Frances Clare, affectionately known as Fran, was Esmond's first wife and Rosalind Knight's mother. She and Esmond first met in 1927 whilst appearing together in Yellow Sands with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. At the time, the Birmingham 'Rep' was the best permanent company in the country and fortunately for Esmond the engagement lasted a year, mostly on tour in cathedral towns such as Exeter, Gloucester and Lincoln. Fran had already made a success in several of the Rep's London productions but had then been ill for a while and went on tour with them to recuperate. This allowed Esmond plenty of time to get to know, and fall in love with, the young actress who was the object of his attentions both on and off stage. In his autobiography he wrote: "… I had to make love to her. it was fun sitting on the upturned boat in a scene that we had together, plastered with a bronze make-up and having to say all those things to her which I hadn't quite the courage to say off stage." They became engaged (secretly at first) while still on tour and were married on Saturday 19th January 1929 at St Martins-in-the-Fields. The same evening Fran went on stage at the Gate Theatre and Esmond at the Children's Theatre in Covent Green. For a while the newlyweds moved into a flat at No.11 Clarges Street, off Piccadilly, once the home of Lady Emma Hamilton and which, by Esmond's own admission, "… was far too expensive."
Fran was two years older than Esmond, the daughter of actress Isobel Ohmead and James Sabben-Clare who had been Bram Stoker's agent during his tenure at the Lyceum Theatre in London. At the time of Fran's wedding to Esmond he was employed by the International Copyright Bueau. The family name had originally been just Clare, which was Fran's surname at birth. However, her father changed this to Sabben-Clare whilst serving as a major during the First World War. Although Sabben-Clare is the name on Fran's marriage certificate she retained Frances Clare as her stage name throughout her career. James Sabben-Clare was also an occasional playwright and one of his works, The Cure, was filmed in 1933 featuring a young William Hartnell.
During the early years of their marriage, Fran worked regularly on stage while Esmond's career incorporated both stage and film work. Notably, in 1930, she appeared in C.B. Cochrane's first theatrical management project, Nine Till Six at The Apollo. Occasionally she and Esmond worked together - in 1929 in Fashion at the Gate and Kingsway Theatres, and in 1931 at Esmond's old school, Westminster, where they appeared in Milton's Comus.
Rosalind with Mr Ramshaw in a still from Chas Knight's film The Sweeper
of the Skies (1935); when grown up Rosalind's character in the
production was played by Chas's daughter Jean.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight
The following year Fran gave birth to their daughter Rosalind and fortunately financial circumstances, which had not been great, improved shortly afterwards when Esmond began his long and lucrative run in Waltzes From Vienna, which in turn led to his appearing in the film version under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock. With the help of a nanny, Fran returned to work and in 1935 she travelled to Hungary to broadcast for the BBC, stopping off in Germany on her way home where Esmond was filming Schwarze Rosen (Black Roses) at the U.F.A. Studios in Berlin.
In 1937 Fran appeared in a play written by her mother called African Dawn which was staged for one night at Daly's Theatre to raise money for charity. Isobel Ohmead persuaded Esmond and Nora Swinburne to play the leading roles as their run in Wise Tomorrow had just come to an end. Ironically they were cast as lovers, at the very moment in their lives when they were falling in love with each other.
Fran was aware of Esmond's relationship with Nora almost from the beginning. He did not intend leaving her and was happy to continue living at home with his family and seeing Nora as and when he could. Nor did it prevent them from working together, and in 1938 they toured in Crest of the Wave when Esmond took over from Ivor Novello in the leading role.
To many wives, Esmond's relationship with Nora might have seemed wholly unacceptable, but Fran showed remarkable tolerance and understanding, In her unpublished autobiography, I Saw Stars, Nora wrote: "They were devoted to each other and the greatest pals. She loved him dearly and, as long as he was happy, she didn't seem to mind what he did. She never tried to stop him seeing me, she never put up any sort of fight, she never appealed to my better nature. In fact, she liked me, she was even fond of me."
When Ivor Novello's next musical, The Dancing Years, opened in March 1939 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Fran was again in the cast.
Dorothy Dickson and ivor Novello in Crest of the Wave; Esmond
took over the lead from Novello and Fran was also in the cast.
With the outbreak of war, Rosalind was evacuated to the country with her nanny, and Fran and Esmond stayed on in London, initially at there home in St John's Wood and then in rented accommodation in nearby Gloucester Place. There was little work around. When the Wilson Barrett Company (of which he was a joint manager) moved from London to Scotland, Esmond followed them, but was soon back at home as audiences dwindled and theatres closed. Whilst Esmond waited for his call-up papers to arrive (he had joined the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve), Fran found work in 1940 in a new play by J.B. Priestley called The Long Mirror and Esmond accompanied her as the production toured, for want of anything better to do.
In September 1940 Esmond's papers arrived and when he left for Portsmouth Fran stayed in London and struggled too find any work she could. When Esmond came home on Christmas leave, prior to being posted to HMS Prince of Wales as a gunnery officer, he caught up with her in Edinburgh where she was on tour with Ivor Novello in The Dancing Years again. She was still on tour the following May when she heard the news that Esmond had been injured during the conflict between Prince of Wales and Bismarck. The understanding between her and Nora became more apparent than ever at this time. Nora was also on tour (with John Gielgud in Dear Brutus) and was in Llandudno when she hear about Esmond. She subsequently moved on to Liverpool, by which time Esmond had been taken to a military hospital in Iceland. There, in Liverpool, Nora received the following letter from Fran:
"Nora, darling, thank you so much for your two sweet letters. Please don't ever reproach yourself, my dear. Your love for Esmond is a bond between us and personally I have always valued your friendship so much. it is terribly sad and I hate the thought of his being out in Iceland but both Esmond and the doctor aboard the Prince of Wales wired me Saturday morning. He has been angelic and I don't know what I would have done without him as I've had nothing at all from the Admiralty, which is probably just as well as they told my brother Esmond had been landed at Liverpool the someday I got his cable to say he was indefinitely in Iceland, having lost one eye, but was cheerful. it seems so typical of the way this war is being run that the Admiralty should say he was here. I do hope you feel alright, my dear, and haven't had too bad a time in Liverpool. Do let me know where you are. We are at the Hippodrome, Brighton, for the next fortnight. Love to Mary (Lynn) and that her for the letter please, much love, Frances."
When Esmond returned to the UK in August 1941, he was taken to Gourock in Scotland and Fran travelled up to be with him. From there she escorted him to St Dustan's, the home for blind ex-Service men and women, at Church Stretton, in Shropshire. She stayed with him for a few days until he had acclimatised himself to his new surroundings and then returned home. Whenever Esmond made a journey by train to London Fran would be there to meet him. It was on one of these occasions (10th December 1941) that she met him at Paddington Station and had to break the news to him that his old ship, HMS Prince of Wales, had been sunk with heavy loss of life.
In January 1942 Fran appeared with Esmond and Rosalind on the
front cover of Illustrated magazine. Inside was an article written
by Esmond in which he explained how he was coming to terms
with blindness and intended ending his days in the theatre.
When Esmond eventually left St Dustan's and returned home, it was to Fran and Rosalind that he went. Fran helped him get about and provided a secure base for him. She accompanied him on his ever increasing round of personal appearances - giving radio interviews and moral boosting talks to war workers - and numerous appointments with specialists to see if there was any hope of regaining sight in his damaged right eye.
A scene from Act III of Three Waltzes, Prnces Theatre, 1945.
Esmond, as Dick Wessex, is seated at the far left of the desk
and next but one to him is Fran as Marjorie Russell.
In 1945, when Esmond went to live with Nora, Fran again showed her great selflessness, putting his welfare and considerations before her own. She even packs his bags and other belongings for him, and welcomed him back after three weeks when Esmond found it unbearable to be separated from wife and daughter. But he eventually made the break once and for all. Fran refused to divorce Esmond immediately, insisting on waiting until she was certain that he had made the right decision and that all was well with him and Nora. It was also an indication of the continuing bond between Fran and Esmond that he and Nora moved into a house only a few streets away from Fran and Rosalind in Chelsea.
From the mid-1940s onwards Fran's career gradually began to wane and engagements became less forthcoming. Nevertheless, in 1948 she made one of her two screen appearances in Panic at Madame Tussaud's and two years later, more notably, she played the part of Miss Amelia Clomber in Powell & Pressburger's superb Gone to Earth.
Fran as Miss Amelia Clomber in Gone to Earth.
Esmond was also in the cast as Abel Woods and Rosalind had a small part as an extra. To add to the Knight entourage, Esmond's niece Jean was the animal trainer responsible for the all-important foxes for the production. Although Fran's part was not a large one, she nevertheless received a considerable credit in the opening titles of the film.
Fran with her second husband, Nigel Hogg.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight
Relationships remained as good as ever with Esmond and Nora for the rest of their lives. Fran and Nigel used to socialise with them often, often dining out together. It is Rosalind's belief that Fran and Esmond were probably more comfortable as friends than they had ever been as husband and wife. Nora was a very practical person and therefore better suited as Esmond's partner, whereas Fran had always been more spiritual than practical.
When Esmond died in 1987, Fran and Nora attended the funeral together, demonstrating to the end that Fran had been right when she wrote that their love for Esmond had indeed been a bond between them. Fran died seven years later in 1994, in her ninetieth year.