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Virginia McKenna

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Virginia McKenna
McKenna at an anti badger cull demonstration, Westminster, London, June 2013
Virginia Anne McKenna

(1931-06-07) 7 June 1931 (age 93)
Alma materRoyal Central School of Speech and Drama
Occupation(s)Stage and screen actress, author
Years active1952–present
(m. 1954; div. 1957)
(m. 1957; died 1994)

Dame Virginia Anne McKenna[1] DBE (born 7 June 1931) is a British stage and screen actress, author, animal rights activist, and wildlife campaigner. She is best known for the films A Town Like Alice (1956), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), Born Free (1966), and Ring of Bright Water (1969), as well as her work with the Born Free Foundation.[2]

Early life[edit]

McKenna was born in Marylebone to a theatrical family and was educated at Heron's Ghyll School, a former independent boarding school near the market town of Horsham in 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, at that time based at the Royal Albert Hall, London.[3]


Aged 19, McKenna spent six months at Dundee Repertory Theatre. She worked on stage in London's West End theatre, making her debut in Penny for a Song. She attracted attention on TV appearing in Winter's Tale with Sir John Gielgud and Shout Aloud Salvation.[4][5]

McKenna's first film was The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1952), followed by a comedy, Father's Doing Fine (1952). She had a small role in the popular war film The Cruel Sea (1953) and a better part in the low budget comedy The Oracle (1953). She received excellent reviews for her stage performance in The River Line.[5] By June 1953, she was appearing in the West End production of William Douglas Home's The Bad Samaritan.[6]

From 1954 to 1955, she was a member of the Old Vic theatre company, appearing in Henry IV and Richard II,[7] and was married for a few months in 1954 to actor Denholm Elliott, whom she met on the set of The Cruel Sea. Their marriage ended owing to his affairs with men.[8] In 1957, she married actor Bill Travers,[9] with whom she had four children and to whom she remained married until his death in 1994.

McKenna returned to films with Simba (1955), a drama about the Mau Mau, playing Dirk Bogarde's love interest. Rank signed her to a long-term contract[10] and director Brian Desmond Hurst said "She has a terrific future, properly handled. She has all the qualities of a young Bergman and a young Katharine Hepburn.[11] McKenna was also in The Ship That Died of Shame (1955).


McKenna was given the lead role in the war time drama A Town Like Alice (1956), opposite Peter Finch. The movie was a big hit at the box office and McKenna won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for her performance.[12] Exhibitors voted her the fourth most popular British star.[13] In October 1956, John Davis, managing director of Rank, announced her as one of the actors under contract that Davis thought would become an international star.[14]

Travers and McKenna received an offer to go to Hollywood to appear in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957). Travers played Robert Browning and McKenna had the support part of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sister. The movie flopped at the box office. The same year, Travers and McKenna, along with Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers, co-starred in the comedy The Smallest Show on Earth, made back in Britain.

McKenna had another hit with Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), playing Second World War SOE agent Violette Szabo. She was nominated for another BAFTA Award and was voted the fifth most popular British star of 1958 (and the ninth most popular regardless of nationality).

She and Travers were reunited in Passionate Summer (1959), then she had a support part in MGM's The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959). McKenna and Travers were also in Two Living, One Dead (1961), shot in Sweden. She was in an adaptation of A Passage to India for the BBC in 1965.

Born Free[edit]

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. It was not only a huge success at the box office but a life changing experience for her and her husband Bill Travers who co-starred with her, portraying game warden and conservationist George Adamson. The experience led them to become active supporters for wild animal rights as well as the protection of their natural habitat. McKenna and Travers starred in another animal-themed story, Ring of Bright Water (1969), but it failed to match Born Free's success.

McKenna appeared in An Elephant Called Slowly. The film features her close friend conservationist George Adamson and also elephants Eleanor (brought up by conservationist Daphne Sheldrick) and young Pole Pole. The subsequent premature death of Pole Pole in London Zoo led to McKenna and her husband to establish Zoo Check in 1984 with their eldest son Will Travers.[15] Zoo Check was renamed Born Free Foundation in 1991. In 1984 McKenna was involved with a protest against the poor conditions at Southampton Zoo which was closed a year later.[16]

Later career[edit]

McKenna occasionally acted in films, notably Waterloo (1970), Swallows and Amazons (1974), The Gathering Storm (1974), and Beauty and the Beast (1976).

Onstage, 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 been responsible for helping create and furnish the Gavin Maxwell Museum[17] 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.

McKenna is still actively involved at Born Free Foundational as a Trustee.[18]


McKenna was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2004 New Year Honours for services to wildlife and the arts and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2023 New Year Honours for services to wildlife conservation and wild animal welfare.[19][20]

Personal life[edit]

McKenna and Travers had four children together, one of whom is Will Travers. She is the grandmother of actress Lily Travers.

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 Life 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,[21] and narration of The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright.

McKenna is a vegetarian.[22] She is a patron of Cinnamon Trust, a national charity that helps elderly people to keep their pets.[23]

Her autobiography, The Life in My Years, was published by Oberon Books in March 2009.[24]


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
1972–1973 The Edwardians Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick BBC Television miniseries
1974 Swallows and Amazons Mother
The Gathering Storm Clemmie Churchill (TV)
1975 Cheap in August: Shades of Green Mary Watson (TV)Thames Television Series
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 [25]
2016 Golden Years Martha Goode
Ethel & Ernest[26] Lady of the House (voice)
2019 Widow's Walk Myrtle

Non-fiction films[edit]

  • 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 scenes of George and Bill interacting with lions who are living free.
  • Christian: The Lion at World's End is a documentary (with a re-enaction 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.


  • On Playing With Lions, (with Bill Travers) Collins, (1966) ISBN 0-00-241607-7[27]
  • Some of My Friends Have Tails, Collins (1971) ISBN 0-00-262752-3
  • Into the Blue, Aquarian Press, (1992) ISBN 1-85538-254-7
  • Journey to Freedom, (with help from Will Travers; illustrated by Nick Mountain) Templar (1997) ISBN 1-898784-73-6.


  • 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 14 March 2011.
  2. ^ "The History of Born Free". bornfree.org.uk. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  3. ^ V&A, Theatre and Performance Special Collections, Elsie Fogerty Archive, THM/324
  4. ^ "ON STAGE AND SCREEN". The Advertiser. Vol. 95, no. 29, 489. South Australia. 18 April 1953. p. 7. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  5. ^ a b "VIRGINIA McKENNA CAUSES SENSATION". Daily Mercury. Vol. 86, no. 275. Queensland, Australia. 17 November 1952. p. 14. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  6. ^ infotextmanuscripts.org: Criterion Programme, June 1953
  7. ^ "ENGLISH OTERS GOBBLE AT THEIR FIRST T.V. POLL". The Argus. Victoria, Australia. 7 May 1955. p. 13. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  8. ^ Thornton, Michael. "Virginia McKenna, her fiery marriage and the husband who cheated on her with a Moroccan gigolo". Ghana Nation. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  9. ^ "Bill travers weds actress". The New York Times. 20 September 1957. ProQuest 114348031. Library login required
  10. ^ "Filin Fan Fare". The Australian Women's Weekly. Vol. 23, no. 4. Australia. 22 June 1955. p. 31. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  11. ^ "Jack Buchanan may begin a new career". The Mail. Vol. 44, no. 2, 208. South Australia. 2 October 1954. p. 68. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  12. ^ "BRITISH FILMS MADE MOST MONEY: BOX-OFFICE SURVEY" The Manchester Guardian 28 December 1956: 3
  13. ^ The Most Popular Film Star In Britain. The Times (London, England), Friday, 7 December 1956; pg. 3
  14. ^ Wiseman, Thomas (22 November 1956). "Mr Davis Takes on Hollywood". Nottingham Evening Post. p. 9.
  15. ^ Gilchrist, Roderick (13 January 2011). "Virginia McKenna: freedom's deadly price". ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  16. ^ Gale, Jez. "The beasts that brought Southampton to life". Southern Daily Echo. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  17. ^ "Welcome to Eilean Bàn". eileanban.org. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  18. ^ "Meet our UK team". bornfree.org.uk. Archived from the original on 3 December 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  19. ^ "No. 63918". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2022. p. N9.
  20. ^ Virginia McKenna: "My damehood belongs to those fighting to end animal suffering", The Herald (Glasgow). Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  21. ^ "The Secret Garden Audio Book Download for your iPod : download from Silksoundbooks". silksoundbooks.com. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  22. ^ "First Impressions: Virginia McKenna". lady.co.uk. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  23. ^ "Companion animals and the elderly". cinnamon.org.uk. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  24. ^ "The Life in My Years by Virginia McKenna". bloomsbury.com. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  25. ^ "Leona Calderon". Archived from the original on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  26. ^ "Voice Cast Announced". 3 August 2015.
  27. ^ "Bibliography – BooksFilmsMovies". fatheroflions.org. Retrieved 26 June 2019.

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