In 1980 Esmond was in his 75th year. Apart from failing eyesight he was in good health and as eager and enthusiastic as ever to work. In 1981 he appeared as Cardinal Gian Battista Orsinin in episode 8 of The Borgias, a TV mini series which dealt with the notorious goings-on in Renaissance Italy of the family whose name is nowadays synonymous with political corruption, greed, incest and murder. Rodrigo Borgia, the first man to have bought himself the papacy and father of Lucrezia, was played by Adolfo Celi. The series was partly scripted by John Prebble who had also contributed an episode of Elizabeth R.
Also in 1981 he was involved in two television adaptations of Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida (as Priam) and Antony and Cleopatra (as Lepidus) - and then in 1982 came the first of two projects which, after thirty years, saw him involved again in productions with Laurence Olivier. For the second time, John Mortimer adapted his play, A Voyage Around My Father, for television with Olivier portraying Mortimer's own father and Alan Bates as a young Mortimer. Ironically Esmond played a judge with perfect sight, while Olivier's character was completely blind. Coincidentally, at the same time Esmond was also on stage playing First Player and Gravedigger in Hamlet, with Edward Fox in the role that Olivier had portrayed so successfully on film back in 1948.
King Lear for television, Laurence Olivier's last major role. Esmond was in the cast
and the production was directed in Manchester by Michael Elliott.
Nevertheless it did not prevent him from giving his all and pushing himself physically as he had done all his acting life. Towards the end of the play, Lear enters carrying the body of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and lays her down on the floor. To avoid the strain of actually carrying her full body weight, the actress (Anna Calder-Marshall) was supported by wires from above, but when it came to the take, the wires went limp as Olivier lifted her for real, played the scene and ended up bent over her lifeless body. The strain had been too great - not only did Olivier forget his lines as he lay there but when it had been covered up by a second take and Michael Elliott called "Cut!" Olivier could not get to his feet and had to be helped by Colin Blakeley, who played Kent.
Such physical commitment to a part had always been a hallmark of Esmond's approach to his work as much as that of Olivier. Without it he would probably not have retained the confidence and self-assurance to sustain a stage career with varying degrees of limited sight for forty years. This was evident later the same year when he once again worked at the Royal Exchange Theatre for Michael Elliott, who directed him in his own adaptation for the stage of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The production starred Brian Cox as Captain Ahab and Nigel Terry as Ishmael. Esmond played two parts, the Carpenter and Captain Peleg. As the latter he was all too prepared to clamber up rigging on the stage ship and exert himself physically, as and when he felt necessary, to an alarming degree, and he had to be persuaded to the contrary by an anxious Michael Elliott. Moby Dick was the Royal Exchange's seasonal production of the year and ran from 22nd December 1983 to 28th January 1984.
The following summer Esmond was involved in another production which was hardly the mild and gentle piece one might expect from an actor in his late seventies. In August he opened in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Devils. This was John Whiting's adaptation of Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of Loudon which he had written for the RSC in 1960 and which was the subject of Ken Russell's controversial film of 1971. Again Esmond played two roles - De La Rochepozay, the Bishop of Poitiers, and Father Ambrose - and by all accounts it was an intense and bloody production of a shocking subject matter. The venue was The Pit Theatre in the Barbican, five floors down and with a claustrophobic atmosphere that was too much for the lady sitting next to Rosalind Knight at the performance she attended. Rosalind ended up with a head on her lap as the lady was unable to leave the confined space before the interval and had been overcome by both the play and the setting.
His next role could not have been a greater contrast - the eccentric Sir Francis Puckerington in a television adaptation of Tom Sharpe's comic novel Blott On The Landscape. Esmond appeared in the first three episodes alongside David Suchet as Blott, Geraldine James, and George Cole as the MP who tries to have a motorway built through the grounds of his wife's ancestral home. First broadcast in 1985, "Blott" rarely sees repeat showings, and David Suchet is now far more familiar to television audiences as 'Poirot'.
As Mr Galbraith in Sleeping Murder.
Interestingly, this story was written by Agatha Christie in 1940 but not published until after her death in 1976. Similarly, she wrote Curtain: Poirot's Last Case which was published just before her death.
The Fortunes of War, the television adaptation of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy
novels that turned out to be Esmond's last performance. He died in London
the morning after he had returned from filming in Egypt.
The couple were played by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, themselves married to each other at the time, with a cast including Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennett and Robert Stephens. Esmond's role as Leverage required him to fly to Cairo for filming, which he did in early February 1987.
Just before he left for Egypt, on 10th February, Esmond was visited in his flat in Cranmer Court (which he sometimes referred to as "God's Waiting Room") by writer Hugo Vickers who was researching his biography of Vivien Leigh at the time. Thirteen years later, Vickers also wrote Nora's obituary for The Independent newspaper, and in it he recalled that while he was talking to Esmond about Vivien Leigh, Nora arrived home and joined in the conversation with her own memories and opinions on the subject:
"It's so difficult for those big, beautiful stars not to develop something at the end. Look at that other one, Burton's wife … and Jennifer Jones, she was ab-solutely potty! They get spoiled. However, you can't blame them." She then announced that she was going out to get lunch. "Fish in a bag, I expect," declared Esmond Knight. "Don't be so rude to me," she called from the other room. "You'll have some nice haddock."
Filming in Cairo was hot and tiring. Esmond completed most of his work and then returned to England on 22nd February. He was scheduled to fly back to Egypt to finish off some scenes in due course. It was a strenuous schedule for a man of eighty. The following morning, a Monday, Esmond was in the bedroom at Cranmer Court. Just as she had done twelve days earlier, Nora called out to him from another room: "Would you like a cup of coffee?" to which Esmond replied, "Yes please." Nora made the drink and took in to him. In those ensuing moments Esmond had suffered a heart attack, and by the time she entered the bedroom he was dead.
The funeral took place the following Friday, 27th February 1987, at St Simon Zelotes Church, Milner Street in Chelsea (right), just a few streets away from Cranmer Court, and was followed by a private cremation. A request was made for no flowers and, instead, donations were invited to the Theatrical Ladies Guild of Charity - c/o J.H. Kenyon Ltd., 49 Marloes Road, London N8. Nora and Fran were both present at the funeral, united together in Esmond's death as they had been during his life.
Sadly Rosalind was unable to attend - she was on stage at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, playing Maria in Twelfth Night. The run ended the following day but there were no understudies for the production and she could not be released.
Nora received over two hundred letters of sympathy from friends, relatives and the general public and she insisted on replying to them all personally. At one stage she ran out of writing paper, and at least one person, Maxine Audley, who appeared in two films with Esmond (Peeping Tom and The Prince And The Showgirl) received a reply on the back of an original Esmond Knight sketch of a bowman - which was subsequently framed!
Nora continued to live at Cranmer Court, sometimes alone and at other times with her son Francis, who came to share the flat with her. In 1995 Nora was awarded a Civil Pension by the Queen for her contribution to the British theatre. In the same year Fran also died and five years later, on 1st May 2000 at the age of 98, so too did Nora. Like Esmond before her, Nora's funeral took place at St Simon Zelotes Church and, snubbing convention as she had often done before, her coffin left the church to the accompaniment of The Stylistics singing: "You Make Me Feel Brand New."
Esmond Pennington Knight
(1906 - 1987)