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Virginia McKenna, Born Free Founder

Virginia McKenna

I was born in London in 1931. My father was chief auctioneer at Christies and my mother was a wonderful pianist. She was in cabaret act called ‘That Certain Trio’ and they played the Savoy and other high profile venues.

My parents divorced when I was four. I lived with my father and we moved to Slinfold. I actually wrote to the people who now live in my old home and they asked if I would like to come and visit. I went and had coffee with them, walked around the garden and saw where my bedroom was.

I attended Herons Ghyll School near Horsham until the war started. I was boarding at the school and we were in the shelter every night. My father wanted me to be safe so he asked my mother to take me to South Africa. We sailed over and I lived there for six years.

When I was small my father took me to London Zoo. I remember we went into the lion house and I saw they were living in concrete cages. I remember the noise of the iron bars echoing as the cage was shut. Everything was so awful and hard and unsympathetic. When I was in South Africa, I was invited on a safari in Kruger National Park. I saw wild lions under a tree and I remember thinking how different they were to the lions I had seen at the zoo.

Those two images stayed with me and remain symbols of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

I returned to England and to Herons Ghyll aged 14 and took what was called a Higher Certificate. I was always very interested in writing, reading and literature. I wanted to go to University to read English in order to become a journalist, but I had to earn my money more quickly.

My parents had seen me in school plays and encouraged me to go into acting. I went to an audition at The Old Vic but failed. I was however accepted at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where I satisfied my more academic side by taking a diploma course too.

An agent saw me in one of the school performances and told me he would like to look after me once I left drama school. He found me some work over the school holidays at the Dundee Repertory and I absolutely loved it. I felt I was ready to learn out on the field so I spoke to the Head Mistress and asked if she would allow me to leave a year early. I felt that I was ready. Fortunately, she said ‘yes’.

Today there are so few reps around so people finishing drama school nowadays usually have to start in television, where the technique is completely different from theatre. In theatre, not only do you have to portray your feelings, you have to project them to the front row of the stalls and to the back row of the upper circle. That is a challenge.

Whilst I was at Dundee, playing Estella in Great Expectations, I was watched by Daphne Rye. She was a representative of H.M Tennent, a big London theatre company of the time. They were casting a play called ‘A Penny for a Song’ and thought I would be right for the part of Dorcas. So I left Scotland for the Haymarket Theatre.

I was in some amazing productions with incredible people. H.M Tennent was also putting on A Winter’s Tale with John Gielgud, Dianna Wynyard and Flora Robson, and I went into that and played Perdita. I was very nervous. I
remember trembling with fear in the aisles with a young actor, Richard Gale,  who played Florizel. I remember John Gielgud came up to us and said ‘You two, what’s the matter?’ We told him we were worried we would not be good enough and he said ‘Nonsense! It will be perfectly fine.’ He gave us a pat on the shoulder and we wondered if someone had done the same for him once. He was the most lovely man.

My first television show was Shout Aloud Salvation, which was a great success. It was live television in those days, so one shoot would take place in one studio and you would literally have to run along the passageways, throwing on a hat or changing as you went, to make it to another studio for the next scene. You can’t stop. If you made a mistake, you had to cover it up.

The Second Mrs Tanqueray, filmed at the Riverside Studios, was my debut film. I don’t think many people have seen that film, which is probably quite good really!

I married Denholm Elliott, who I met on set of The Cruel Sea in 1953. It was a very short marriage. It was not right for either of us, let’s put it like that.

A Town Like Alice was shot over three months in 1956, which was quite long in those days. I never went to Malaya or Australia, as it was all filmed at Pinewood. There are shots of us withered women prisoners in the last stages of decline, all traipsing through a swamp. We actually plodded through a pond in Burnham Beeches. It was freezing cold, so they were spraying glycerine on our faces to make it seem swelteringly hot!

A wonderful actress of the time called Marie Löhr was also in the film. Marie had known my father. She gave me a beautiful locket that he had given to her years before, and I still treasure it.

I won the BAFTA for Best British Actress, and my co-star Peter Finch won the Best Actor award. It was a surprise to me, as everything is always a surprise. You do what you do. You are not thinking of prizes. Awards are quite hyped these days, but it was a little more reserved in those days. I can’t remember what I said!

At one point I did a series of cameos, as I wanted so much to work with the person I would be doing the scene with. They included Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper and Donald Sutherland. I was so lucky to have that chance of working in that golden era.

I first met Bill Travers in a play called ‘I Captured the Castle’ by Dodie Smith. I was playing Cassandra, and Bill was given a part and we met. But at that time, in 1953, I was about to marry, Bill was married already, and that was the end of that. We didn’t see each other until a good while later when we met by chance. We were having dinner with different people in the same restaurant and saw each other again. We met up then and never stopped meeting up. We married in 1957.

I was always testing myself. That’s life. You have got to take risks.

Sometimes Bill and I were in films together. We made a film together called The Smallest Show on Earth. The cast included Peter Sellers, Leslie Phillips, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles and as it was a comedy we were laughing every five seconds. Leslie and I are the survivors of that film and we are still friends today.

We followed that with The Barretts of Wimpole Street with John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones, then Passionate Summer and Two Living, One Dead. We had masses of work. Bill enjoyed a great personal success with a film called Geordie in the mid-1950s that led to a lot of work for him.

After marrying, we had two children quite quickly before a little gap and then two more children. They would travel with us as we filmed all over the world. When we made Born Free in 1964, three of the children came with us. William was five when we left for Kenya, and he has adored the continent ever since.

Born free, the film, started as a meeting with two American producers, Sam Jaffe and Paul Rudin, as well as a director who eventually left the project. They asked us if we would like to do a film based on the story of George and Joy Adamson, who had raised an orphan lion cub to adulthood. We had tea at the Mayfair Hotel and the producers were telling us ‘It’s so easy. These lions are just like pussy cats.’

Bill and I looked at each other and both said ‘Yes!’ It was such an exciting challenge and we could not resist.

At that time, it was all going to be filmed with circus lions. But that didn’t happen.

The two trained lions they initially brought over from Holland circus were not allowed to be in close contact with us as one tried to attack Bill during a training session. So they were withdrawn, and we had no lions. So there was a huge search and lions came in from every direction. We ended up with 22 or 23 lions of different sizes and ages.

We worked closely with five and established proper relationships with those lions we had to actually be with. Girl, Boy and Mara were the main three, but we were also close to Henrietta, Little Elsa and Ugas.

Mara had been a pet and become a bit too rough so was taken to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage. Boy and Girl were mascots of the Scot’s Guard Regiment in Nairobi, and they had been hand-reared by a sergeant, having been orphaned. He came to us for ten days and by the time he left, the lions knew we were his friends and they trusted us.

The whole experience was absolutely fascinating. I’m not saying we didn’t get knocked over once or twice, but that’s all part of it. Why the film has lasted so well is because they were not trained lions. There was a genuine rapport between the characters and the animals and you do not see that with computer generated scenes.

Born Free changed our life forever. I never forget who started it all; George Adamson. George has been our
inspiration from the beginning and I never want anybody to forget that.

Born Free was a huge success, but to our great dismay, most of the lions were sent to zoos and safari parks in the UK and America. But three of the lions, Boy, Girl and Ugas, were given to George to return to the wild.

George established a tiny camp and Bill stayed in Africa to film a documentary called The Lions Are Free, which is about George’s work with the lions. It includes some incredible footage and launched Bill’s next career, as a documentary film maker.

Bill and Born Free director James Hill then worked on a comedy called ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ about a young couple who travel to Africa and end up looking after three orphaned elephants. We needed a two-year-old and we heard of one that had been captured from the wild as a gift to London Zoo, and was in the trappers compound in Nairobi.

We were given permission to borrow her, and she loved being with the other elephants. We had six weeks with her and developed a bond with Pole Pole (Slowly Slowly). We tried to buy her and give her to Daphne and David Sheldrick, who were helping us with filming and looked after orphaned elephants. They said ‘okay’ but we were told by the trappers that they would then capture another baby from the wild. We could not condone that. Pole Pole went to London Zoo.

Over a decade later, Daphne wrote to us and said that the elephant was going to be put down. We went to see her and she immediately stopped, came towards us and put out her trunk. She remembered us.

We tried very hard to find a reserve in South Africa that would take her. But the zoo didn’t want to discuss it. They did agree to send her to Whipsnade Zoo where she would at least have companionship. Unfortunately she didn’t make it there. She collapsed and hurt her leg. She couldn’t get up and she was put down.

It was her death that led to the beginning of Zoo Check in 1984.

Joanna Lumley was our first patron. We had a tiny office in Battersea with a typewriter, phone and one filing
cabinet. We wanted zoos to look at the problems the animals faced and provide better care.

There wasn’t whole-hearted support of Zoo Check, and certainly not from the zoos. We were called ‘nutty actors’ and people said we didn’t know what the hell we were talking about. We probably didn’t when we started, and I’ve always admitted that. But if you don’t know, you learn, and we did by watching animals in captivity and noting the differences with animals in the wild.

Our first rescue was in 1987. There were two lions and a leopard animals living in a cage on the roof of a bar in Tenerife. At last, the Mail on Sunday sent a reporter out and he wrote a brilliant piece and finally the authorities could not ignore it any more. We went in with the government and the animals went to one of our sanctuaries.

I stopped acting in 1986. I was at the Palladium in The King and I in 1979, opposite Yul Brynner. I love working with animals and children, which apparently you are not meant to do, and the children were amazing in that show. I did receive the Olivier Award (for Best Actress in a British Musical). I think it’s nice to be recognised but prizes have never occupied much in my mind.

I haven’t done proper acting for so long that it is like another life really. A fascinating and fortunate life.

The last three years of Bill’s life was filming abnormal behaviour in captive animals, which became a focus for him. It was Bill’s idea to change the name of the charity to the Born Free Foundation in 1991.

I think Born Free has always been a pressure group but we’ve always felt that we don’t need to shout, and jump up and down. We believe that what we say is reasonable and if you speak with reason you don’t need to shout. As a style, we have never been too aggressive.

We ask people to look at things in a different way. By all means, go to the zoo, but with an eye that understands what you are looking at. Does the animal have shade? Can it go in and out? Does it have companions? Does it have clean water?

Born Free now has a big sanctuary in Ethiopia, taking in big cats, primates and many other different animals. We also have two sanctuaries in South Africa, we fund one in India for tigers and we help fund another sanctuary in Malawi.

I think that, slowly slowly, things are beginning to change. The government has said they will end the keeping of wild animals in circuses in 2015. We will be holding them to that one and we have offered to help find homes for these animals.

I’m still very hands on. Will and I just went on the march against the badger cull. Brian May (Queen guitarist and animal campaigner) is a friend and asked if I would attend. I said ‘absolutely!’ Will and I went to London and I joined Brian in presenting a petition to Downing Street.

I’m so grateful to my son Will, and I recognise his commitment and passion. Nobody quite realises the hours he works. He has vision and he speaks with a voice of reason. We have a wonderful team here. It’s heart-warming when people believe in what you are doing to the extent that it becomes their life as well.

Joy and George Adamson were both murdered. Joy was murdered by a member of staff who was dismissed as she said he had stolen something. They tried to disguise it as a lion attack. George was shot and killed by bandits as he came to the aid of tourists near his home.

I still work virtually every day and I’m hoping to go on the next rescue in Ethiopia. I have been out to Kenya and South Africa this year, and it’s still a thrill. As well as William, my daughter Louise lives in Australia and has four children and two grandchildren, making me a great-grandmother! Justin is a first assistant director on commercial films, and Dan is a diver who films underwater scenes for films and commercials.

It is going to be difficult to protect animals in the future as the projections we are seeing for the rise in the human population is huge. But we must provide areas that are properly protected.

It’s up to us to make a choice. If we truly don’t mind if there are not any wild creatures roaming around then, well, we’ve changed the planet for the worse.

For details on how you can support the charity visit https://www.bornfree.org.uk/