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Esmond Pennington Knight

Lieutenant
Gunnery Officer

HMS Prince of Wales

 

A young Esmond Knight (Click for a larger view in a new window)

Esmond Knight in his later years (Click for a larger view in a new window)

Esmond Knight was present during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the action in which HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Hood fought against the German battleship Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen. HMS Hood was sunk with the loss of 1415 of her crew, leaving 3 survivors. Bismarck and Prince of Wales were both damaged.
A shell from Bismarck struck Prince of Wales in the compass platform, killing 13 men and wounding several more including Esmond, who was blinded.
He was watched over by his friend, Lieutenant Commander George Ferguson who was later killed when HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in December 1941.

There is an excellent web site dedicated to Esmond Knight here

The Times: 26th February 1987 


Mr Esmond Knight 
4th May 1906 - 23rd February 1987

Actor whom blindness could not dim

Mr Esmond Knight, the actor, died suddenly on February 23 while at his flat in Cranmer Court in London whilst home on a break from shooting on location in Egypt. He was 80.

During most of a packed life in the theatre, he fought with steady courage against what could have been a crippling disability.

Before the war he had been among the most eager and handsome young actors on the West End stage, as ready to play in musicals and revue as in Shakespeare, and never simply type-cast. Then, in 1941, while serving in the Navy, he was blinded during the action of the Prince of Wales against the German battleship Bismarck.

That could have been the end of Knight' acting career. Instead, he fought back with bravery that never lapsed.

Within two years he was working again, and though his sight, which he had partially regained, weakened progressively, he contrived to appear, with few breaks, in an extraordinary variety of plays - helped always by his strong memory and unwavering enthusiasm for the task.

Respected and admired by managements and by his colleagues, he had at least seventy or eighty parts of all kinds, from the classics to farce, and including his own one-man show of an archer at Agincourt.

Esmond Pennington Knight was born at East Sheen, Surrey on May 4, 1906, and educated at Westminster School, for which he had a sustained affection. His own bent for becoming an actor was first disclosed to him when, as a small boy on a back seat, he waited for the curtain to rise on the Westminster performance of the Phormio of Terence.

He made his first appearance on the stage at Pax Robertson's salon in Ibsen's Wild Duck in 1925. Later that year he made his Old Vic debut. He played not merely in small Shakespeare parts - but also singing in opera and dancing in ballet: anything for experience.

During his next fourteen years in London he established himself as an uncommonly virile, direct and physically impressive "juvenile" ready for most challenges. Thus, immediately after playing the Young Syrian in Wilde's Salome at the Gate (1931), he moved to Johann Strauss, jun., in Waltzes from Vienna at the Alhambra.

He had, also, some testing work in Drury Lane musicals, adapting himself to the size of the theatre as easily as he had to such small houses as the Gate and the Arts.

He followed Emlyn Williams as the "baby-faced" murderer in Night Must Fall (1936) when Williams went to New York, and he was delighted if listeners assumed that he was Welsh. For Nancy Price he acted at the Little Theatre; and, with Wilson Barrett, he ran a repertory season at the King's, Hammersmith.

His last part before joining in navy in 1940 was Lysander in a Regent's Park Midsummer Night's Dream, the Blitz already begun. Nearly a year later, as a junior officer in the Prince of Wales, he was blinded - losing his left eye - during the pursuit of the Bismarck, and he spent some time being rehabilitated at the St Dunstan's Training School which had been evacuated to Shropshire.

St Dunstan's soon had him acting in a play organized for the entertainment of Church Stretton. It fostered and developed his resolve to return to the theatre.

Having partially recovered his sight- "rather like looking through clouds", he said - he appeared during 1943 in the film The Silver Fleet; came back to the theatre (Lyric 1944), aptly cast as the English soldier, Courage, in Eric Linklater's Crisis in Heaven; and then, at the Princes in the spring of 1945, his romantic fervour unimpaired, he acted with Evelyn Laye in Three Waltzes.

"He was wonderful", Laye wrote afterwards. "He insisted that none of us should pay any attention to his blindness. He spent hours learning every corner and distance of the sets on the stage, so that he could move freely and play his part as though he had no handicap at all".

That could have been said of the remainder of his taxing career - never more taxing than when, during the1948 season at Stratford-upon-Avon (he was always a Shakespearian), he appeared as Leontes (most moving in autumnal repentance), Christopher Sly, a sonorous Ghost in Hamlet, and Thersites.

Through the next three decades, thanks to his unflawed feeling for character and his quiet gallantry, he acted in plays by Terence Rattigan (Who is Sylvia? 1950 [Made into the film The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955) with Moira Shearer & John Justin]); Shaw (Belzanor in Caesar and Cleopatra with Laurence Olivier, 1951; the General in Getting Married, 1967); Ibsen (Ballested in The Lady from the Sea, 1961; three parts in Peer Gynt, 1962); T.S. Eliot (The Family Reunion, 1973, and The Cocktail Party, 1975, in Manchester) and Shakespeare for the RSC and the Old Vic (1961 and 1962-3). 

He had, as well, a long spell at the Mermaid (1965), and was a notable Drake, a Thames waterman deceived into the belief that he cold win the Golden Sculls, in John Mortimer's Two Stars for Comfort (Garrick, 1962).

During 1973 he gave, at Manchester, his excitingly planned one-man show, Agincourt - The Archer's Tale; and in 1984 he had a small part in a revival of John Whiting's The Devils with the RSC at the Pit. In spite of desperately waning sight, he would not yield.

His many films included Henry V, Hamlet, The Red Shoes, Richard III, Sink the Bismarck [Playing the Captain of the Prince of Wales, the ship he was serving on when he was blinded] and Anne of the Thousand Days; and he was frequently on television. Towards the end of the war he wrote an autobiography, Seeking the Bubble. The manuscript of another little book, Enemy in Sight, which he had earlier written in longhand at St Dusntan's with the assistance of a special Braille apparatus, fetched 625 guineas at auction in 1942.

Knight was twice married. First, in 1929, to Frances Clare, by whom he had a daughter. He then married, in 1946, Nora Swinburne, the actress.

[Esmond appeared in the following P&P films: Philip Connor in 77 Park Lane (1931); Curley Blake in Some Day (1935); What Men Live by (1939); Mr.Pidgeon in Contraband (1940); Von Schiffer in The Silver Fleet (1943); Narrator (non-US versions) / Seven-Sisters Soldier / Village Idiot in A Canterbury Tale (1944); The Old General in Black Narcissus (1947); Dantos in The End of the River (1947); Livingstone 'Livy' Montagne in The Red Shoes (1948); Abel Woodus in Gone to Earth (1950) & thus also in The Wild Heart (1952); Arthur Baden in Peeping Tom (1960); The Doctor in The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)]

The Times: Letters Page: 5th May 1987 

Mr Esmond Knight 

Roland Hardless writes:

May I add a few words to your comprehensive obituary of Esmond Knight?

His first love was indeed the theatre, but the second was painting.

This started in a small way when he was almost blind and working at Stratford; a fellow actor suggested he take up drawing.

Most of his paintings were done from memory, and the impression one derives from them is a sense of his experience in the theatre and knowledge of history.

In particular his pictures of scenes from the medieval wars between France and England and successfully capture the excitement of the conflict.

Among his wide ranging works two are outstanding; his "Self-portrait" and the "Last impression of HMS Hood viewed from HMS Prince of Wales."

 

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