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Virginia McKenna still fighting for beloved animals

BOTH film and animal lovers have reason to be grateful to Virginia McKenna.

Virginia McKenna

WHERE do you start in an interview with Virginia McKenna, glamorous film star, widow of a talented Geordie, passionate conservationist and, it turns out, riveting raconteur?

Since Virginia is best known for the 1966 hit film Born Free, in which she and husband Bill Travers played conservationists Joy and George Adamson, it seems only right to begin with a lion.

Not Elsa, the orphaned lioness whose story was told in Born Free, but Dolo, who has just been released from a life of misery in Ethiopia, which Virginia visited in her role as founder of the Born Free Foundation.

“He had been kept in a shed for four years with a chain round his neck and because of the chain rubbing he has no mane,” says Virginia.

“The villagers said they liked to have him there because every morning he would roar and wake them up.”

This was a king of the jungle doing a cockerel’s job and you will be glad to know that the poor living alarm clock is now one of the first residents of a new animal rescue centre, set up by the Born Free Foundation just outside Addis Ababa.

“We never buy animals because we don’t want them to be replaced by another one,” Virginia explains.

“We were asked for help by the Ethiopian wildlife organisation who will take action in these cases but had nowhere to put the rescued animals.

“We said we’d really like to build a rescue centre and we’ve had terrific support from the government there who have given us the most fantastic 200 acres of land.

“It’s a wonderful place where we are going to be able to bring some very unfortunate animals to live out the rest of their days in comfort.

“People will also be able to visit the centre and learn about the animals while walking freely in beautiful, peaceful surroundings.”

Virginia, who is speaking to me from her garden chalet in Sussex which doubles as her office, explains that the Born Free Foundation is concerned both with animals in captivity and those in the wild.

“We’ve supported a project in the wild there for about 18 years to protect the Ethiopian wolf.

“There are just over 400 in the wild and they live 14,000ft up in the Bale Mountains. When I was there we saw 11 so we were thrilled.”

You can see photographs of these beautiful, fox-like creatures on the website – www.bornfree.org.uk – along with one of Dolo.

Virginia will be 80 next month but you really wouldn’t guess. Her voice, as well as the crystal qualities of a screen star of the 1950s and 60s, betrays her campaigning zeal.

Of tourism, she says: “I think it’s a very good thing but it has to be handled very carefully. One of the things I’m totally opposed to is when the drivers (on safari) go off road.

“One driver will tell another on his walkie talkie that there’s a leopard under a tree so everyone belts off to get there as quickly as possible.

“But you have to stick to the road otherwise you destroy the whole environment. It’s all about education and being sensitive.”

Virginia counters talk of the “big five” – the lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo, which are the tick-box sights of the safari park – - by saying visitors should also look out for the little five.

For sensitive sightseers, Virginia recommends the ant lion, the elephant shrew, the leopard tortoise, the rhino beetle and the buffalo weaver (a bird).

Truly a woman of many parts, Virginia was a stage actress before making her big screen debut in 1952.

Her filmography is a roll call of famous films with a stiff upper lip. In 1956 she won a Bafta award for playing Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice.

But it was the films she made with her second husband, Newcastle-born Bill Travers, that stick in the memory.

Three years after Born Free, based on the book by Joy Adamson, came Ring of Bright Water, based on Gavin Maxwell’s tale of life in Scotland with an otter, and An Elephant Called Slowly.

I have to tell Virginia that the scene in Ring of Bright Water where the otter, Mij, is killed by a ditch digger’s spade left me traumatised as a child.

She tells me it had the same effect on Alfred Hitchcock.

Venturing into his “huge office with its impressive desk”, nervous at her audition for the celebrated director, she was greeted with “How dare you?”

“I said, ‘Sorry?’ He said, ‘How dare you let the otter be killed in Ring of Bright Water?’ I thought it was a bit rich coming from him but that’s the truth and it’s probably why I didn’t get the part.”

There can’t have been many actors who have done more for animal welfare than Virginia and Bill Travers, who died in 1994.

It was An Elephant Called Slowly, also released in 1969, that led to the couple’s serious conservation work and Virginia is delighted that she has just secured the rights to the film from the French company that held them for years.

That means it can be sold on DVD to raise money for the Born Free Foundation and help its work throughout the world.

Virginia says she feels a great affinity with the North East. She used to come up a lot with Bill and her father-in-law, whom they would visit, is buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery.

Virginia will be talking about her life and work, and signing copies of her autobiography, at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle tomorrow at 6.30pm in an event organised by Travel Bureau Gosforth which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The travel agency is working with the Born Free Foundation and a specialist tour operator on three very special safari holidays in Kenya next year, all of which will take in some of the film’s locations and culminate in a talk with Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, and son of Virginia and Bill.

A donation to the Born Free Foundation will be made from every ticket and safari sold.

Tickets, at £12, can be bought from Travel Bureau Gosforth, 69 High Street, Gosforth, or email katie@travelb.co.uk

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