus her swan song was with Esmond in another T.S.Eliot play - The Cocktail Party - and this time the venue was Manchester Cathedral. Nora later wrote: "I thought to end up in a cathedral, in the round, in an Eliot play, was a lovely way to go out." Soon after returning to London, Nora and Esmond were struck down with a bad bout of 'flu. Struggling up and down the three flights of stairs in their Bywater Street house was an ordeal, and it was this that made them decide to look for a more manageable property. It had to be in Chelsea as Esmond knew it so well and could find his way around safely. They were fortunate to find a light, spacious and moderately-sized flat in Cranmer Court (pictured left), a large complex overlooking Sloane Avenue. Number 53 became their new home and remained so for the rest of their lives.
In 1976 Esmond appeared in another spectacular period production, "I, Claudius", the BBC's 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves' novels charting the life and family of Roman Emperor Claudius (played superbly by Derek Jacobi) as he writers his memoirs at the end of his life. Esmond appeared as Domitius in the third episode, Waiting In The Wings, which deals with the wanton behaviour of Julia in Rome while her husband is banished to the island of Rhodes. Claudius is still a child at the time and, while playing, he catches a wolf cub dropped by an eagle from above him, which is interpreted by a priest as a sign that Rome will one day be injured and Claudius will protect it. (As Domitius in the BBC production "I, Claudius".)
A scene from the 1976 TV production of The Man In The Iron Mask. Esmond
played Armand, Jenny Agutter's father and Richard Chamberlain's fellow prisoner.
Other television roles at this time included the Coroner in a 1978 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (with Jeremy Brett as Maxime de Winter, Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and Joanna David as the second Mrs de Winter), and as an Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. On stage he again worked for Michael Elliott at the Royal Exchange in Manchester both as Marmaladov in Crime and Punishment with Leo McKern and Tom Courtney, and repeating his role as Dr Warburton in The Family Reunion with Edward Fox and Joanna David. The production opened on 27th March 1979 and subsequently transferred to London, playing from 18th April to 12th May 1979 at The Roundhouse, and from 19th June onwards at The Vaudeville Theatre.
Towards the end of the year, Esmond repeated his one-man performance for the BBC who produced a version of The Archer's Tale, this time filmed on location as well as in the studio. It was broadcast on BBC2 on 30th October 1979.
The cast of the Royal Exchange Theatre's
1979 production of The Family Reunion
(From left to right) Back Row: Esmond Knight, William Fox, Constance Chapman,
Edward Fox, Daphne Oxenford, Jeffry Wickham, Hilda Schroder;
Front Row: Avril Elgar, Pauline Jameson, Joanna David, Harry Walker