Esmond Knight

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 11-12-1981

An actor who doesn't make a drama of his disability ...

By Christopher Long

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It is a little disconcerting to sit down over a cup of coffee in a Chelsea flat with a successful actor, surrounded by his paintings on the wall and have to keep reminding yourself that he is blind – that he's been blind for forty years.

Esmond Knight, whose stage and screen career spans the years since he miraculously survived an exploding shell on the bridge of HMS Prince of Wales on May 23, 1941 has the amazing ability to look you in the eyes and convince you that he can see.

His acting skill has given him the ability to act as if he can see – an achievement which partly explains why his disability has disabled him so little.

After all, a man who can paint vivid, colourful and exciting paintings and exhibit them at the Chelsea Arts Society for 20 years is certainly using his eyes even if he can't see with them now.

A man who can look you in the eyes and tell you one of his most challenging roles was working out how to act the part of the blind Cardinal Orsini in the BBC's current production of The Borgias is hardly the sort of man who feels sorry for himself.

Esmond Knight, who now lives in Cranmer Court, just off Sloane Street, had already embarked on a successful stage career before the last war when he joined the navy and served in HMS Prince of Wales during the devastating engagement with the German battleship Bismarck.

Ironically, one of the last things he ever saw before he was blinded was the tragic sinking of HMS Hood which went down with nearly all hands only minutes before Bismarck turned her massive 15 inch guns onto Prince of Wales.

"Strangely, I just remember thinking that I was on the bridge and that we'd been hit by a shell that smashed straight through us and exploded over the other side."

"I felt myself sloshing around in the water and realised I was pinned down by dead bodies. People had been blown to bits – literally into fragments."

Taken down to the sick bay and later to hospital in Iceland, he soon found that he was totally blind though unbelievably lucky to be alive.

"Later on I had operations and a very, very small amount of vision returned to my right eye – rather what you would see if you screwed up your eye to the tiniest little trickle of light. But like everybody else I couldn't believe it had happened to me. I was just like the others, certain I would get my sight back. It couldn't be for ever. Not me."

"You would get men in St Dunstan's who would say: 'I'll be all right, won't I nurse', and she'd reply: 'well, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we.' But that was despite the fact that they knew they hadn't got any eyes at all."

St Dunstan's was a great help to Esmond Knight. He speaks fondly and with gratitude for all the help and financial assistance they have given him over the years.

"I suppose there are some old lags who think they're a bit mean or something, but so far as I am concerned they've been marvellous."

But perhaps that's because all the world will help a man who helps himself.

With a little luck and a lot of perseverance Esmond Knight's name was already getting known again before the war was over. At the Colliseum and elsewhere he started to give recitations – "rather awful, patriotic, jingoistic things" – and then broke through with an historic role as a German Gauleiter in The Silver Fleet starring Sir Ralph Richardson.

"The point was that the role was a really nasty character and I was banking on the fact that if I played a nasty part people wouldn't think I was looking for sympathy."

Laurence Olivier encouraged him and before long a career developed that included the part of Fluellen in Olivier's Henry V, Halfway House for Ealing and a whole series of stage and screen parts that have carried him through to his mid-seventies with a work record that would be the envy of many a sighted actor half his age.

"My advantage, if you can call it an advantage, is that I had 34 good sighted years before I lost my sight. When I came to Chelsea, where we lived in Kings Court South in the last years of the war, I already knew Chelsea's streets and where things were."

"I'd say: 'Now we're in Sydney Street, turn right into Cale Street, now turn left here...!' and so on."

"The other thing was that I knew it made a lot of difference if I didn't just look into space. I learnt to act as if I could see. If I said: 'Well, what's the time, I must get going...' I would pull up my cuff, look at my watch and do the things that a sighted person would do."

He agrees that people are much less likely to be frightened of blind people if the blind themselves can learn not to look obviously 'different'. Sometimes he uses a stick, but generally he relies on his local knowledge and his wits.

"The really great advantages recently are the introduction of white lines or yellow lines down the side of the roads and the 'bleep, bleep' noises you get from the crossing near Manresa Road in King's Road."

"They really should think of introducing more of these. The white lines produce a sort of glare which I can just see and that crossing is the only safe one I know."

On the whole, though, if you have to be blind, Chelsea is not a bad place to be blind in, he thinks.

The worst problem on the streets is bicycles.

"You just can't hear them and they assume you can see them. When I was younger we used to put cigarette cards between the fork and the spokes and it made a sort of rattling, clicking noise. It would be marvellous if people could do something like that now – just to make a little noise that would give some warning."

So far as his painting is concerned, the colours do present a bit of a problem. In true nautical fashion he lays out red on the left of the palette (port) and green on the right (starboard) with black in the middle and with the help of his wife from time to time is able to produce delightful pictures that please many and have sold often.

"Someone put an advertisement in The Times the other day wanting pictures by Esmond Knight. I got in touch with a very nice lady in North London and that was another satisfied customer!"

For twenty years he has supported and contributed to the Chelsea Arts Society but the talent is hardly surprising considering that ancestors on both sides of his family could paint and one of them was John Buxton Knight whose work hangs in The Tate.

Writing is another activity. St Dunstan's taught him braille and typing, although he doesn't bother with braille now. The typing has been useful, however.

Apart from writing his own plays, one piece that particularly pleased him was the text of a broadcast he made for the BBC on the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Hood earlier this year.

As an example of someone who has learnt to cope with a severe disability, Esmond Knight is not alone. Inspiring others to do the same is probably something that comes fairly naturally. But there can be very few people who have engraved on their memories, in quite the way he has, that fateful day when both the Hood and the Bismarck went down.

It was a good thing he had his eyes open then and in a sense you could say that he's kept them open ever since.

Captions to original photographs:

Actor and artist, Esmond Knight, of Chelsea, working on a painting
Playing his part, that of an archer and veteran of Agincourt, in his own one-man play, is war-blinded actor, Esmond Knight, of Chelsea.

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