Virginia McKenna Poster


Jump to: Overview (2)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Spouse (2)  | Trivia (26)  | Personal Quotes (5)

Overview (2)

Born in Marylebone, London, England, UK
Birth NameVirginia Anne McKenna

Mini Bio (1)

Talented flaxen-blonde British star combined her deep loves for acting and for wildlife throughout most her adult life. Born in London, England on June 7, 1931, her family possessed a sturdy theatrical background. Mother Anne was a jazz pianist, composer and cabaret performer while father Terry, an auctioneer, had relatives in the arts including actress Fay Compton and author Compton MacKenzie.

Virginia's boarding house education was interrupted by the London Blitz. She and her mother (her parents were divorced by this time) evacuated from England to Cape Town, South Africa, a move that lasted six years. Upon her return to England, she acted in a few school plays. Her interest stuck and she auditioned and was accepted into the London School of Central Speech and Drama. Two years later she became a six-month member of Scotland's renowned Dundee Repertory. Spotted by a talent scout playing Estella in a production of "Great Expectations," Virginia was invited in 1951 to return to London to portray Dorcas in "A Penny for a Song" with a stellar cast that included Ronald Squire, Alan Webb, Marie Lohr and leading man Ronald Howard, the son of "Gone With the Wind" star Leslie Howard. This quickly led to TV and film offers.

Virginia made her cinematic debut with a prominent role in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1952) starring Hugh Sinclair and Pamela Brown, then played Richard Attenborough's sister-in-law in Father's Doing Fine (1952). Two more films arrived the following year with The Horse's Mouth (1953) starring Robert Beatty and the Oscar-nominated WWII drama The Cruel Sea (1953) with Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Stanley Baker and Denholm Elliott, the last mentioned to whom she later married in 1954. Following classical stage parts in "Richard II," "Love's Labour's Lost," "Henry IV" and "As You Like It" at the Old Vic during its 1954-1955 season and her acclaimed BAFTA-winning role as Juliet opposite Tony Britton's Romeo in a BBC-TV version of "Romeo and Juliet," Virginia returned to filming with Simba (1955) starring Dirk Bogarde and PT Raiders (1955), another WWII drama that reunited her with Richard Attenborough. Film stardom came with her crop-haired role as WWII Japanese captive Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice (1956) opposite Peter Finch. Both actors won BAFTA film awards for their roles. As such Virginia grew in box-office status.

Virginia met second husband, Bill Travers when they appeared together in the play "I Capture the Castle" in London in 1954. Both were married at the time. They met again, however, after her two-year breakup with Denholm Elliott and this time they connected and married in 1957. Virginia and Bill appeared together on film for the first time in one of her highly rare comedy films Big Time Operators (1957). They went on to do six other movies together. In the second film, Bill and Jennifer Jones starred as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957) with Virginia and John Gielgud in strong support. The couple then appeared in Storm Over Jamaica (1958).

Acclaim (and a BAFTA nomination) for Virginia came again with her movie role alongside Paul Scofield in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) portraying Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo who, after her husband was killed during WWII, undertook dangerous missions as an undercover agent for British intelligence until caught and executed by the Nazis in 1944. The role had a strong impact on Virginia. In 2000 she performed the opening ceremony of the Violette Szabo Museum in Herefordshire. The actress then appeared opposite American actors Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston in the adventure yarn The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959). Back on stage for a few years in potent roles as Sister Jeanne in "The Devils" and Lucy in "The Beggar's Opera," she and Bill were invited to appear together in the film Two Living, One Dead (1961), a Post Office robbery crime drama.

The couple's next film together would alter the course of both their personal and professional destinies when they signed up to play Joy and George Adamson, noted wildlife welfare preservationists, in a landmark film version of the best-selling novel Born Free (1966). The movie was a massive, international box office smash. The shooting, with the real George Adamson serving as tech advisor, deeply affected the couple so much that for the rest of their lives/careers they dedicated themselves to wildlife causes with many of their subsequent pictures having related themes. The couple went on to form a documentary film company and served as writers/producers to create wildlife films. One of the best known of their many documentaries is The Lion Who Thought He Was People (1971).

A few years later Virginia and Bill filmed two animal-related movie adventures, Ring of Bright Water (1969) and An Elephant Called Slowly (1970). The former, filmed in London and the Scottish coast, was based on a best-selling book and told of the romance of an office worker/artist (Bill), his otter pal Mij, and his love interest (Virginia), the town's doctor. Virginia later helped create a museum to honor the film's author, naturalist Gavin Maxwell. The latter, which was filmed in Kenya, had the couple "adopting" three young elephants.

Throughout the 1970s, Virginia continued to be seen to good advantage in a sprinkling of film, theatre and TV roles. Cinematically she joined Rod Steiger as Napoleon, Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII in Waterloo (1970) last as the Duchess of Richmond; was top-billed in the family adventure Swallows and Amazons (1974); appeared in the English/Canadian thriller The Disappearance (1977); and showed up in the Italian/English end-of-the-world drama The Chosen (1977). On the London musical stage Virginia succeeded Jean Simmons as Desiree Armfeldt in the Stephen Sondheim hit "A Little Night Music" and in a 1979 revival of "The King of I" opposite perennial king Yul Brynner that ran 16 months. On TV the actress gravitated towards period pieces in roles that ranged from Daisy in The Edwardians (1972); to Clemmie Churchill in The Gathering Storm (1974) (the TV version rather than the feature film of the same name) to Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan (1976) to Portia in Julius Caesar (1979).

Despite appearing in roles from the 1980s on, which included playing Gertrude alongside Roger Rees in 1984's "Hamlet," a role in the plush mini-series The Camomile Lawn (1992) and a recent support role in the film Love/Loss (2010), Virginia was more committed to her wild animals activism. Very much involved with the global influence of the Born Free Foundation and its Zoo Check project, Virginia earned an OBE for her services to wildlife conservation and animal welfare.

Bill died in 1994 but their son Bill Travers Jr. has embodied their enthusiasm towards wildlife, becoming the CEO of the Born Free Foundation. Virginia is the author of several wildlife books and her autobiography "The Life in My Years" was published in 2009. One of her more recent outings was a 2011 appearance in the long-running, award-winning BBC documentary series Natural World (1983).

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / gr-home@pacbell.net

Spouse (2)

Bill Travers (20 September 1957 - 29 March 1994) ( his death) ( 4 children)
Denholm Elliott (1 March 1954 - 18 June 1957) ( divorced)

Trivia (26)

She and her husband co-starred in a number of films, most memorably as the conservationists Joy Adamson and George Adamson in Born Free (1966).
Helped found The Born Free Foundation in 1984 with husband Bill Travers.
Recently opened a museum dedicated to Violette Szabo in Hereford - www.violette-szabo-museum.co.uk
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.
Her half-French mother Anne de Nys wrote "An Englishman Needs Time", which was a hit for Eartha Kitt.
She has three sons, one daughter, and six grandchildren
One of her sons is named Bill Travers Jr..
Gained acting experience in Dundee Repertory Theatre.
Sister-in-law of Linden Travers.
Never enjoyed watching herself on screen but would attend rushes just to see what she did wrong and how to correct it.
A major cultural influence, Born Free (1966) changed the perception the world had on wildlife. People were inspired to become veterinarians, preservationists or zoologists.
Has a strong love for writing and reading poetry with special passions for Shakespeare, Emily Bronte and Maya Angelou.
Virginia and Bill were asked to reprise their "Born Free" roles as the Adamsons in the sequel Living Free (1972) but they declined. Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport assumed the roles. The subsequent reviews and box office receipts for the sequel were underwhelming.
Has written several books: "On Playing with Lions" (1976), "Some of My Friends Have Tails" (1970), "Beyond the Bars: The Zoo Dilemma" (1987), "Into the Blue (1992), "Journey to Freedom" (1997) and, most recently, her autobiography, "The Life in My Years" (2009).
Due to family obligations, she once had to turn down the title role in a stage production of "Peter Pan" that would have co-starred husband Bill Travers as Captain Hook. Virginia later played Mrs. Darling in an American TV series version of Peter Pan (1976) starring Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye.
According to Laura Waskin's in-depth article of Virginia in Classic Images film magazine, February 2013, after the filming of Born Free (1966), the real Joy Adamson invited Virginia to go with her and camp at Meru, the location where the story was based. She also presented Virginia and Bill with a painting she'd done of Elsa the lion on a camp bed accompanied by a touching personal message that read, "I thought the film and the way the story was told, brought the message to a wider audience. Books do one thing, and films do something else".
Horsham, West Sussex, England [May 2009]
Was awarded the prestigious Laurence Olivier Best Actress in a Musical Award on London's West End Stage for 'The King and I'.
In 2012 she was presented with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from Nottingham Trent University.
April 2013 she received the British Animal Honours Outstanding Contribution.
October 2013 she received a lifetime achievement award at the New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.
She and her husband, Bill Travers made 7 films together The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), Big Time Operators aka The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), Storm Over Jamaica aka Passionate Summer (1958) Two Living, One Dead (1961), Born Free (1966), Ring of Bright Water (1969) and An Elephant Called Slowly (1970) and played husband and wife in 3 of the 7 The 2nd one, Born Free and the last one.
Moira Lister tested for the part that went to Virginia McKenna in Waterloo (1970) and that was replacing Olivia de Haviland who dropped out.
Children Anna, William,born 1958 Louise born 1960 and Justin born 1962 with Husband Bill.
In 1976 she virtually retired from acting wanting to devote more time to her family, saying that she still wanted to act but didn't want to travel too far from home,.

Personal Quotes (5)

"There are some roles you can put out of your mind the moment you get home. But not this one. (Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)) It's the part of a life time.
[on Peter Finch] Everybody adored Peter so much that he would just come on to the set and everyone would start smiling.
We saw the results of the film's influence at the time, which is as strong today as it ever was. It doesn't go out of fashion. -- VM, regarding her most popular film Born Free (1966).
[I have no favorite] wild animals. They are all equally fascinating. And to be respected. I don't believe in domination.
[on Denholm Elliott] He was a fine actor and a delightful person, but I suppose I have to admit that, for both of us, our marriage was a mistake. I knew in my heart it wouldn't work. So I had to leave.

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