Virginia McKenna: How Born Free changed my life forever

Virginia McKenna on set the landmark film Born Free.
Virginia McKenna on set the landmark film Born Free.
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Fifty years ago, Virginia McKenna had an epiphany on Born Free that diverted her to animal conservation. She tells Tony Earnshaw about the part played by its Yorkshire director.

It was the most successful animal story of modern times: a worldwide best-seller read by 50m people and translated into 21 languages telling the true-life tale of the game warden who adopted an orphaned lion cub.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers in the 1966 classic film Born Free.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers in the 1966 classic film Born Free.

The book was Born Free. The author was Joy Adamson who, with husband George, raised Elsa the lioness and in doing so told a story of two people sharing a spontaneous love of nature and freeborn wild life.

It was made for the movies and became a passion project for heavyweight producer Carl Foreman, the man behind The Guns of Navarone. He described Adamson’s 1960 book as conveying “a great sense of exhilaration mixed with suspense, danger and humour”. It was also, he pointed out, “a great love story”.

Enter Virginia McKenna. In 1964 she and husband Bill Travers were engaged to play Joy Adamson and her husband, George. The experience of Kenya’s Naro Moru game reserve, of the landscape and the lions, would change their lives forever. The film, known equally for the double-act of McKenna and Travers, for the lioness Elsa and THAT unforgettable theme song as sung by Matt Monro, is being re-released on DVD.

The route to what would become an Oscar-winning smash – York-born John Barry won both for his score and for the song, written by Don Black – was circuitous. What would become a signif nicant hit for Columbia actually began as a Walt Disney picture. However, when Disney and original director Tom McGowan quit the project, Bradford-born James Hill was hired. Suddenly all the key ingredients came together.

Virginia McKenna receiving a 2013 World Tourism Award on behalf of the Born Free Foundation. Picture by Barry Batchelor/PA Wire.

Virginia McKenna receiving a 2013 World Tourism Award on behalf of the Born Free Foundation. Picture by Barry Batchelor/PA Wire.

“Tom was really nice but it didn’t quite work and then they got James Hill – wonderful James – to come in, who was brilliant and remained a friend of ours for many, many years. He and Bill worked together on many documentaries subsequently.”

A documentary specialist with an Oscar to his credit for Giuseppina, Hill made an immediate connection with Travers. After 10-and-a-half months on location in Kenya Travers had become a committed animal conservationist.

Travers died in 1994. Almost a quarter of a century later his wife, now 85, has no regrets about passing up on stardom for the life of a campaigner. Moreover the memory of those times is undimmed.

“It’s as clear and sharp as yesterday,” she reveals. “I don’t know if you can imagine it: up at six and on the planes for two hours with the animals getting rid of their energy before we got to where the crew were waiting in their cages to film that morning’s work. Lunchtime picnics on the plain, feeding animals six days a week for almost a year. That’s a large chunk of your life.”

The metamorphosis that happened to this duo of actors was gradual for McKenna but quicker for Travers. On returning to England after shooting he was galvanised into making a documentary about the lions they had come to know and love.

“We were very, very unhappy at the end of the film because most of the animals that we worked with were going to be sent to either zoos or safari parks. So only three out of the enormous cast of 22 lions were to be given to George Adamson to be rehabilitated back to the wild.

“My husband wanted to tell this story and he made his first documentary film, called The Lions are Free. That was the beginning of his new life, really, almost straight away. He went on to make a series of very special documentary films.”

McKenna continued to work in the theatre, movies and television for quite some time until 1983 when an elephant with which they had worked in the modest film An Elephant Called Slowly died in London Zoo.

“It was her death that started our work publicly. We formed a little group called Zoo Check with a hundred people. Joanna Lumley was our first patron. Then it really started in earnest. I was at Stratford playing Gertrude in Hamlet at the time and I used to be rushing backwards and forwards from London and our tiny office in Battersea to Stratford to do the show and then back the next morning. So I was a bit fragmented. Gradually after that I phased out my theatre work and never worked in the theatre again after 1988. That was the end.”

Zoo Check eventually became the Born Free Foundation, a charity dedicated to keeping animals in the wild.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to think what would have happened if only one of had felt so strongly and the other one hadn’t. It could have caused a lot of problems,” recalls McKenna.

“But in fact it wasn’t like that at all. We became deeply fascinated about the issues of wild animals in captivity. That’s what our focus was at the start: what happened to wild animals that we’d seen in Africa on the plains and in the game parks? Although they were not free animals they were not trained. That’s the crux of it: what happens to them when they are removed from their natural environment in which they are a part and they are put in artificial circumstances?

“That still continues today in many countries. We felt very concerned about that. In the mid ‘80s no one was really talking much about wild animals in captivity and we decided we wanted to it this a public issue.”

It was George Adamson who gave McKenna a piece of advice that built her confidence with animals, not least the various animals that together “played” Elsa the lioness.

“You have to remember that lions are not domesticated. George Adamson believed that there is no such thing as a tame lion. A lion will always be wild; however many generations it has been in captivity it will never, ever lose its essential wildness. I trust George’s judgement on it more than anybody else’s.”

Born Free avoided focusing on any character defects or divisions between Joy and George, both of whom were on location with the cast. McKenna makes no apologies but recognises the challenges of playing a real-life person who was very much alive.

“It is a responsibility. Joy is always portrayed as a very controversial figures and it’s true - she wasn’t always liked by everybody because she was very strong, very opinionated and she really liked to have her way.

“But even when you’re playing someone real, whether they’re alive or dead, as an actor or actress you are bound by the script. The focus of Born Free was the relationship not of the Adamsons with each other but of the Adamsons with Elsa. That was the important thing. All of the other dimensions of the characters of both George and Joy were blurred a bit. All of us have gritty sides but that wasn’t really explored in the film.

“I had a really good relationship when we were filming with Joy, for which I was truly grateful. It can’t have been easy [for her] to watch someone playing you. It would make you feel a bit funny, wouldn’t it?”

Born Free (U) is released by Eureka Video.