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Virginia McKenna

Virginia McKenna
File:Virginiamckenna westminster.jpg
Virginia McKenna at an anti badger cull demonstration, Westminster, London, June 2013
Born (1931-06-07) 7 June 1931 (age 89)
Marylebone, London, England
Years active 1952–Present
Spouse(s) Denholm Elliott (1954) (divorced)
Bill Travers (1957-1994) (his death) 4 children

Virginia A. McKenna[1] OBE (born 7 June 1931) is a British stage and screen actress, author and wildlife campaigner.

Early Life/Education

McKenna was born in Marylebone, which is now an affluent inner-city area of central London, to a theatrically oriented family and was educated at Herons Ghyll School, a former independent boarding school near the market town of Horsham in West Sussex. She spent six years in South Africa before returning to the School at the age of fourteen, after which she attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Early career

McKenna worked on stage in London's West End theatres before making her film debut in 1952. She continued to appear in both films and on stage. From 1954–55 she was a member of the Old Vic theatre company and was married for a few months in 1954 to bisexual actor Denholm Elliott, whom she met on the set of The Cruel Sea. Their marriage ended, owing to his affairs with men.[2] Her second husband was actor Bill Travers, with whom she had four children and to whom she was married until his death in 1994.


In 1956, McKenna won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, A Town Like Alice and two years later was nominated for Best Actress again, for her role as the World War II SOE agent Violette Szabo, in 1958's Carve Her Name with Pride.

However, McKenna is best remembered for her 1966 role as Joy Adamson in the true-life film Born Free for which she received a nomination for a Golden Globe. Bill Travers, her real life husband, co-starred with her, portraying conservationist George Adamson, and the experience led them to become active supporters for wild animal rights as well as the protection of their natural habitat. McKenna appeared in An Elephant Called Slowly, a travelogue of what it was like years ago in Kenya. The film features her close friend conservationist George Adamson and also elephants Eleanor (brought up by conservationst Daphne Sheldrick) and young Pole Pole. The subsequent premature death of Pole Pole in London Zoo was to lead to McKenna and her husband launching the Zoo Check Campaign in 1984[3] and to their establishing the "Born Free Foundation" in 1991.

On the stage, in 1979 she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a British musical for her performance opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I. Over the years she appeared in more films but was also very active with television roles and on stage where she continues to make occasional appearances.

McKenna has also been responsible for helping create and furnish the Gavin Maxwell museum[4] on Eilean Bàn, the last island home of Maxwell, an author and naturalist, most famous for his book Ring of Bright Water. McKenna and husband Bill Travers starred in the 1969 film adaptation of the book

Other interests

In 2004, McKenna was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to wildlife and to the arts. Virginia McKenna's autobiography, The Life in My Years, was published by Oberon Books in March 2009.

In 1975 she 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. The record was released on the Gold Star label with two line drawings of McKenna by her sister-in-law Linden Travers but these were replaced by a photograph when the album was reissued on the Rim label in 1979.

Her audiobook work includes The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett,[5] and narration of The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright.


Year Film Role Notes
1952 Father's Doing Fine Catherine
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray Ellean Tanqueray
1953 The Cruel Sea Julie Hallam
The Oracle Shelagh
1955 Simba Mary Crawford
The Ship That Died of Shame Helen Randall
1956 A Town Like Alice Jean Paget BAFTA Award for Best British Actress
1957 The Barretts of Wimpole Street Henrietta Barrett
The Smallest Show on Earth Jean Spenser
1958 Carve Her Name with Pride Violette Szabo Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best British Actress
Passionate Summer Judy Waring aka Storm Over Jamaica
1959 The Wreck of the Mary Deare Janet Taggart
1961 Two Living, One Dead Helen Berger
1965 A Passage to India Adela Quested (TV)
1966 Born Free Joy Adamson Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1969 Ring of Bright Water Mary MacKenzie
An Elephant Called Slowly Ginny
1970 Waterloo Duchess of Richmond
1974 Swallows and Amazons Mother
The Gathering Storm Clemmie Churchill (TV)
1975 Beauty and the Beast Lucy (TV)
1977 Holocaust 2000 Eva Caine
The Disappearance Catherine
1979 Julius Caesar Portia (BBC Television Shakespeare)
1982 Blood Link Woman in Ballroom
1992 The Camomile Lawn Older Polly (TV miniseries)
1994 Staggered Flora
1996 September Violet (TV)
1998 Sliding Doors James's Mother
2005 A Murder is Announced Belle Goedler
2010 Love/ Loss Mary
2012 Leona Calderon Elderly British Lady [6]

Non-fiction films

  • The Lions are Free is the real life continuation of Born Free. This film tells about what happened to the lions that were in the film Born Free. Bill Travers, who had starred with McKenna, wrote, produced and directed the film, along with James Hill, the director of Born Free. Travers and Hill went to a remote area in Kenya to visit with the noted conservationist George Adamson. The film has amazing scenes of George and Bill interacting with lions who are living free.
  • Christian:The Lion At World's End is a documentary (with a reenaction sequence at the beginning) about the now-famous lion's journey from a London store to George Adamson's reserve in Kenya. Virginia McKenna and her husband, Bill Travers, had a chance meeting with Christian and his owners Ace Bourke and John Rendall. Through McKenna and Travers' connection with George Adamson, the lion was successfully brought to Africa and taught how to fend for himself.



  • Two Faces of Love LP, Gold Star 15-030, 1975. Reissued as Rim RIM 5001, 1979.
  • The Love That I Have (Violette)/Homage to Renoir 45 rpm single, Sovereign SOV 125, 1974.
  • The Love That I Have/Send In the Clowns 45 rpm single, RIM 002, 1979.


  1. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved March 14, 2011. 
  2. ^ Thornton, Michael. "Virginia McKenna, her fiery marriage and the husband who cheated on her with a Moroccan gigolo". Ghana Nation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  3. ^ Gilchrist, Roderick. "Virginia McKenna: freedom's deadly price". The Telegraph, 13 January 2011. Accessed on 9/5/12 at:
  4. ^ Eilean Bàn Trust and Bright Water Visitor Centre
  5. ^ silksoundbooks: "The Secret Garden" (2007)
  6. ^ Leona Calderon
  7. ^ Books by or about George and Joy Adamson

External links

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