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06 January 2013

Virginia McKenna

British stage and screen actress Virginia McKenna (1931) is also known as a wildlife campaigner. During her long and successful career she won several awards, including the British Academy Award for Best Actress for A Town Like Alice (1956). Her most popular role has been in Born Free (1966) opposite her husband Bill Travers.

Virginia McKenna
Mexican collector's card, no. 334.

Engaging Character Study
Virginia Anne McKenna was born in London, Great Britain in 1931. After spending five years of her childhood in South Africa to escape the Blitz, she returned to England. She enrolled at the Central School of Drama but left after two years when offered six months in Repertory at Dundee. She also worked on stage in London's West End theatres. In 1952, she made her film debut in the romantic comedy Father's Doing Fine (1952, Henry Cass) starring Richard Attenborough. The following year she gave a sensitive performance as the wren in the war drama The Cruel Sea (1953) with Jack Hawkins and Denholm Elliott. It is a portrayal of the war between the Royal Navy and Germany's U-boats from the viewpoint of the British naval officers and seamen who served in escort vessels during World War II. The following year Elliott and McKenna married, but they divorced that same year. She continued two work for both the stage and the cinema. In 1954–1955 she was a member of the Old Vic theatre company, playing such parts as Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost. In 1956, McKenna won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film A Town Like Alice (1956, Jack Lee) opposite Peter Finch. In 1957 she married actor Bill Travers with whom she had four children and to whom she was married until his death in 1994. McKenna was nominated for the Best Actress BAFTA again for her role as a Anglo-French spy in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958, Lewis Gilbert). Set during World War II, the film is based on the true story of the heroism of Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo. Bruce Eder at AllMovie: “it is really an actor's movie, in this case carried almost entirely by Virginia McKenna with some help from Jack Warner and Paul Scofield. Given the tragic nature of the outcome, it's difficult for the movie to ignore a certain dourness in tone, but within those limits, the film is an engaging character study by the actress, who brings some of the complexities to Szabo's situation - working on behalf of the government, and unable to tell anyone, including her own family - to vivid life. The flat, black-and-white film gives some of the scenes the appearance of documentary-style verisimilitude.”

Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 86/89, 1969.

Born Free
With husband Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna co-starred in the existentialist thriller Two Living, One Dead (1961, Anthony Asquith). It is a remake of the Norwegian film To levende og en død (1937, Gyda Christensen, Tancred Ibsen), which in turn was adapted from the 1931 novel of the same name by author Sigurd Christiansen. The Scandinavian small-town setting of the earlier film was kept but the action was moved to Sweden, and Two Living, One Dead was shot on location and in a studio in Stockholm County. She took a break from her film career in the early 1960’s to raise her children. McKenna is best remembered for her role as Joy Adamson in the true-life film Born Free (1966, James Hill) for which she received a nomination for a Golden Globe. Travers portrayed conservationist George Adamson. The real-life couple raised Elsa the Lioness, an orphaned lion cub, to adulthood, and released her into the wilderness of Kenya. Don Kaye at AllMovie: “The film, based on Joy Adamson's book, is poignant and emotional without ever becoming banal or overly sentimental. The title song and film score both won Academy Awards.” The result was seen by almost as many millions who had loved the book. The experience led McKenna and Travers to become active supporters for wild animal rights and the protection of their natural habitat. McKenna also appeared with Travers in An Elephant Called Slowly (1970, James Hill), a travelogue of what it was like years ago in Kenya, Africa. The film features her close friend conservationist George Adamson and also elephants Eleanor and young Pole Pole. The subsequent premature death of Pole Pole in London Zoo was to lead McKenna and her husband to launch the Zoo Check Campaign in 1984 and to establish the Born Free Foundation in 1991.

McKENNA, Virginia_Picturegoer; D 885. Photo J. Arthur Rank
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. D 885. Photo: J. Arthur Rank. Collection: Performing Arts / Artes Escénicas.

Winston Churchill's Wife
Virginia McKenna also appeared in other film genres. She was one of the stars in the international cast of the historical epic Waterloo (1970, Sergei Bondarchuk) starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon. On television she was seen in the TV-film The Admirable Crichton (1968, George Schaefer) by J.M. Barrie, the Mini-Series The Edwardians (1972, John Howard Davies) and as the wife of Winston Churchill (Richard Burton) in the biographical drama The Gathering Storm (1974, Herbert Wise), about Churchill's life in the years just prior to, and at the start of World War II. In 1975 Virginia McKenna released an album of twelve songs called Two Faces of Love which included two of her own compositions and a sung version of the poem The Love That I Have from the film Carve Her Name with Pride. On the stage, she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a British musical for her performance in 1979 opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I. Over the years she appeared in more films but also was very active with television roles in Mini-Series like The Camomile Lawn (1992, Peter Hall) with Claire Bloom. She guest-starred in episodes of popular series like Lovejoy (1992, Baz Taylor), Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1992, Herbert Wise) and Kavanagh QC (1999, David Thacker). On stage she continues to make occasional appearances. Her experiences while filming Born Wild inspired her to write two volumes of memoirs. McKenna has also been responsible for helping create and furnish the Gavin Maxwell museum on Eilean Bàn. This was the last island home of author and naturalist Gavin Maxwell, most famous for his book Ring of Bright Water, on which the film of the same name was based. For her services to wildlife and to the arts, McKenna was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2004. Her autobiography The Life in My Years (2009) was published by Oberon Books. She was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2004 Queen's New Year's Honours List for her services to wildlife and to the arts. In the cinema she was most recently seen in the romantic drama Love/Loss (2010, Guy Daniels) opposite Keith Mitchell. Virginia McKenna has three sons, including actor Bill Travers Jr., one daughter, and six grandchildren.


Scene from Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). Source: The Eagle 54 (YouTube).


Trailer for Born Free (1966). Source: Jeff Hollis (YouTube).

Sources: Bruce Eder (AllMovie), Don Kaye (AllMovie), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), David Absalom (British Pictures), British Cinema Greats, BBC, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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