"Knight had something special to offer. It is not often that an actor
of his high quality can be found who is ready to play those small parts
often to be found in classical drama which are not now thought to be
worth a leading actor's while and yet need to be very well acted."
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
This website celebrates the life and work of a remarkable man and a fine British actor - Esmond Knight. His name may not be be broadly known nowadays, yet his work will be very familiar to anyone interested in British cinema as he appeared in some of the finest films ever made in the UK, including Henry V, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Hamlet, Richard III, Peeping Tom, The Spy Who Came In from The Cold and Ann of The Thousand Days. His list of credits is simply amazing and, in an acting career that spanned sixty years, he also appeared regularly on stage in London's West End theatres and in an impressive list of television productions, ranging from pioneer broadcasts for the BBC from Alexander Palace in the 1930s to Lord Olivier's swan song, King Lear, in the 1980s.
I first became aware of Esmond Knight when I developed a fascination for the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. His name kept cropping up in the credits, yet I could not easily place him. I started to look closer, checking his name against the characters he played to identify the actor beneath, and only then did I begin to recognise him and to appreciate the breadth and diversity of his work. Like Alec Guinness, he had the ability to absorb himself his characters with chameleon-like skill.
A publicity still of Esmond in character as The Old General in
Black Narcissus (1947), the Powell and Pressburger film of Rumer Godden's novel.
Photograph courtesy of Steve Crook
Then I discovered something that was not only remarkable but came as a complete shock, and made me appreciate and evaluate his work from a wholly new perspective. Esmond Knight was virtually blind. He had been injured in 1941 whist on active service onboard HMS Prince of Wales, struck by a shell from the German battleship Bismarck, no less! Totally blind for two years, he then regained limited sight in his right eye - just enough to resume his career. For him, acting, especially on stage, was a continuous challenge to deceive the audience into believing he could see as well as the next man - and he invariably succeeded. With this piece of knowledge in place, it was a fascinating and occasionally astonishing experience to revisit his film work and appreciate just how brilliantly he succeeded in portraying sighted men in mainstream film production with absolute conviction.
Watching him again in The Red Shoes alone, conducting a full orchestra and strutting around concert halls, was a revelation. But to discover he continued to work on stage almost continuously from 1945 onwards almost beggars belief. Esmond himself made the point that he was able to do this because he had enjoyed 35 fully sighted years and knew precisely how to move and react as a sighted person. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable achievement by any standards.
As if this wasn't enough, I subsequently discovered by reading a letter to The Times by Roland Hardless (5th May 1987), written in response to Esmond's obituary, that of all the pastimes and interests a partially sighted man might have adopted, Esmond chose painting. From the late 1940s until his death in 1987, he was a prolific artist.
Esmond (left) as the Seven Sisters Soldier in a scene
from A Canterbury Tale (1944). Next to him is
John Sweet as Bob Johnson of the U.S. Army.
Photograph courtesy of Steve Crook
Curiously little has been written about the second half of his life which includes most of the work familiar to my generation, and the remarkable story of how he regained his sight. What a pity he didn't write a second autobiography - it would have been a fascinating read.
I never had the pleasure of seeing Esmond Knight on stage, but at least I can continue to enjoy his film performances, though I have yet to see them all. My personal favourite is A Canterbury Tale (1944), Powell & Pressburger's quirky, nostalgic look at England during the war years, and particularly the Kent where Michael Powell himself grew up as a boy. Esmond provides the narration for the opening sequence of the film, including some of the prologue from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and later appears in two brief character parts - the Seven Sisters Soldier and the Village idiot - the latter for me being one of the most delightful cameos in all cinema and a performance that clearly brings out genuine hilarity in his fellow actors.