Virginia McKenna

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Interview Date(s): 
9 Jan 2002
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SUMMARY: This interview was recorded on 9 January, 2002, when McKenna was 70 years old. In the first section, Tape One Side One, McKenna discusses her theatrical and musical upbringing and her experiences growing up both in England and South Africa. She talks about her time at the Central School of Speech and Drama and about leaving school in her third year to begin working with the Dundee Repertory Theatre. McKenna discusses working very heavily through the 1950s in theatre, working with actors like Paul Scofield, Pamela Brown and John Neville, and compares working as an actress in the differing mediums of theatre, film and television. She discusses her work on Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) and notes her marriage to Travers, which occurred during the production of that film. In the second section, Tape One Side Two, McKenna discusses filming Born Free (1966) and Travers’ work on wildlife documentaries. Her television work through the 60s is discussed, as well as her work on An Elephant Called Slowly (1970). McKenna explains that while she continued to act through the 1970s, appearing in such productions as Peter Pan (1976) alongside Danny Kaye, her mind was starting to ‘go sideways’, and she talks about publishing On Playing with Lions, a collection of her diaries and Travers’ photographs from the filming of Born Free. She also discusses other work she has done, including book readings and a programme of poetry and music, The Lily and the Tiger, with Elizabeth Counsell. At the end of the second section and continuing on to Tape Two Side One, McKenna discusses her work on The King and I with Yul Brynner. She talks about doing stage and television work while simultaneously founding Zoo Check, and discusses her experiences writing her book on dolphins, Into the Blue. The interview ends with a discussion of her involvement in the founding of both the Violette Szabo G.C. Museum and the Eilean Bàn Trust, which were connected to her work on the films Carve Her Name with Pride and Ring of Bright Water (1969) respectively.


INTERVIEW WITH VIRGINIA McKENNA (ACTRESS)The copyright of this recording is vested in the BECTU History Project.

Interviewer: Joyce Robinson

Recorded on the 9th January 2002.


JR: Virginia McKenna, when and where were you born?

VM: Well, I was born in London on the 7th of June, 1931. I don't remember the name of the hospital or nursing home but my mother – I found a piece of paper, actually, the other day – she told me I was born at half past ten in the morning. She said, ‘I hope this is useful.’ [Laughs] I don't quite know why it would be useful, but I suppose in case I ever wanted to have my fortune told or something like that, and I did.

JR: Yes. I know when I was born; I do think it is important.

VM: So anyway, that was a nice piece of information!

JR: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

VM: No, I have none – I’m an only child, sadly. It was a shame, really, but my parents separated when I was four. I did have a step-brother and a step-sister from my mother’s second marriage, but that sadly didn’t last very long.

JR: Were they close to you in age?

VM: Yes, they were. The boy was a little younger and the daughter was a little older.

JR: So you had some companionship.

VM: Well, that was during the war in South Africa.

JR: Ah, so you can tell me that in a minute. And any theatrical influence from your parents?

VM: Yes, my father was a cousin of Fay Compton and Compton Mackenzie.[1] On that side of the family, very much the theatrical sort of background. My mother’s side was the musical side. Her father and mother were both very musical and her brother – both her brothers played the piano, but her eldest brother, Peter, who’s only died last year in 2001, was a marvellous classical pianist. They used to have the most wonderful concerts in their house in Normandy, and people used to come and play. My aunt played the cello, my grandmother sang, and everybody else played the piano. My mother wanted to be a classical pianist, but she felt she could never really be first class. But she was a wonderful pianist; she changed to light music and jazz and was very successful with that. Before the war she had her own trio – two pianos and a singer – and they played at the Berkeley and the Savoy in London, all over the place. And that’s really how she earned her living; she used to play during the war when we were in South Africa in the cocktail bars, and then when we came back from South Africa she played in London at Quaglino’s and the Allegro and the cocktail bars.

JR: Goodness, me! So, you definitely had an influence, didn’t you?

VM: Yes, more the sort of ‘performing in public’ background.

JR: Did you used to perform as a child? Did you join in?

VM: I never really enjoyed it at all. I was very, very shy. My father liked me to recite Albert the Lion to visitors in London when they came and I was overcome with horror and terror and absolutely hated it. I was so nervous and upset about it! [Laughs] So, I wasn’t by any means a natural performer, really, as a child. I think that’s something that, when you take it on as a profession, perhaps, you’re just concentrating on the words. Later, when I was in South Africa at school, I used to do poetry and elocution lessons, and we used to then have to speak poetry in public for exams, and I began to enjoy doing that because I loved the words. It was really about what I was saying, what I was thinking about when I was performing, rather than the feeling of getting up in public, which has always been enormously scary. But somehow, once you concentrate on what you’re saying, it takes the edge off being nervous, I think.

JR: I’ll take your word for it. Tell me about your schooling. We jumped because I –

VM: Yes, I’m afraid we jumped, yes.

JR: But you were brought up in South Africa.

VM: Well, first of all, when I lived with my father in Hampstead I went to a school called Sarum Hall in Hampstead, but only as a very small child, and then we moved to Slinfold when I was seven and I went to a weekly boarding school in Sussex – in Horsham. I was very, very unhappy. I think it was very young to go away to boarding school, even weekly, and I was enormously unhappy there. However, that changed later – but I won’t jump again! Then the war came, and I was at school there for a year during the beginning of the war and we were always in the air raid shelter. My father wanted me to go away from England to be safe, so he asked my mother – which was rather wonderful, I thought – if she would take me to South Africa for the war, and she said yes, she would. So aged nine, I then went with my mother – who I didn’t really know very well, sadly, but I of course got to know her then – to South Africa, where we spent six years. I don’t know if I said the name of the school in Horsham. It was called Heron’s Ghyll. It was a beautiful school; two lovely headmistresses. But then we went to South Africa, and I went to two schools in South Africa. I went first to a school called Herschel, which is outside Cape Town in Claremont. Then my mother moved for her work to Johannesburg for a year so I went up to Pretoria, where I was a boarder for a year in a convent, but then she left and went back to Cape Town, and I went back to Herschel. So I was sort of bogged about quite a bit.

JR: Were you happy there?

VM: I was happy. I was a day girl, you see, at Herschel, which was lovely. My mother remarried in South Africa to a very charming man called Jack Rudd who was very sweet to me and had two children from his previous marriage, and so I was part of a family for the first time, which was lovely. Then, when the war ended, we came back in ’45 and I went back to Heron’s Ghyll. But by then I was fourteen, and I was very happy. I’d grown up, I was readied, I was quite independent by then, and I very much enjoyed lessons. I was quite studious but also very sporty, so I had a really full, happy school life. I left when I was seventeen, having done what they then called ‘Higher Certificate.’ It’s called something quite different now, I think.[2]

JR: And were you beginning to feel the urge to do drama?

VM: Well, Heron’s Ghyll was quite well-known for its Shakespeare productions, which they did once a year in the grounds. There was a most huge and wonderful copper beech tree and they floodlit that area. We used to have three days of a production. I sort of progressed from being the Duke with leggings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Paulina in The Winter’s Tale by the time I came to the end of my school days. I did enjoy it, but I never thought of it as a profession; in fact, I really wanted to go to university to read English. But unfortunately, in those far off days, you had to have Latin to take that particular subject at university and I didn’t. My parents both said, ‘We think you should try for drama school. We think you’ve got a chance.’ I had to train for something to earn a living, so I tried first for the Old Vic School, which I failed, and then I tried for the Central School,[3] which I got into. So, when I was seventeen, I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama, which in those days was in the Albert Hall, which was fabulous because when we weren’t in classes we were allowed to go and listen to rehearsals in the hall. I had two years instead of three. I left after the second year because I went to Dundee Rep[4] for the holidays for two plays and never went back to school. But I absolutely adored the Central School, and in a way fulfilled a little bit of my other interests, which were more academic, because I did a diploma course which meant you had to do exams in poetry, theatrical art and design, French poetry – it was a very interesting course. I did that as well as the acting, and so I felt I’d had a compromise. It was lovely. I made lovely friends, some of whom are still friends today.

JR: So now, this is late forties we’re talking about?

VM: Yes, I was at the Central from ’47 to ’49. Then I went to Dundee Rep for the two plays – Black Chiffon was one and Northanger Abbey was the other.[5] I was so happy and I felt ready to do it practically, not study it anymore but actually do it. So I got in touch with the Principal Miss Thoburn at the Central and said, ‘I’d like to stay on and could I?’, and she said, ‘Yes, of course you can,’ and so I stayed. I had six months there, and then I came to London in a play.

JR: And you were very happy that you’d made this choice by now?

VM: I was, yes. I felt ready in myself to start earning my living and getting on with life, yes.

JR: So, there was no filming at this stage – this was all theatre?

VM: Yes. It was 1950, I was in London at the Haymarket Theatre. In those days, there was a wonderful theatrical company called HM Tennent,[6] and they had a talent scout, or whatever you call them, who used to go around every year around the Reps. Daphne Rye, her name was.[7]  And she came up to Dundee and we were doing Great Expectations. I was playing Estella. She saw me and thought I’d be right for this new play by John Whiting called A Penny for a Song,[8] which Peter Brook[9] was directing at the Haymarket with a wonderful collection of famous people – Basil Radford, Marie Lohr, Ronald Squire – all the old theatrical names which people may remember.[10] And Ronnie Howard, Leslie Howard’s son,[11] he and I played the young couple in the play. So I came down to London and played in that, which wasn’t a commercial success, sadly. The set was by Emett;[12] quite wonderful, bizarre and amazing.

JR: The cartoonist?

VM: Yes. An absolutely superb set. But for some reason it never took off, and I don’t believe that subsequently, whenever that play has been done, it has ever really been a commercial success. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s just too fantastic!

JR: Yes.

VM: But it was wonderful to be in, of course.

JR: And what about the script? Were you happy with the script?

VM: Oh, yes, it was all wonderful. We thought it was a brilliant play.

JR: It was too sophisticated for the average audience.

VM: Maybe. I don’t know.

JR: It’s a bit sad.

VM: Yes, because John Whiting – I did another play of his subsequently, which I’ll come to in a little while – I thought he was a wonderful writer. But anyway, I had a Tennent contract; I’d had to sign one. So the next play I did was The Winter’s Tale, playing Perdita this time, with John Gielgud and Flora Robson and Diana Wynyard[13] and all sorts of shining actors of England, really.

JR: How lovely to work with them!

VM: Oh, can you imagine, for a young person?

JR: And they were very supportive, I’m sure.

VM: Oh, wonderful. John Gielgud, particularly, was enormously kind to young people.

JR: Was he?

VM: Yes, because in The Winter’s Tale, which was also directed by Peter Brook, Richard Gale[14] – who played Florizel – and I were very nervous [laughs] and daunted by it all and he was always so kind to us and always took time to come out and say, ‘Look, it’s okay, it’s fine, think about ‘so-and-so’,’ and he was just lovely to us. When you look back on that, you realise that just a few words from someone you respect so much and admire so much help you at a time when you’re feeling insecure. I think, if more people could do that for young people to help them along. Because it is quite nerve-racking.

JR: I bet it is! And working for Peter Brook, what was he like?

VM: He was very strong and occasionally he could be a little bit sarcastic, which was hard to deal with when you’re not confident. But nevertheless, he was brilliant, you had to recognise, and he was fun. It was wonderful to work with a director like that. Cecil Beaton did the sets for The Winter’s Tale.[15] So every aspect of it was quite superb, really.

JR: And it was a sort of ‘onwards-and-upwards’ period in history, as well, wasn’t it, after the war?

VM: Absolutely.

JR: Those early fifties.

VM: Yes, wonderful. They were buzzing, weren’t they?

JR: Yes.

VM: Absolutely. It was a brilliant time to be young. All the words we hear today, like ‘drugs’ – I don’t think the word ‘drugs’ ever crossed my lips or even our brains! We never thought of that sort of thing. We were so busy learning and absorbing our profession and our responsibilities. It was a more innocent time, I think. So I was lucky to be young in those days.

JR: So have we got the names of the productions for this period?

VM: Yes, we’ve got A Penny for a Song, that’s the Haymarket, and – actually, in between A Penny for a Song and The Winter’s Tale I did two things. One was The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1952) with Pamela Brown and Hugh Sinclair.[16] That was an experiment. We went to the studios in Hammersmith, and I remember they said, ‘We’re going to do this film, and the takes, instead of being half a minute or a minute or two minutes, are going to be ten minutes. Even more, sometimes.’ I thought, ‘Goodness! I’ve got to learn it like a play – not just little snippets.’ The thing was, they had four cameras, and one camera would sort of take over from the other one as you walked about the set. It was –

JR: A bit unnerving, wasn’t it?

VM: It was unnerving but was also terribly unsuccessful!

JR: Why?

VM: I don’t think it was a very well-received film. But anyway, it was a very good experience for me; that was my first film. And then I did a film called Father’s Doing Fine (1952),[17] which was a comedy about families and that sort of thing, at Elstree, ABC.[18] And a very famous person as a director was also an actor: Richard Attenborough. He was in that, Brian Worth, Heather Stannard [Thatcher], all sorts of amazing people.[19] I did that, but I didn’t play the part I wanted to. I wanted to play the part of the tomboy because that’s what I was, but they didn’t let me play that. I played another sister who drank too much and wore a rather slinky velvet dress and I thought, ‘Oh, goodness!’ But you see, there again, it’s so good to play things you don’t feel right for ‘cause it extends you.

JR: I can see that. Yes, of course. That’s true acting.

VM:  Yes. But when you’re starting, you feel nervous about playing things you don’t feel happy with, or your experience of life hasn’t equipped you to even guess.

JR: Were you part of a company at this stage?

VM: Well, I still had my Tenant contract for the theatre. But The Winter’s Tale didn’t happen until ’52. ’51 I did these two films, and ’52 I went back to the theatre and did Winter’s Tale. That was the sequence. In ’52 I did a lot of other things. I did three other films; one was The Cruel Sea (1953) with Jack Hawkins, Stanley Baker[20]

JR: What a wonderful cast.

VM: Denholm Elliott,[21] you know, fantastic cast.

JR: Was Noël Coward in that?[22]

VM: No, I think that was In Which We Serve (1942).[23]

JR: Oh, yes, thank you.

VM: Yes. Charles Frend directed The Cruel Sea.[24] That really was, in a way, the beginning of my doing films because it was a most sought-after part. Although the part wasn’t frightfully big, nevertheless there was only one woman in the film.

JR: Please remind me; I have seen it. She was a wife, or?

VM: No, she was a wren. Julie Hallam. She wore a wonderful wren’s uniform with a fabulous hat. I always say that people remember the hat because the hat was so wonderful, the wren’s hat, and the uniform was very glamorous. So, that started me off, really, with films. Then, I did a film called The Oracle (1953) with Michael Medwin and Joseph Tomelty,[25] mainly on location in Dorset. I played an Irish girl in that. It was a very sweet film. Not earth-shattering, but really nice to do. And then I did a film with Dirk Bogarde called Simba (1955)[26] at Pinewood[27] which was about the Mau Mau period in Kenya.[28] I played the daughter of a couple who were murdered by the Mau Mau and it was all quite blood-thirsty. But we never went to Kenya; we did it all at Pinewood on the lot. They’re very good at creating other countries. I’ve done one or two films and they never went abroad.

JR: Yes, I have to say, I think they do far too many locations now that they could achieve in studios.

VM: It’s probably finance, because –

JR: Everything is now, yes. Or always was, of course, but –

VM: Studio rentals are probably hugely high and everything, whereas they can get a deal going to a private house and renting it, and I would think that’s really why now. [Pause] That’s all 1952, those bits and pieces.

JR: It was a busy time.

VM: Yes, I was very busy. Actually, in all the fifties I was hugely busy. I did another play called The River Line by Charles Morgan,[29] which went to the Edinburgh Festival and then came to Lyric Hammersmith and then went to the West End with Paul Scofield and Pamela Brown again.[30] So I worked twice with her, which was lovely. It’s always lovely when you work more than once with somebody. And Michael Goodliffe, John Westbrook, wonderful people, and directed by Michael Macowan.[31] I think we did that for about six months. I think it was about that. I loved doing that; it was a wonderful play.

JR: How long did it run?

VM: I think it must have run, with the Edinburgh Festival and Hammersmith, I think it must have run about six to eight months altogether.

JR: That’s a long time.

VM: Which was, for a straight play, you know, quite serious.

JR: And you did matinees, did you, as well?

VM: Oh, yes, of course. [Pause.] Oh, Robert Hardy was in it too, and the last play I did in the theatre, actually, was with him, so I’ve known him for many years.[32]

JR: Fine actor.

VM: Wonderful actor. And then I did another film at Ealing[33] called The Ship that Died of Shame (1955).[34] That was with George Baker,[35] who I then, many years later, did one of those Inspector Wexfords,[36] so I again worked with him, which was lovely. I love working with people who I’ve worked with before. [Pause.] Then in ’54, I did a Dodie Smith play called I Capture the Castle,[37] which had a very short run. We went to Newcastle – no, it wasn’t Newcastle, it was somewhere like Liverpool.[38]

JR: You went there first?

VM: Yes. We had four or five weeks there, getting the thing right.

JR: Did you meet her? She was very eccentric, wasn’t she?

VM: Oh, yes, on the stage, sitting at rehearsal.

JR: Every single day?

VM: Yes, she was, but she was really nice. There was only one occasion when – I played Cassandra, and she said, ‘I want your hair very short,’ so I went and had my hair cut very short. She said, ‘It’s not short enough,’ so I cut some more off, and she said, ‘No, that’s still not short enough.’ So I was getting rather worked up by that point – I had to cut it really short – and she said, ‘It’s too short!’ [Laughs.]

JR: Oh, dear!

VM: Well, it didn’t matter; it grew.

JR: But it must have been a bit stressful, all the same.

VM: At that time, I suppose I was getting a bit agitated about it, but in the end –

JR: You were no longer a true beginner. You shouldered it.

VM: Yes. And it was a fun play to do. I also got married for the first time, during that production, to Denholm Elliott, and that did not last for a long time.[39] He was a fantastic person and we just weren’t suited to each other.

JR: Fantastic actor.

VM: Oh, what an actor! And as years went by, more and more terrific, I think. And we did do television together years later. We became friends, you know, and I met his second wife. [40] So, it was civilised and it was good. Anyway, that was that. Then, that same year, I did a film called A Town Like Alice (1956) with Peter Finch.[41] That was another film that we never went on location for.

JR: I didn’t know that.

VM: They did some second unit with people plodding through the jungle and a few bits like that, but they’d built a whole Malaysian village on the lot at Pinewood. And with that projection, and all the tricks of the trade, and being black and white too, I think perhaps that helped. It was very, very successful.

JR: Memorable film.   

VM: Very successful.

JR: Who directed that?

VM: Jack Lee. Laurie Lee’s brother.[42] And I’m still in touch with Jack; he lives in Australia, in Sydney, and in fact, I’m going to see him when I go to Australia this month to see my daughter! I’m going to go and visit him. He’s eighty-something now.[43] He’s visited here and it’s so lovely to keep in touch with friends. Also, an actor called Vincent Ball,[44] who played Peter Finch’s mate in the film – we’re still in touch. So things carry on, which is really wonderful.

JR: You made a lot of friends, clearly.

VM: A lot of friends – I mean, not that you see them that often – but they’re people you can still write to and ring up occasionally, and still have a wonderful connection. And as you get older, I think you value that more and more.

JR: Yes. And you don’t make the same connections as you get older, I don’t think.

VM: Not quite the same way.

JR: As when you’re young. I don’t know, they’re never quite the same.

VM: No.

JR: It’s wonderful to have old friendships and acquaintanceships.

VM: It is lovely. I suppose it’s because they’ve known you for so long and they know you well, and they accept all your idiosyncrasies or your failings, or whatever. They know you more completely.

JR: And you’ve been under pressure together, working together.

VM: That’s right. And new friendships, they’re just as wonderful, but they only know a little bit of you, don’t they? In a way. As you do of them.

JR: Yes.

VM: So, that was A Town Like Alice, and then in ’55, I went to the Old Vic[45] for a year. I did four plays there with John Neville, Eric Porter, Rachel Roberts,[46] who sadly died, and [pause] there were so many more famous people; I’m trying not to leave anyone out. George Rose and Ann Todd,[47] actually; she was there in one of the plays. We did Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was the play she [Todd] did, and we did Richard II; I played the queen. We did Henry IV Part One and Two, and I was just in Part Two, I think it was – I can’t remember which part it was! It’s not written down here, but it was Part Two, and I played Lady Mortimer.  I had to speak in Welsh only, so I had to learn it phonetically.

JR: Wow!

VM: That was quite fun. I had to sing a little song and speak in Welsh. So you just have to learn it phonetically. I didn’t have a lot to say, which was rather a good thing. And then I played Rosalind in As You Like It, which was really the big one for me. It was just fabulous; Eric Porter played Jaques and John Neville played Orlando. And Robert Helpmann directed it,[48] which was wonderful. We had an Italian designer; can’t remember his name,[49] but I remember having the most wonderful costume as Rosalind when she was a boy. Just britches and a simple shirt, and I thought, it’s so lovely; you’re not trying to make me look like I’m in fancy dress. It was real. I really loved playing that. One of my favourite parts. And then in ’56 I did several things. I played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on television with Tony Britton playing Romeo,[50] and we also did a film—

JR: Excuse me. Was television live then?

VM: Well, the very first television I did, which for some reason I don’t see – oh, no! Can I jump back to tell you about something in 1951?

JR: Of course!

VM: My very first television play was called ‘Shout Aloud Salvation’ (1951),[51] which was directed by Michael Barry,[52] the most wonderful director, and it was live. We did it at Alexandra Palace, and in those days, you did two performances a week; you did it on Sunday and then you did it again on Thursday. I had a huge part, actually, and it was about the Salvation Army, two girls in the Salvation Army. Daphne Slater played the other girl.[53] I remember that, because the sets were sometimes in different studios, sometimes, one was literally running along the passage, throwing jackets and things off and putting on another one with someone holding the sleeve for you. And yes, it was live.  Gosh, that was exciting! I mean, dangerous stuff!

JR: But it’s a great role – not everyone would – I think it’s remarkable to do television live.

VM: Oh, absolutely.

JR: You’re very adaptable, actually, going from theatre to film and then to television and taking it all in your stride. Not every actor is happy to do both mediums—

VM: Well, I suppose I’d had a good grounding at Central, but I always felt that whatever medium you were in – and of course, over the years I’ve learned a lot from the techniques of filming. I think that probably in those early days I did too much, because I always feel that one should do as little as possible. Providing it all comes from inside, providing it’s your thoughts and your feelings, the technical side is just how you do it. It’s all got to start from the same point. In the theatre you obviously have to project it, because it’s got to reach row one and row thirty or whatever, but in the cinema, of course, when the camera is close you mustn’t project it. You’ve just got to think it, actually, and that’s enough, providing you allow your thoughts to be shown. In television, it’s a kind of mixture, really, because you get the continuity of the stage play – so, you do the story right from beginning to end, which you don’t in films – but you get the intimacy of the cinema. So that’s why I’ve always really loved television because you’ve got these two things coming together. Well, yes, I do think I am an adaptable person; I can sort of leap from one life into another without too many problems. But it was stimulating, exciting, wonderful. I grabbed a great chance! So then in ’56 – I’m getting a little bit confused because I think these dates [on the CV] aren’t quite correct. In ’56 I know we did a film called The Smallest Show on Earth (1957). At that time, my marriage had been gone for a while and I was with – I wasn’t married to my second husband Bill Travers,[54] but I was with him, and we did a film together called The Smallest Show on Earth with Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles, directed by Basil Dearden.[55]

JR: That must have been a humorous—

VM: Oh, yes, it was absolutely – in fact, we spent most of the time laughing, I think.

JR: I didn’t see it, but I know the name.

VM: Oh, it’s a wonderful film. It’s just so delightful. Peter Sellers plays a drunken projectionist, Margaret Rutherford played Mrs Fazackalee, who was this wonderful lady with sort of black and jet beads and playing the Wurlitzer, which went out up and down, you know, at the beginning of the film. And Bernard Miles played the commissioner who stood at the door. His only ambition in life was to have had a uniform, and we managed to get him in a uniform. So it was a most charming film, produced by Launder and Gilliat, the famous producers of many, many brilliant British films.[56] But we also did The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957),[57] an American production at MGM. Jennifer Jones[58] played Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Bill played Robert Browning. John Gielgud played father Barrett—

JR: You say ‘Bill’; this is Bill Travers?

VM: Yes. I played Henrietta, one of the other daughters, and Maxine Audley[59] played the other daughter. It was a wonderful part for me; she was a rebel, which I love playing those sort of things, and I had a lovely scene with John Gielgud. It was just wonderful to do. So I was tumbling, really, from one thing to the next in those days. And then we come to 1957, in which I did a film called Carve Her Name with Pride (1958),[60] and again, that was with Paul Scofield, directed by Lewis Gilbert.[61] We again didn’t go on location, although a lot of it was set in France. They built everything at Pinewood on the lot. But that was a very interesting film for me because all sorts of major things happened. First of all, I married Bill, and I got a weekend off in the middle of filming to have a honeymoon, and also Odette, the famous wartime resistance heroine, was our technical advisor on the film.[62] 

JR: Oh, was she?

VM: Yes, and she was with us all the time, and we became very good friends.

JR: How wonderful to have met her!

VM: Oh, I can’t tell you.

JR: I’ve always confused her name with Vilette.

VM: Violette. Violette Szabo.[63]

JR: Ah, I thought it was ‘Vilette’. And what is Szabo?

VM: Hungarian. She married Etienne Szabo who was actually in the French Resistance, but was killed, died very quickly. That was why his death actually prompted her to become an agent. They had a little girl, Tania, who lives in Jersey and has a language school. I’ll tell you about this later because so many things in my life which had started in fantasy, as it were, fiction, as an actress – although there have been a lot of real stories about real people, but nevertheless, I was just an actress interpreting these stories – have become part of my real life for various different reasons, and this particular film was one of those. So, yes, Odette. And the director was wonderful in this because as much as he possibly could, he filmed it in sequence, so we didn’t have to do the terrible ending before we were coming to the end of filming. It would have been very hard.

JR: Which does happen sometimes, of course, doesn’t it.

VM: Oh, yes, you bob about. You can start in the middle, go back to the beginning, and then—

JR: You have to be aware of the haircuts that—

VM: Oh, yes, haircuts. The continuity girl on films, of course, is one of the most important jobs. I mean, that would be a fascinating person to talk to—

JR: Yes indeed, yes.

VM: Because they have to – I don’t know how they do it! Of course, nowadays they take these Polaroid films, but they didn’t have that in those days. Everything had to be taken down in shorthand and notes and charts.

JR: A very responsible job.

VM: Oh, fantastic! They’d say, ‘When you drank that cup of tea, you put the cup down after that word’. They’d have to absolutely know – I mean, if you did a close-up, you did exactly the same to match. I always had such admiration for the continuity people because you had to have your eyes everywhere. Wonderful.

JR: And that really stretched you, that part, I’m sure, because—

VM: Well, it was four months, which was quite long in those days to film, and yes.

JR: It was such a moving story.

VM: It was such a moving story and you knew it was going to have a tragic ending. I met so many real people who had been part of that work in the Resistance in London. I met Major Buckmaster, I met Vera Atkins, Major Fernandes,[64] who actually taught me how to use a sten gun. I had to go for proper training; I went to Abingdon, to the parachute school. So there were lots of real things I learned how to do – Judo – of which I had not a lot, but enough to look convincing in the film, which I found absolutely fascinating. So a lot of real life criss-cross there. And also then, Bill and I began our life in this house that we’re sitting in now, which was a tiny cottage in those far off days, 1957.[65] I used to travel every day to Pinewood from here, which was quite a long journey; about an hour each way.

JR: Luckily, the roads were better then.

VM: They were.

JR: Or, rather, the traffic.

VM: There wasn’t any motorways and stuff. It was all little roads. And of course, you had to be there so early that usually you got there before the traffic started.

JR: How are you with early starts?

VM: I’m good in the morning.

JR: Ah, that’s a big asset, isn’t it?

VM: Morning’s my best time. I start to flag about tea time! Yes, I’m very much a morning person.

JR: That must be a great advantage in filming.

VM: I think you can train yourself to do almost anything. I used to not be like that when I was very young. In fact, when Bill and I first got together, I used to be like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have my eight or nine hours’ sleep; I can’t possibly function without that!’ But of course you can, and he was very much a morning person, so I think I changed over the years to become a morning person as well, and now I’m totally a morning person. I’m up really early every day. You miss so much if you stay in bed late.

JR: I do, so I know how much you miss.

VM: Well, you probably see the end of the day more than I do.

JR: Yes, but it’s not such a worthwhile time of day or such a useful time.

VM: The dawn is such a fantastic time, particularly from here when you can see the shapes emerging in the early light and the sun rises. I get beautiful skies here. Not this morning, but usually! And so I do more and more love the early morning. Particularly travelling in Africa, when you’re going out to watch wild animals, of course the early morning is one of the best times. All the dew’s on the grass and it’s just magic. So the early morning has got a lot going for it for me. [Pause] So after that film, Bill and I did another film together. We worked quite a lot together, actually, which was lovely. This wasn’t a frightfully good film, sadly; it was called The Passionate Summer (1958),[66] and we did that in Jamaica. That was the location; there was studio work here. But I was pregnant with my first baby and I was feeling rather sick! [Laughs] So I didn’t really enjoy the heat too much; I didn’t really enjoy doing that film. Yvonne Mitchell, who was a wonderful actress, was the other woman in the film. It was not a terribly exciting film and I don’t think it’s hardly every shown, thank goodness.

JR: And you were both acting at that stage.

VM: Oh, we were still acting for quite a lot longer. Then we went to Sweden in 1960. I had two children by then, my eldest son and my daughter. We went to Sweden to do a film called Two Living, One Dead (1961),[67] which was taken from a Nobel Prize-winning book with Patrick McGoohan.[68] Anthony Asquith directed it.[69] We spent about two months or so in Sweden doing that. It was a very interesting story; it was – oh, I don’t need to tell you the story. It’s not so interesting, is it, really?

JR: Well, a quick outline would be interesting!

VM: [Laughs] Well, it’s about a very small village in Norway, and a robbery takes place in the post office. The postman, which was the part Bill played, was wrongly accused of being the thief. It wasn’t so much about that; it was about how this affected his life and ruined his life. There weren’t court cases and all that. It was about how it affected his life, his private life. I thought it was wonderful. Anthony Asquith was the most mercurial and fascinating person. A wonderful pianist – he had a piano put in his hotel room, so we used to hear him play the piano – and also a mad Scrabble player – not Scrabble, Racing Demon! A wonderful card game called Racing Demon. So after work, we all used to go up to his room and play fiendishly aggressive games of Racing Demon together, which was wonderful.

JR: Not everybody’s idea of relaxing!

VM: Oh, it was wonderful! I don’t think ‘relaxing’ is only about being still and quiet. I think sometimes ‘relaxing’ is about change, doing something different. That can be just as relaxing. I mean, I think now the word ‘relax’, like you have on the radio these voices which sound like they’re about to go to sleep telling you to relax, that’s the image we have of ‘relaxing’ now.

JR: Yes, that’s a very good point.

VM: I don’t think that’s really what relaxing’s all about.  

JR: I do find that getting in the car and driving amongst traffic takes one’s mind off things and unwinds one a bit.

VM: It does. Yes, it’s just the change, isn’t it?

JR: Yes, I hadn’t thought of it before. Anyway, this was very relaxing, playing this exciting game!


VM: Just before I go on to 1961, I wanted to add a name to the illustrious list of people who were in The Cruel Sea; of course, Donald Sinden,[70] with whom I had my first screen kiss, although I’m sure it was probably – I was quite nervous and shy and—

JR: It must be one of the most difficult things.

VM: Yes, the first time I think it’s quite difficult, but he was very kind and in fact that’s one of the things I’ve been so fortunate for in my life: the people I’ve worked with, on the whole, I’ve had such kind and considerate and generous leading men, or people I’ve played opposite in films and theatre. Everyone – I mean, maybe one or two only, who I certainly won’t mention! But the majority of people have all been quite wonderful to work with.

JR: They remember their own early days, I suppose.

VM: I suppose so, yes, although some of them were still young themselves, too.

JR: But they wanted to share.

VM: Yes. They were actors who gave – I mean, it’s so easy to recognise, when you’re an actor or actress, not really giving much, and there are very few who don’t. But it’s wonderful to work with a generous actor or actress. It makes the whole thing worthwhile, really. So then, in 1961, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which in those days had a company at the Aldwych in London,[71] Dorothy Tutin was in The Devils,[72] which was the second John Whiting play I was about to do, and she wasn’t well. I was asked if I would take over from her and I did, and had the most amazing experience. It was an extraordinary, dark but brilliant play directed by Peter Wood.[73] Richard Johnson was the leading actor.[74] It was a most rich and wonderful experience. I’m sorry that it was because Dorothy was not well that I did the part, but nevertheless, that was the beginning of a long friendship with her. In 19 – I am just jumping slightly because I want to talk about her for a minute – 1963, two years later, we actually worked together with the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Beggar’s Opera.[75] She played Polly Peachum and I played Lucy Lockit.

JR: Oh, that’s a great part.

VM: Oh, it was just wonderful, and we became friends from that time until her death, sadly, last year. So that was at that point, but just before The Beggar’s Opera, I did a television called Some Other Love with Dennis Price.[76] I’m quite astounded when I’m reading these names out, I suddenly realise what extraordinary people I’ve worked with! When you’re doing it, you – you do it! [Laughs] I mean—

JR: I’m tempted to say the best. I don’t think they’ve been surpassed, most of these names.

VM: Absolutely unique in their own way, and such a privilege to work with them because I’ve learnt so much from the people I’ve worked with, by watching them and listening to them, and I’ve just been fortunate beyond belief. So then came the film which was obviously going to change our lives, although we didn’t know it at the time, in ‘64 called Born Free (1966),[77] which Bill and I did together. All on location, for the very first time, in Kenya. We took our three children, which we had by that time, with us, and we were there for ten and a half months. It was directed by James Hill[78] – first of all by an American director called Tom McGowan,[79] but he didn’t stay, and James came out from England and took over the direction. He became a good friend and subsequently Bill and he worked on many films and documentaries together, some of which I was involved with and some not. At the time, we didn’t really think, ‘Oh, this is our life-changing experience,’ or anything like that. We were far too busy dealing with the various difficulties, challenges and events that each day brought. Some of them were very hard to deal with, some of them were just joyful, but it was a very intense and very demanding ten and a half months. Luckily we survived because there was always the chance that there would be an accident. I did have one accident, during the ‘getting to know you’ period of two months before filming started, when one of the lions jumped on me and I broke my ankle. That was really nobody’s fault; it’s too long to go into now, the story, but it was one of those things which was just a chance thing that happened. I recovered; I went down to the hospital and had my leg all fixed, and came back, and—

JR: Are you saying it was an accident on the lion’s part?

VM: Well, perhaps I’d better explain it briefly.

JR: Yes, sure, I’d love to hear it.

VM: What happened was that Bill and I used to take these two young lions, brother and sister, who’d formerly been mascots of the Scots Guard’s regiment in Nairobi.[80] We used to take them out on the plains for exercise every day to an old disused airfield. The two original lions which were organised for us to work with were withdrawn; they were circus lions and they proved to be quite dangerous, so they were not used in the film for any contact work whatsoever. Then we had no lions, so the producers were looking hither and thither for other lions to come and work, and they found these two.

JR: How can you exercise lions?

VM: You just walk with them.

JR: And they didn’t run off?

VM: No, they didn’t run off. They had this marvellous and interesting thing about how you introduce an animal that you know to somebody else. If the animal’s confident in you and trusts you, it’s more likely to trust the person you introduce it to. So when the sergeant who’d looked after these two ever since they were tiny – because they were orphaned – brought them up to us, he stayed with us for two weeks. During that time, Bill and I used to go out with them and with him, and finally he left and we stayed, so we took his place. So that trust had been established with him. So yes, they used to jump in the back of the Land Rover and off we’d go and we’d have these walks, ambushing behind bushes. We used to fall over quite a lot. We used to play football with them. And then, one day, we went up with them and just a couple of yards in front of us was a herd of Thompson’s gazelle and the lions saw these, of course, and were frightfully excited. They started stalking them; they started crouching through the grass and the Thompson’s gazelle, when they saw them coming, would move on. The male lion kept coming back to us and tapping our ankles, and I said to Bill, ‘I think they want us to stalk with them.’ So we got down on our hands and knees and we were stalking through the grass, and it was quite sore, because the grass was very prickly.

JR: Fascinating!

VM: So in the end, I got up and rubbed my knees because they were a bit sore, and I think by then both lions were highly excited, obviously, from this activity, and the lion saw me and thought – well, I don’t know what he thought, but I suppose he might have thought, ‘Well, she looks a bit easier; I’ll jump on top of her!’ 

JR: So you had changed position.

VM: Yes, that’s right. He was so worked up. Bill took an amazing photograph of me with my hands up saying, ‘No,’ or ‘Stop,’ or something, and the lion, obviously just about to jump onto my shoulders! Which he did, of course; he jumped onto my shoulders and I went down, and my ankle broke just like a stick. Then was this moment for Bill – not for me, actually, because it was so painful I didn’t quite know what was happening – where the lions came and stood over me, and there’s that moment when, are you still the friend or are you now possible prey? I mean, you just don’t know.

JR: Bad enough with a dog, never mind a lion!

VM: Exactly. So luckily, the day before, they’d been a bit naughty and not wanted to come home. So he’d taken his shirt off and he’d wiggled it through the grass to entice them out of the bush, and they had followed it. So he did the same; he took his shirt off and he wiggled it away from me, towards the Land Rover and through the grass, and they followed it. So he got them back, one in and one on top, and then he came back for me and put me in a fireman’s lift and took me back, and well. The rest is not particularly interesting for other people to know about, but I eventually got to hospital and had an operation and so forth. But when I got back to camp, eventually, still in plaster in the car, I saw Boy and Girl being walked back from a walk with George and somebody else – George Adamson[81] – and I called his name through the window of the car, and I wound it right down and he came in and he put half his body through the car to greet me. I was just ecstatic, I can’t tell you. So the next day, Bill and I went into their enclosure, and I was still on crutches, actually, so the first thing they did was they pinched the crutches—

JR: [Laughs.]

VM: [Laughs.] And I was just sitting on a little bench in there. But it was fine, it was absolutely fine; there was no aggression. The trust had stayed. So we were able to get on with our work.

JR: And you started to trust them again, which is almost more remarkable!

VM: Oh yes, I never didn’t trust them, actually, because I felt that the circumstances—

JR: There was a reason.

VM: Yes, exactly. He hadn’t been meaning to be horrible to me. I never felt that.

JR: I can see all that from your description. But nevertheless, what an experience!

VM: It was an amazing experience! And then at the end of the film, when we’d finished, Joy Adamson,[82] who of course had also come into the picture – she’d been in America at the start of filming but she then joined us and was around a lot, which was grand – we tried to get several of the lions to be returned to the wild, to follow the story of the film. Sadly, we only managed to get three, two of which were Boy and Girl, and one other male. George went up to Mara Game Reserve[83] and returned them to the wild. There are so many stories that lead on from there which I can’t go into here, but for two of them it was very successful. They mated with wild lions and so forth. But the others all went to zoos and safari parks in the UK and in America, and this really sowed the seed of what we were eventually going to do in the eighties, twenty years on. This sowed the seed and started our whole new way of thinking about things, and began a new career for Bill because he started to make his own documentaries. He started his own independent documentary film company.[84] So that branched him off quite a lot.

JR: The Lions Are Free, was it?

VM: That was his first one, The Lions Are Free (1969),[85] which is the story of what happened to some of the lions we used.

JR: Did you tag them? How did you—

VM: No, we didn’t tag them. George used to just – again, you’ve got to lead them into circumstances where they become accustomed to seeing wild prey, and eventually you stop feeding them so they want to kill something to eat it. Although Girl, I have to say, when we were filming, actually caught a Thompson’s gazelle without ever having learned it from her mother. She knew exactly what to do. Again, we were out on a walk, and she dragged it and laid it at my feet, and she allowed Bill to lift it into the back of the Land Rover, take it back to camp and put it into their enclosure.

JR: Wow.

VM: So you know, we were really part of their pride.

JR: And the lioness does most of the hunting, am I right?

VM: Yes. I mean, obviously solitary males have to, but in a pride, it’s usually the females that will do the hunting. [Pause] So then we came home to England, and all sorts of different things happened. As I said, for Bill, he started his documentary film company, and from then on made a lot of extremely interesting and unusual and successful documentary films. The Lions Are Free was networked three times in the States but was never shown in England. They never really ever understood it. Anyway, it’s like a bit of history now; it was a long time ago.

JR: That is extraordinary.

VM: But nevertheless, many of his films – I can dot them in when the date’s right, a little bit later on, the other ones. So then I went back to television, and I did two televisions for a wonderful director called Waris Hussein.[86] One was called “A Passage to India” (1965),[87] which I did with Sybil Thorndike,[88] a remarkable woman. I shall never forget, because Waris was a young Indian director, obviously a little shy at first working with such a brilliant actress as her, and she put him at his ease. You know, this is the thing I was talking about earlier, people with experience being able to put people at their ease and give them encouragement. Immediately she said, ‘Now you just tell me exactly what you want to do. I just want you to feel you can say anything to me,’ and he was so pleased. You know, they became friends and she was wonderful to us all, just part of the group. You know, this is what’s so lovely about British actors, I think, that we don’t have that star system in this country. You’re part of the team, you’re part of the company, and that’s mainly been my experience. Very few assume a separate status, you know. You’re just part of the company. I love that attitude. So that was that, and then I did another television with him called “Girls in Uniform” (1967),[89] which was with Francesca Annis.[90] That was one of her early parts, and she went on to become one of our most lovely, beautiful and clever actresses. I think she’s a beautiful actress. And then I did one or two other televisions. The only thing I’ve ever done in the States was a television for Hallmark called The Admirable Crichton (1968).[91] Bill and I did that together in New York, and that was great fun. Again, we didn’t have location, but they flew in I’m not sure how many tonnes of sand from some beach somewhere in Florida, so these crates of sand kept pouring into the studio, which we had to work on, and palm trees and goodness only knows what! They can do that in the States; they do that sort of thing so brilliantly. It was the first time and the last that I’ve ever experienced having each eyelash put on separately. I had to have these eyes, so the wonderful makeup man – I said, ‘Good Lord, what are you doing?’, and he said, ‘We put on each eyelash individually.’ Wonderful – I mean, it does look quite different when they’re put on separately! I’ll never have it done again, but it was quite remarkable at the time.

JR: You mean, they looked more real?

VM: More real, yes. Not in a sort of row, you know? It was brilliantly done. That was ’67, all that, and then, ’68, I did another television – I did a lot of television at that time – with Pamela Brown again: “Mary Queen of Scots” (1969).[92] She played Elizabeth and I played Mary. That was television, and then Bill and I did a film in Scotland called Ring of Bright Water (1969),[93] which was from Gavin Maxwell’s remarkable book of the same name. And that’s really when, although I’d been to Dundee Rep, we both of us have Scottish blood in us and so we felt very much spiritually drawn to the west coast of Scotland. All the legends and the mythology and the beauty of the place. He had less of a fabulous time, actually, than I did; I had a wonderful time. We took our children – all four, by then – up with us and we lived in this beautiful house on Loch Etive,[94] and the grass went straight down to the loch and there was a little boat that we rode out to see seals and it was a truly magical time. But Bill was also doing some adjustments to the script, so at the end of the day, he’d not only played the main part but he was writing the next day’s scene, so he was under a lot of strain. It wasn’t such fun for him. But a lovely thing happened during that: we had a dog which was rented for the film, a trained gun dog from the kennels that never belonged to any individual before, and he came to play my dog, Johnny, in the film. I watched him a little bit on set and he was very obedient but there was no spark in his eye, and I said, ‘Well, if he’s my dog, can he come and live with me? Because then, you see, we’ll be naturally friends and he’ll want to do things because he likes to be with me.’ Same idea, you see, as Born Free, and we did the same with the otters, actually. We sat for six weeks in a huge enclosure with a stream in it with the otter which was going to be the main otter. One day he came and sniffed our shoes, and then climbed over Bill’s legs, and he’d accepted us. So from then on, we started to establish what would particularly be – not so much me, I didn’t have to, but Bill established this wonderful rapport with the otter. And so, Johnny did come to live with us in the house and became devoted, as we did to him, and then when the film finished we bought him, and we brought him and he lived here.

JR: I’m so glad to hear that because I was going to ask, what on earth did he feel like about—

VM: Yes, he came here and lived until his end, which was wonderful. So that was Ring of Bright Water in ’68, but we also did another film, one of Bill’s and James Hill’s films called An Elephant Called Slowly (1969).[95] And this again is where film and reality start to blend because we went to Africa to make this – it was basically a light-hearted little children’s film about a couple who go to Kenya to look after some friends of a friend, and the friends turn out to be elephants. So through these very green people coming from England, not knowing how elephants behave at all, they watch the elephants, they study them, they learn what they eat, they learn that they like to wallow and they learn their habits. Through that entertainment form, children would learn a little bit about real things about elephants. It was a funny film, too. However, when we got there, we were going to work in a park called Tsavo National Park,[96] which is where two remarkable people lived called Daphne and David Sheldrick.[97] David had already started, and she looked after orphaned animals that were brought to her for various reasons; they’d become orphaned. She had, at that time, two orphaned elephants, Elena and Kedengi (sp?), and in the script we needed a little elephant, a two or three year old elephant. She didn’t have one but we were told of a little elephant that had been captured from the wild as a gift from President Kenyatta’s government to London Zoo. And she was in a compound in Nairobi, in the Trapas compound, waiting to come to England. So we went to see her, and although at that time she looked so wild and petrified we thought we’d never be able to work with her, David Sheldrick, who was remarkable with elephants, as was Daphne, said, ‘If you get permission I can pacify her, reassure her and regain her confidence and in two or three days you’ll find a very different little animal.’ So this is what happened; we got permission to use her for the film, went down to Tsavo, David did all those things and she was just extraordinary. Then, the end of the film came – six weeks – and we asked if we could buy her to give her to the Sheldricks. The authorities said yes, but they’d have to capture another elephant. Well, we know what that means for any animal to be taken from the wild, but a baby from its mother and its family, and particularly elephants are known for intense family relationships and the need they have for that. We couldn’t agree to it, so it was terrible: she had to come to London Zoo. I know I’m jumping, but I have to just complete this little circle. In 1983, which was many years later, her death at London Zoo started our work as an organisation for animals.

JR: Was this Zoo Check?

VM: Zoo Check, yes, now called The Born Free Foundation, but in those days it was Zoo Check.[98] So it was her death at the zoo which began our work.

JR: So she wasn’t very old, then, if she died—

VM: No, she was only about sixteen, seventeen.

JR: Which is young for an elephant.

VM: It’s like a girl – almost like a girl, not quite – because they can life to sixty and more. So, it was all very tragic.

JR: But good has come out of it.

VM: Yes, well, we felt that her death couldn’t be in vain. It had to have some meaning. And hopefully it has had some meaning, even if it’s a drop in the ocean in a world context. If you help just a few animals or a few people, whatever your particular field is, I think it’s worthwhile. So we did that film and that went quite well; it’s on video and can be seen by people still. So Bill’s career then really did move on; he did a wonderful film about poaching called Bloody Ivory (1978) which got a BAFTA nomination.[99] He edited two stories together; he did the work of David Sheldrick against the poachers, because there was such a huge poaching problem in Tsavo in those days, and he intertwined it with Daphne’s work with the orphans. It was brilliantly done. Just about poaching might have been too tough; you got these other more gentle stories woven in, but nevertheless poignant because not all the animals were saved. But a lot were.

JR: What a clever way to present it.

VM: Yes, it was wonderful. Ian Holm and Judy Parfitt[100] did the narration for that particular documentary. I was still plodding on with acting, really. In 1970—

JR: You were enjoying it just as much, though?

VM: I was enjoying it but a bit of my brain was already going sideways, I think! I was thinking about other things. And in fact, I did a small part in a film with Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer called Waterloo (1970),[101] in which I played the Duchess of Richmond. It was a tiny part but sensational to do, actually. In Rome, you know. Just the ball scene, but quite an experience. But that same year Bill and I did our first book called On Playing with Lions. Before we went to do Born Free, someone at Collins, the publishers, said to me, ‘You ought to keep a diary.’ And ‘you should take photographs,’ they said to Bill. And we did just that; I kept diaries. That was the first time I started – whenever I go abroad now, I keep a diary every single day. I don’t keep one at home, but when I go away I keep a diary. So I kept the diary and he did the pictures, and we did our first book, On Playing with Lions, which Collins published that year. Then, in ’71, there was a mixture again – our lives kind of mixed together. I was in The Three Sisters, playing Masha, for the Cambridge Theatre Company with Daniel Massey,[102] and Bill did two documentaries. Well, actually, it was two, but they were then joined together and it was called Christian the Lion (1971).[103] That was about a lion that we found in a furniture shop in London called Christian. These Australian boys had found a lion in the pet department at Harrod’s and had bought him at Christmastime.

JR: As a cub?

VM: As a cub, yes. There was a brother and a sister. The sister was already sold but the brother wasn’t, and they couldn’t bear to keep this little cub at the shop over Christmas so they bought him. They worked in a shop called Sophisticat in the World’s End in King’s Road so they took him there, and when we went in he was about six or seven months old. They were getting anxious about him because he was getting big and he had to go in the basement when anyone came into the shop, and of course, lions and kids don’t mix that well, so it was getting a little bit worrying. They recognised Bill when he went in there to buy a desk, actually, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it,’ which he did, and subsequently he said, ‘If I get permission from the Kenya government and George Adamson agrees, would you let Christian be returned to the wild?’ And they said yes. So they came and lived here for four months. We had a huge lion compound built in our garden; we had an old gypsy caravan which became the night quarters, another caravan which the boys lived in – the two Australians, ‘cause they came too – and he was here for about four months. Then, he, Bill and the boys flew to Kenya and they all made a film about the British side of the story and then the African side of the story.

JR: I don’t remember that; I wish I’d seen it!

VM: I’ll lend you a copy if you like. It’s a wonderful film. The relationship between the lion and one boy in particular was quite extraordinary. It just makes you really quite touched. So he did that and we did the book, and then I did a theatre play called The Beheading with Robert Lang and John Moffatt.[104] It was not a success – we were beheaded by the press – so that came off quite fast! But then I did a television which I really enjoyed doing in a series called The Edwardians (1972-4),[105] and the one I was in was called ‘Darling Daisy’. The costumes were, to be believed, they were so beautiful. As only the BBC can do, I think – certainly in those days – the quality of the production in every way. I mean, even your petticoat, which was never seen; everything was absolutely authentic and perfect.

JR: This must help you acting the part, mustn’t it? To feel so right?

VM: Yes, well, you feel right, but you always have such admiration for the people who’ve been so full of integrity to make it right.

JR: Yes. And the strange thing is that the public, for want to a better word – the audience – doesn’t have to know anything about costume but they do twig that something’s wrong if it’s wrong without knowing what’s right.

VM: Exactly. It’s quite true, that. Sometimes in a costume film you see someone with obviously very modern make-up and you think, well, they didn’t have that kind of make-up in those days.

JR: Yes. Someone always notices if it’s wrong. And integrity is the very word; it’s so admirable.

VM: I know. It was wonderful to do that. Anyway, I loved it just for wearing the clothes, apart from the acting! It was wonderful. And then I did another television; in ’73 I did a television and a play. The television was called The Dragon’s Opponent (1973) with Ronald Pickup.[106] Then I did a play at the Hampstead Theatre Club with George Cole called Country Life,[107] which was actually written by – now, I’m not sure if he was a grandson or a great nephew – but he was somehow related to Sybil Thorndike,[108] because she came to one of the performances. And I thought, how wonderful to do that, to come up to the Hampstead Theatre Club. She was really quite ill then.

JR: What date was this?

VM: ’73.

JR: Yes, so she was getting on.[109]

VM: Yes. But yes, it was wonderful. And that was when I first met George and – I’m just looking to see if I’ve got this down – yes, a few years later I was doing something in Hong Kong and I suggested they  ask George to do it and he did.[110] So there again, you see, you can go on working with people. It’s lovely. So that same year, ’73, I played the part of Mother in Swallows and Amazons (1974).[111] The actress, Sophie Neville,[112] who played Titty, one of my children in the film, I actually still am in touch with and still see because she lives in South Africa. She’s now a wonderful wildlife artist and we sell her cards, so you know—

JR: All these connections.

VM: All these lovely connections. So that was very special. It was done up in the Lake District. I did a few radio plays and stuff like that. I can’t remember what the dates of them were, although I know I did the radio production of The Devils, actually, but I’m sure I’ve got it down here.[113] 

JR: Did you enjoy that, the radio work?

VM: Oh, I love radio. I like voice work more than visual.

JR: Do you?

VM: Well, I think that not to see someone but to get everything about the character in the story just from the voice is really exciting. I’d like to do lots more – just voice work. I don’t particularly want to be looked at at all anymore, but I like using the voice. I’ve done quite a few book readings and poetry things and I’ve really enjoyed that.

JR: Do you mean for the reading book service or for an audience?

VM: Well, it was funny. I have done commercial book reading for a company but I had a thing sent to me recently from a Books for the Blind, and they were really writing to me to say, would I like to send a subscription. But the book cover they’d used was The Cruel Sea. And so I said, ‘I have to tell you about this.’ So I wrote a little letter saying, ‘Look, if anyone would like me to do a book for you, please let me know,’ and I’ve never heard from them. And I thought, what a shame, because I’d love to do a book.

JR: It must have been an oversight because I’m sure they’d be so glad—

VM: Oh, I don’t know; perhaps they’ve got so many people wanting to do them that they’ve got enough, you know. But I don’t have equipment, you see, and I think you’ve got to have your own equipment, haven’t you, to do these things?

JR: It might help; I don’t know much about it.

VM: No, I don’t either.

JR: Anyway. You’re so busy, that’s the trouble, because you’d be snapped up for radio plays.

VM: Oh, I don’t know.

JR: Oh, you would, goodness me. I love radio plays.

VM: So do I. I do too. And then in ’74, I did two more television productions. One was ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ (1974) by Rattigan with Peter Egan and Stephen Murray.[114]

JR: Wonderful play.

VM: Oh, I found that so rewarding to do. And then I did another television called ‘Cheap in August’ (1975).[115] They did a series of plays by Graham Greene, stories by Graham Greene, and this was Cheap in August, which I did with Leo McKern.[116] That was wonderful to do; it was directed by Alvin Rakoff, who to my mind is one of the most interesting directors.[117] Bill and I did a film for him after that in Athens, actually. It was called ‘The First Modern Olympics’,[118] but I suppose I’ll come to that in a minute! So, then I did a record – I sang some songs on a record called Two Faces of Love for Rediffusion. I’d actually written a couple of songs, which I did on that, but mainly they were love songs that other people had written. And then that same year – ’75 – I did a television of Peter Pan (1976) with Danny Kaye and Mia Farrow,[119] again for Hallmark, and I played Mrs Darling. Danny Kaye was so professional. He was wonderful; an absolutely superb, professional man. It was very touching one day; we were in the make-up room and he said to me, ‘Would you like to see something?’ So I said yes, and he pulled out this brown envelope and out of it he produced some press cuttings, and I thought he was going to show me criticisms of some part he’d played but it wasn’t at all. It was about his cooking; he apparently was the most wonderful cook and in his home he had two kitchens. He had a kitchen for regular food and he had an Oriental kitchen with different pans and different ovens and all sorts of things. He’d got some French award, or more than one I think, for his culinary achievements.

JR: And that’s what he was proud of?

VM: Absolutely. I just thought that was so lovely.

JR: Absolutely! What a lovely experience.

VM: Yes, it was.

JR: Had he done much theatre? That’s something I’d never thought about until now.

VM: I don’t know.

JR: I always connected him with film.

VM: More films, wasn’t he. Walter Mitty and all that stuff, wasn’t he?[120] He was a very nice man and very lovely to work with. I remember once, we had a photo call right at the end, a cast photograph taken, and I can’t remember the boy’s name but one of the boys who played the children[121] was a little late. He’d lost his slipper or shoe or something. So he came panting in and we were all already standing there, and Danny Kaye said, ‘Don’t you ever be late, ever. Don’t ever be late.’ He said, ‘You have a responsibility to be on time; other people are waiting and this costs everybody money,’ you know. And the boy, the poor thing, he was rather overwhelmed but I thought, ‘He’ll never forget that.’

JR: No.

VM: And this is one of the things I always resent a little, when people say actors and actresses are so irresponsible; they don’t realise what sort of responsibilities you have. You have to be on time for rehearsals, for your show, you mustn’t let people down, you’ve got to remember your lines – I mean, there’s a lot of discipline in the theatre and in being an actor or actress. I think that’s often forgotten by people who think they’re just sort of airheaded.

JR: You just do it.

VM: You just do it and you just go to parties and have your photograph taken, you know. If you want to do that you can as well, but the main work is very serious, I think.

JR: And we need actors. I mean, it’s developed out of myth, hasn’t it? Storytelling and whatever, and then it developed into people portraying the characters.

VM: That’s right.

JR: And we need it; we all watch it. We all need drama and stories.

VM: We all do. And the increase in amateur companies is fascinating.

JR: Is that the case?

VM: There seem to be amateur companies in every village, in every town. Locally our Dorking Operatic[122]

JR: That’s strong in this area, yes.

VM: Very strong. I mean, it’s lovely; people need that expression, I think. I love that. It’s creative, isn’t it? Right, well, then we’re at ’76, and I’m sticking a bit with music now because I had a little song in Peter Pan and then I took over from Jean Simmons in A Little Night Music in London with Joss Ackland.[123] Again, the costumes and the whole design and the set and the whole production were so absolutely beautiful. Just beautiful.

JR: Sondheim, wasn’t it?

VM: Yes, Stephen Sondheim. Quite difficult, if you’re not a trained singer, to learn. That was a real challenge; I did enjoy it very much, though. And then I did a television called Beauty and the Beast (1976),[124] playing one of the wicked sisters, for Hallmark again. It was with George C. Scott – well, I didn’t have a scene with him but he was the Beast – and Trish Van Devere, his real wife, played Beauty.[125] That was directed by an old friend of ours called Fielder Cook,[126] an American director. And then I did a film called The Disappearance (1977) with Donald Sutherland.[127] It was a tiny part – one scene or two scenes, or something – but somebody had been going to do it and then the part had been reduced and they were no longer interested. I never mind how small a part is; I think the quality is much more than the size. So I did that with Donald Sutherland who, because I did it with such short notice, was extremely helpful and kind and most sympathetic. Again, another generous actor. I was getting into the tiny part syndrome now, which I really enjoyed because I wanted to work with the people who were the stars because they were such good actors. I thought, I don’t mind what I do, I just want to work, do a scene with that actor.

JR: You could observe them more from a very small part.

VM: Absolutely. So then I played a tiny part, playing Kirk Douglas’ wife, in a film called Holocaust 2000 (1977),[128] and I was shot in my only scene, but again, you see, working with him was brilliant. Another very generous and very kind actor. Then in ’78, I took part in a musical called Something’s Afoot at the Hilton in Hong Kong,[129] and that was the chance again I had to work with George Cole and Vivian Martin,[130] who were marvellous, and we had such fun out in Hong Kong. I think it was about two, three weeks we were there. We were treated beautifully. It was an after dinner theatre, so the people had their dinner in the restaurant and then we came on stage and did the show. A very civilised thing to do, I think! A then I did a radio reading of The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley for Story Time.[131] Again, I really love doing these book readings, and I think this was on five days, over a week. And then I was out of work for rather and long time and I was wanting to use my brain a bit, not sitting about, so I rang up a friend of mine called Elizabeth Counsell, the daughter of John Counsell who had the Royal Theatre at Windsor,[132] who I knew as an actress and also knew she was a wonderful musician. She played guitar and sang beautifully and composed songs. So I said, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Nothing,’ so I said, ‘Nor am I; shall we get together and devise a programme?’ Which we did; we devised a programme of poetry and music called The Lily and the Tiger, which was about the natural world. We did it quite a few times, actually, in various little halls or tiny theatres or whatever, so that was the start of a little bit of a different thing that started to come into my life which I’ve continued to this day.

JR: And fulfilled your love of words, didn’t it?

VM: Absolutely, yes. And researching, looking for poetry; I just love reading poetry. And then in ’79 I auditioned for The King and I at the Paladium.[133] My agent – Julian Belfridge was my agent at that time – he said, ‘I think you ought to go up for this.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I mean, I haven’t a chance. I’m not a real singer; I’m only an actress who can hold a tune.’


VM: I got through the first audition and I was having some coaching, obviously, and lessons, and I was very much helped by John Taylor, who was a wonderful pianist and took me through all the songs. You have to learn all the songs from the show. Ross Taylor, who was the producer, was also extremely helpful and encouraging, and I got through the second audition. Of course, lots and lots of people went up for this part of Mrs Anna and the list was getting a bit smaller. I think there were about five of us left by then. The third audition had to be in New York because it had to be in front of Yul Brynner and Hammerstein Jr. and Richard Rogers.[134] So, can you imagine – I was petrified!

JR: Oh dear!

VM: So I got up there, and I’d been told to wear a long skirt and blouse and to look a little bit – not old fashioned, but more in keeping than a modern dress. And I was waiting to hear what time to go to the theatre and then they rang and said, ‘Oh, it’s not in the theatre; it’s in Richard Rogers’ apartment!’ So I thought, ‘I don’t believe this!’ I went, of course, but you were not performing to a nice black void; you were having people sitting on chairs and sofas about twelve feet away from you in the broad daylight. It was very nerve-wracking. So anyway, I stumbled over the coffee tables and got through the songs, more or less, and Richard Rogers said, ‘I want you to take that song up a key.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly,’ but he said, ‘Yes, I want you to that.’ So I did that, and I said, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very good!’ Anyway, there was Yul Brynner, who I’d never met before, sitting on the sofa, and it was very daunting. Then I went to the show, because he was in the show in New York at the time, and I was asked to go to the show that night with Ross Taylor. So we did that and had dinner after, and then I came back to England and heard nothing for absolutely – I forgot about it, I think! I mean, I didn’t know when I was going to hear. And then I heard, under absolute sworn secrecy, that I’d got the part and that I mustn’t tell a soul because the announcement of it was going to be stage managed. It was like a production in itself, actually; I had the ball dress made for the press release and hair and thing on my head, and Yul Brynner came over. It was at the Paladium and it was stage managed in such a way as the curtain went up and my back was to the audience, and I came forward and the press was all there. It was a big event because of him, you see – Yul Brynner coming to the Paladium to do The King and I, what a coup!

JR: Yes. Wonderful show.

VM: It was just such a magical show. So that’s when it started and we were at the Paladium sixteen months, which was quite a long time, and matinees and all.

JR: Goodness me.

VM: It was tiring but it was so stimulating.

JR: Did you come back here every night?

VM: I didn’t come back before matinees. I stayed up in London before matinees because I had to be in by one o’clock. It was a three-hour show, you see, so by the time I’d got back at quarter to twelve at night and gotten something to eat and gone to bed, it would have been—

JR: It would have been impossible.

VM: No, I would have been worn out then. So Bill had a little studio flat in Chelsea at that time, where he had his film production company, so I stayed there before matinees.

JR: Big upheaval in your life, then.

VM: It was, but you see, this was the wonderful thing about my family. If I really wanted to do something and he knew this would be an important expression of one’s profession, he would always encourage me. He would always say, ‘Well, it’ll be fine; we’ll work it out. We’ll do it.’ And he used to go away for his filming, you see, sometimes for several weeks at a time, and of course he had to, I wanted him to. So it was a kind of give and take.

JR: And you had four children?

VM: Four, yes.[135] And they were wonderful. They all said, ‘Oh mum, you ought to do that; that’s great!’ They’ve always been like that, always. So it was all right. And by then, of course, the children weren’t tiny; that would have been different.

JR: If they’re secure, it really doesn’t matter, I’m sure.

VM: It doesn’t matter, no. I didn’t do commercial theatre for about thirteen years when they were tiny. I did the Royal Shakespeare theatre, but then, that was not every night. I wanted to be home at bedtime.

JR: They were fairly close together, presumably, in age?

VM: The first two were close, by about twenty months between them, but then there was quite a big gap. There was a three-year gap and then there was a four-year gap.

JR: Oh, well, they’re not big gaps, really; it was a quite a compact family.

VM: I suppose so, yes. So that was the highlight of my theatre work. It’s the one I remember with huge pleasure. Wonderful children, of course. ‘Don’t work with animals and children’: well, I’ve done nothing but, really! [Laughs] The kids – there was always a birthday party, you know between the shows it was always someone’s birthday, and rushing up to the kids’ dressing room and having a bit of cake, and it was just such fun and so friendly. It was brilliant. I don’t think after that I did anything hugely huge, as it were; there were little things. In ’82 I did a play with Gerald Harper at the Globe called A Personal Affair, but that again was not a commercial success so that didn’t really run. And then in ’83, I did several televisions; I did Waters of the Moon (1983) with Penelope Keith.[136] And then I did the one with Denholm Elliott called The Blue Dress (1983)[137] in ’83. Then I did The Case of the Frightened Lady (1983) by Edgar Wallace[138] and I did ‘High Hopes’ (1984) with Dandy Nichols.[139] ‘High Hopes’ was really good fun because it was the story of a woman who organised a weekend. She was learning Esperanto and she wanted to have a weekend – or a week, whatever it was – with other people and only speak Esperanto. So about four or five different people from all walks of life came together in this flat for this ostensibly wonderful week where we were all going to be – and it was an absolute total disaster from beginning to end. It was such fun to do.

JR: Just for the record, you say the Globe, which isn’t the Globe Theatre anymore, is it?

VM: Oh, no, the Globe in Shaftesbury Avenue.

JR: What is – I can’t think of what it is—

VM: Oh, is it not called the Globe anymore?

JR: No, it’s after an actor—

VM: Oh, the Gielgud.

JR: Yes, the Gielgud Theatre. Because the Globe is now on the Southbank.[140]

VM: That’s right, it’s the Gielgud.

JR: It’s sad that they did that but there can only be one Globe, I suppose.

VM: Yes. And it’s nice to have a theatre in his memory too.

JR: Yes.

VM: And then The First Modern Olympics, which I think I already talked about, working with Alvin Rakoff, and Bill and I did this film in Athens which was the story of the first modern Olympic Games.[141] That was lovely to do. Then I did in ’84 with Robert Stephens, a film about Puccini and I played is wife in that with quite a dramatic part.[142] We did that in Scotland. The same year, I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company again to play Gertrude in Hamlet at Stratford with Roger Rees as Hamlet.[143] Roger and I became friends and have worked on other things together since. Brian Blessed played Claudius.[144] I’d never worked at Stratford before. Bill had worked there in ’62 for a season but I’d never worked there, so it was very exciting for me to work at Stratford. Then, that same year, we founded Zoo Check because this elephant I was telling you about earlier died in London Zoo. She was put down, actually. We decided we had to get out and do something. So, we wrote to a lot of people who’d got in touch with us over the years – about this elephant in particular and sympathetic to animal things – and said we wanted to start a little group and would they join us. We collected our first hundred supporters and each gave us a little cheque so we could have a launch. We had a launch and Joanna Lumley was our first patron, and that’s when it all began, really, in ’84. So I was, again, at Stratford, and I was playing the queen at night and then at the day I’d have all my Zoo Check letters that I would do in the flat. I wouldn’t stay up there all the time because I was only in the one show, so I used to come home.

JR: Stretching your mind both ways – very admirable!

VM: Yes, it was very stimulating! [Laughs] And then I started working with Roger Rees because we got on really well as people and as actors, and we enjoyed the mother-son relationship. I used to stay with his mum, actually, sometimes before a matinee in London rather than come home when it got transferred to the Barbican. But we devised together – well, it was mainly devised by a wonderful person named Anne Harvey who devises poetry programs, and she is an anthologist so she knows every poem ever written, I think! – we devised a programme called ‘Sons and Mothers’. It chronologically goes from the birth of the child to the death of the mother, through the whole relationship, and it’s humorous, it’s sad and it’s controversial. It’s a wonderful show. We did it so many times all over the place and actually, Roger came over about a couple of weeks ago from New York where he now lives, and we met with Anne and she said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do it again!’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, you’d have to call it ‘Sons and Grannies’ now!’ But we’d love to do it again so maybe one day if he comes over for a bit we’ll be able to put it together again.[145] This was the whole of ’87. ’86 to ’87 was all ‘Sons and Mothers’ everywhere. Then I was asked to do a book about our work by Thorsons Publications. I didn’t feel confident in doing a whole book myself; I didn’t feel quite ready at that time for that. But I said, ‘If I did a chapter, could I invite other people to contribute a chapter all looking at different aspects of animal welfare, conservation and that sort of thing?’ And they agreed, so I invited a whole lot of different people – a vet, a conservationist, a campaigner – and Bill wrote the most extraordinary chapter at the end about the little elephant that died. Quite extraordinary, actually, because it’s written as if she is speaking aloud her thoughts. You can’t read it without crying. Fantastic. So that was my main job, really, in ’87, doing this book.[146] Then I did my last show on the stage in ’88; it was a musical called Winnie about Churchill with Robert Hardy playing Churchill and myself playing Clementine.[147] That, unfortunately, wasn’t a very great success! [Laughs] We were at the Victoria Palace and we ran about six weeks, I think!

JR: You don’t take it personally, do you, when – or what is your thinking when something isn’t a so-called ‘success’? You don’t take responsibility for it? Because you’ve done your best.

VM: You’ve done your best. I mean, it just hasn’t worked for whatever reason. And sometimes it’s very sad because a lot of work is put into a show.

JR: Yes. Is there a combination of reasons?

VM: A combination of reasons, yes. Sometimes if I haven’t actually enjoyed it that much, I have to be honest and say I’m quite relieved! Because if you only have ten ladies and a cat at the matinee, you sort of get the message that you’re not hugely popular. You’ve got to keep that energy going and it is quite difficult when not many people are—

JR: It’s not you; it’s the whole production.

VM: Yes, it’s a bit of everything. I don’t think anyone should ever feel personally responsible—

JR: Not after so much success, anyway. It would be hard if it was at the beginning of a career, I suppose.

VM: Yes, but there again, A Penny for a Song wasn’t a success commercially and that had the most starry cast and, I thought, the most lovely play.  There are so many things; it could be that it’s the wrong moment in time for that play to be on, people find it depressing or it gets a few poor reviews and there’s not enough going for it to overcome that. Sometimes there is; you can get poor media reviews but people so want to see the people who are in it that they don’t care, and that builds up a momentum of its own. But in this case, no, it didn’t. [Laughs] So that was the end of that, and then I did all sorts of different things. I used to take groups on safari to India and Africa, and I did smaller little odd things like some concert, or – I didn’t do any major stuff at all until 1990. I had a small part in a television called Duel of Hearts (John Hough, 1991) from one of Barbara Cartland’s books,[148] which was quite fun to do. Then I co-edited an anthology of verse with Anne Harvey called Headlines from the Jungle, which was all animal verse, obviously. I really enjoyed doing that. Then I did another safari, and then I did more ‘Sons and Mothers’ in ’91.

JR: That was a success, wasn’t it?

VM: Yes, ‘Sons and Mothers’ was just fantastic, and I started doing readings of Heathcote Williams’ book Sacred Elephant (1989).[149]

JR: Yes, I have that.

VM: Do you?

JR: Such a lovely book.

VM: Yes, I’ve done several readings of that.

JR: I didn’t know that had been read aloud. It’s superb.

VM: Yes, I saw him read it aloud first and it was superb. Then I saw him read it with cello and synthesiser accompaniment, which was again quite wonderful, and I in fact did it with his cellist another couple of times. Then I did it without any music. Incredible book. Incredible writer. And then I did a guest appearance in one of the Lovejoy (Ian La Frenais, 1986-94) episodes on television, which was great fun.[150]

JR: These are called ‘cameo roles,’ aren’t they?

VM: Cameo roles, yes.

JR: Very nice to see you in it, too.

VM: Oh, it was wonderful! I love doing that sort of thing. Then I did something which I found really interesting; I was invited to go to New York to play a part – it was a two-hander, and it was the final year film of a young English student at the university in New York on the television and film course.[151] For their third year they have to produce a film. He’d written this film called The Lady in Waiting (Christian Taylor, 1992)[152] and asked me. It was a two-hander: myself and a black actor.[153] It was the story of these two people from totally different walks of life – the man was a transvestite and I was a rather prim housekeeper so you can imagine these two coming together – trapped in a lift when the power fails in New York and of how their relationship, which was on her part extreme apprehension and mistrust, changes as they share this trapped experience together and manage to get out of the lift. It was all students doing it; it was all just on location in New York and I stayed in one of the students’ mother’s flat. It was just so lovely to do. Later in 1991, I had an audition for a part in The Camomile Lawn (1992) by Mary Wesley and Peter Hall directing.[154] I was asked to play old Polly and young Polly had been cast already and she had brown eyes. Peter said to me, ‘You’ll have to wear brown contact lenses,’ and I said, ‘But I’ve never worn contact lenses in my life!’ He said, ‘Well, you’ll just have to do it,’ so obviously I had to do it because I wanted to do the part.

JR: And you have to put those in yourself, I imagine.

VM: Yes, you have to put them in yourself. So I went to the optician’s. I wore glasses, you see, at that time and I hated always having something on my face, so I said to them, ‘If I’m going to do this, could I have them lensed so that I don’t have to use my glasses?’ They said, ‘Yes, okay, fine,’ so I had them lensed and after the first initial week or two when I was half an hour early coming into make-up putting these wretched things in, I absolutely adored wearing contact lenses. So when the film was over I didn’t have to wear brown ones anymore but I had my own transparent ones made, and ever since I’ve now worn contact lenses. It changed my life! They’re wonderful!

JR: I believe they are, yes.

VM: I mean, I wear glasses for reading, but for every day, driving and the theatre—

JR: And I believe if you go out into steamy conditions – I don’t have to wear these outdoors but I believe they steam up.

VM: Everything steams up, doesn’t it? You open up the oven and it all steams up!

JR: Whereas the contact lenses—

VM: So yes, it was brilliant.

JR: That was a great success, that. I’d forgotten it was Peter Hall.

VM: It was lovely, wasn’t it? What a cast in that too. Amazing. Then I was asked by Harper Collins, the publishers, to do a book about dolphins.[155] I don’t quite know why they asked me; I didn’t know an awful lot about dolphins, but we had had a project releasing the last three dolphins from this country into the wild and maybe they picked something up from that. But I always like a challenge so I said, ‘Yes, alright,’ but I wanted to do it in a very specific way, which was to take the dolphin in the very many aspects of our experience: in mythology and religion and culture, in the wild, in captivity, relationships between humans and dolphins, and all that sort of thing. I thought it would be fascinating to do but the trouble is they had this deadline. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did a lot of research and travelled all over the country meeting who’d swum with dolphins, who’d had experiences, and I went to various museums and the observatory in Greenwich and got all sorts of fascinating stuff about dolphins.

JR: Horace Dobbs, did you meet him?[156]

VM: Oh, yes, I know Horace.

JR: I thought you must have.

VM: Yes, I went to see Horace.

JR: Because he’s written about them so much.

VM: Absolutely. Then I was lent a little cottage down on the coast near Beaulieu that during the week – not on the weekends because the owners came then – but I was allowed to be there in the week. I went down there with all my research stuff and books and I just shut myself away for about six weeks in the week and wrote it, and we managed the deadline. But it was very important to me how the book was designed because I found all sorts of nautical dolphin emblems and signs and stamps and I wanted these to be woven, somehow, into the book. I also invited wonderful poets like Brian Patton to write, specially, a poem for the book, which they did; I had such a fantastic response. I’ll show it to you before you go. So anyway, that was a rather major project of mine that year – that was ’92 – and it was published in the States as well. And then I did, in September ’94, not long after my husband died[157] – I thought I was only going to do it for two weeks but it turned out to be many more weeks, which was a bit difficult for me, actually, because it was in Dublin and I didn’t really want to be away, but anyway, I did this film called September (Colin Bucksey, 1996) from Rosamunde Pilcher’s book.[158] I mean, it was lovely, I met some lovely actors, but I just—

JR: You had to be professional at that time.

VM: Very. Yes. It was a bit lonely. But it was all right, I got through it, and that same year I did a film where I met Martin Clunes called Staggered (Clunes, 1994)[159] where I played a very batty old woman living on a Scottish island, and that was marvellous. It was truly wonderful. It was only two or three days’ work. So I did that, and then I can’t remember the year but I did a tiny part in another film called Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998).[160]

JR: That was on television again the other evening.

VM: Yes.

JR: Very good film.

VM: Very good. A wonderful film, actually; I thought it was brilliant. But you know, playing John Hannah’s mum, that’s very nice! But as I say, it doesn’t matter about the length; it’s who you’re working with, and it’s just nice to have a day’s work like that. So since then – and that I think, according to this scribble here, it says ’97 but it could have been ’98 – I haven’t really done any. That was the last television, but I’ve done a couple of book readings. There’s a wonderful children’s writer called Michael Morpurgo who’s written a lot of totally brilliant children’s books. He’s not actually only a children’s writer because I think adults like his books just as much. I did two of his books, one called The Butterfly Lion (1996) and one called Why the Whales Came (1985).[161] So really, lately, I’ve been doing that sort of thing. I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing, which I like. People have asked me to do forewords to books.

JR: Oh, yes.

VM: And then, for our own magazine, I do an article each – we have two publications a year, so I have my two pages that I write for that.

JR: And the name of the magazine is?

VM: Wildlife Times.

JR: You’ve been doing that all the time as well as these extra—

VM: Yes, all the Born Free Foundation work – well, since Zoo Check began in 1984 – has always been there and getting, for me, more and more and more as the years have gone by. You know, campaigns and letter writing and visiting zoos, all various things. But our eldest son Will is really in charge of everything and has been for some years. He’s been running it from before my husband died. We never ran it, you see; we just did what we did. My husband was particularly interested in the behaviour that animals can develop when they’re in captivity and living in very deprived conditions, and so for three years he went round masses of zoos filming and photographing behaviour that is abnormal. It became quite an important issue and still is, but now it’s all out in the open. People used to say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; they’re just walking about or pacing about for free lunch.’

JR: Yes, we’re all guilty of that, yes.

VM: Yes. Even the experts said that. But now, of course, it’s all out in the open.

JR: Did he go to Kabul recently? I was reading about—

VM: No. We’d been trying to get into Kabul for a long, long time.

JR: Is it a lion there?

VM: Yes, it’s a lion, but the zoo is now funded adequately. It’s fine. We’ve been sent quite a lot of money but we passed it on to another organisation that was taking the responsibility for the actual logistical work of getting money, so we just passed it to them. But we do have money that can be used for other animal problems in Afghanistan when the time is possible to go. It’s still a little uncertain, isn’t it? But there are other places – I know there are some in the Yemen – where I’m dying to go and get something done, but it’s quite dangerous, you see. You can’t ask people to go to places where you know there’s a risk of them being killed.

JR: Of course not. And likely the problem is worse there than anywhere else.

VM: Yeah. So this is the dilemma. But wherever we can go, we do, and there are lots of other organisations as well. People say, ‘Why don’t you all get together and all do it together?’ Actually, it would be an absolute total nightmare because when something gets too big, the actual day-to-day running of something is so top-heavy you’d have to talk to a hundred people before you could make a decision. Whereas now we can pick up the phone and say, ‘You’ve got to do this. Let’s do it now.’ We’ve always been known for our quick response and I like that. I like to be able to, ‘We need help? Okay. We can’t afford it? We’ll have to borrow something temporarily to be able to do it because this is urgent.’ I like to be able to respond in that way.

JR: You’re getting information coming in all the time?

VM: Oh, all the time.

JR: And you have to jump to it sometimes.

VM: We get members of the public writing to us, phoning us all the time.

JR: Thank goodness there is a greater awareness.

VM: There is. At least, when people look at something they understand what they’re looking at. If you see a polar bear or a bear walking up and down wagging its head in the air, you know that something’s wrong now. Whereas before you might think it was just playing. But when you recognise a behaviour, people realise there’s something wrong with that animal, that they can’t cope with where they’re living. That’s what it’s the sign of: they can’t cope with it. There are some animals that never could cope with it and shouldn’t ever be in captivity.

JR: I remember a zookeeper saying to me – we used to go and sketch when I was at art school – that he had the greatest sympathy for parrots because they were chained down and never could fly.

VM: And they’ve got the most enormous range! They fly for miles in the wild.

JR: But I’d never thought about it.

VM: Well you don’t, do you?

JR: I was so ashamed.

VM: Well, it’s just you’ve got no – I never knew about things either. It’s only because of your interest that you start to read and listen to people and your eyes are opened, and keep on being opened, really.

JR: Do you give talks about it?

VM: Yes, I do.

JR: I would be surprised if you didn’t, yes. So your training helps in this, you’re able to—

VM: I suppose so, in a way, yes. Sometimes I’m asked to do talks without slides, which I do more reluctantly because I feel the visual aspect is so important. But I have done things without slides. I’ve just done one with slides up at the Scottish Royal Geographic Society, which was very flattering, and I’m doing one at Polesden Lacey, actually, in March with slides.[162]

JR: That’s a nice venue.

VM: Yes.

JR: So you’re spreading the word all the time.

VM: Yes. We’ve got an education department and we’ve got a wonderful girl at the office who goes round to schools and where it’s applicable, she helps them create wildlife gardens and ponds and things like that. The kids get really involved and they love it. It’s very, very exciting. I’ve done quite a lot of schools but I’ve also done Rotary and Inner Wheel and women’s groups and WI.[163]

JR: It’s all spreading the word.

VM: Yes, absolutely, and people are always very sympathetic. The main thing that is always said to me afterwards is, ‘I never thought about it like that. I never realised.’ Well like myself 30 or 40 years ago. I never realised.

JR: You’re not likely to retire, are you?

VM: Oh, no. But actors don’t, do they? I mean, if you can’t remember the lines to go in a play, you can always read on the radio, can’t you?

JR: I do hope you will come back on to radio.

VM: Oh, I hope so, yes! I’d love to be invited to go back. Well, you never know. Thank you!

JR: I do imagine you wouldn’t change anything, or very little of your life and your career.

VM: No, I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in – obviously, everybody makes terrible mistakes and you do things sometimes without thinking carefully enough, but what you do in your life is what you are in the end, for better or worse! I mean, it isn’t all wonderful by any means but then, you can’t have a perfect person, can you? You wouldn’t be human.

JR: No. It seemed like a very worthwhile progression to me. Now are we sure that you’ve covered everything?

VM: Well, I mean, I haven’t read out every single thing on this list cause some of it looked too little.

JR: Oh please, that’s what it’s all about.

VM: Well, I mean, I did forget to say something about one book in ’71. Collins asked me to do an autobiography and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. First of all, I didn’t want to spend all that time sitting and writing about myself. So I said what I could so was a sort of compromise, and that is, I could tell my life up to this point through the animals that I’ve known and they thought that was quite nice idea. It wasn’t a hugely fat book, I have to say, but they seemed quite pleased with it so that’s what I did. I did Some of My Friends Have Tails in 1971. Oh, I did another record. Unfortunately, when I did The King and I in ’79/ ’80, Yul Brynner had a contract with a recording company in the States that they’d done a cast recording for when he was doing it in America, which excluded the possibility of anyone, for five years, doing another cast recording. So we never had a cast recording of the London production. Of course, the cast was terribly disappointed. They had some beautiful singers in it. But I was invited to do my songs, so I did my songs, which was nothing to do with the cast recording, really.[164] I don’t think it was that brilliant, to be honest with you, but that was another little thing I did. The other little bits on this list are really just odd concerts and readings and programmes which sometimes were one-off things, really.

JR: But you’ve done a lot of them, clearly.

VM: I have done quite a lot of them and I really enjoyed them. And what I do now, just to bring you right up to date, is – it must be nearly two years ago when Dorothy Tutin first became unwell. I was in Australia with my daughter and I got a message to ask if I could take her place in a couple of poetry readings which were going to be done that year later on. I said yes and then began to step in for her whenever she wasn’t feeling up to it. They were family programmes – her husband Derek Waring, her daughter Amanda Waring, who also devises the programmes apart from being in them, her son Nicki, her son-in-law Bob Daws – it was a family show.[165] So I started to work with them in her place occasionally and then, of course, latterly, last year – 2001 – when she became more ill, I did much more with them. Since she died in August, late last year we did a lot of Christmas shows. I’m starting to work with them more now, which I love because I’m very fond of the family, and we’ve already got two bookings for this year, so you know, there’s a lovely little future ahead there.

JR: They must be very glad of that.

VM: Well, we get on well and enjoy each other’s company and we’re personal friends as well as being professional friends, which is lovely.

JR: A remarkable career.

VM: There were a couple of other books, which I neglected to mention, in the mid-90s. They were books by Templar Publishing and one was a true story of animals that the Born Free Foundation had rescued and released back to the wild. The other one was the story of Christian the lion that I’d talked about earlier. His story was called Journey to Freedom – from the furniture shop in Chelsea to Kora National Park in Kenya – and the other book was called Back to the Blue, about dolphins and about the three last dolphins kept in dolphin areas in the United Kingdom. This was a long project; we did it with some other groups as well but we were the main group looking after things. They went to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, where an ocean pen was constructed, and they spent several months of acclimatisation in the pens before they were released into the wild. The books were done in a particular way: the first two thirds of the book are written as if they’re fiction, with drawings and paintings of the animals and the people, and then the last third of the book is the photographic record and the diary record of what really happened. So you’ve got, in a way, fact and fiction coming together in the same book, both based on true lives.

JR: Yet another terribly worthwhile project; I mean, dolphins are at great risk too.

VM: Absolutely. There are two things that have happened, which we’ve done, which are not strictly about acting or entertainment but have evolved because of something that we did professionally. The first is the creation of an extraordinary little museum in Herefordshire which I was asked to launch and appeal for about two and a half years ago. The house that the aunt and uncle of Violette Szabo lived in is now lived in by a wonderful woman called Rosemary Rigby. She wanted to create a museum in memory of Violette, who she had admired so very much, in a little stone building in her garden. She really didn’t know how to get this going and she wrote to me and said could I launch an appeal, so I did. Then, the year before last – that’s 2000 – she had gathered together enough money and the museum was opened in June.[166] Violette’s daughter Taunia came over from Jersey to be there, there was a fantastic parade of all the old war veterans with their medals and the musical instruments, there were children from the school who sang, and there were lots of real people from the days of the war who had worked in the resistance. Most especially there was Leo Marx, who was the code master who had written this famous little poem that everybody knows, that Violette used as her code poem—

JR: What is the first line, to remind us?

VM: ‘The life that I have is all that I have.’[167] He was there – and he died, actually, in 2001, so it was the last time I saw him – but I think he was very moved and touched by this whole coming together of the real people, me from the film, his poem, the daughter; I mean, literally, everyone who had been a part of Violette’s life. So there is this beautiful little museum in Wormelow in Herefordshire where you can go and see Violette’s story, all the pictures and the books, and Rosemary, of course, is a wonderful storyteller, so that is something truly wonderful that’s happened. The second thing is: in Scotland, again as a result from film – Ring of Bright Water, which we made, again, in 1968 – we have launched, with the two local communities of Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin on Skye, a trust called the Eilean Bàn Trust.[168] Eilean Bàn is the little island which lies, now, beneath the Skye Bridge, which connects Skye with the mainland, and was the last home of Gavin Maxwell, who wrote Ring of Bright Water. Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish office, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage that he lived in has been restored and is now habitable. I’ve done my best to recreate his living room; it was a very famous room called ‘the long room’, which was the most incredible room you’ve ever seen looking right out over the islands. Through the generosity of some of his friends and family, and things I’ve been able to buy which more or less matched things that I saw in photographs, I’ve been able to recreate this long room. On Skye itself in Kyleakin we’ve got the Brightwater Visitors’ Centre where you can go and learn about the indigenous wildlife of the area, you can learn about Gavin Maxwell, you can buy a few things if you wish, but you can also buy a ticket to go on a boat from Kyleakin to Eilean Bàn, where you’ll be taken on a tour on the nature trail to the Hyde, to the lighthouse and finally ending up in the long room. It’s about an hour and twenty minute trip and it’s a wonderful experience, I think. Never to be forgotten, if you can believe the visitors’ comments in the visitor book.

JR: That sounds splendid.

VM: It is quite beautiful. So there are, again, two things that have developed from playing parts in films to something in real life, and I’ve always found that particularly satisfying when that happens. There’s these wonderful cross-overs and links, all these wonderful links with people and past times coming into the future. It’s very exciting.

JR: Indeed. Virginia McKenna, thank you very much.

VM: Thank you.

JR: Not mentioned in Virginia’s account: the British Academy Award for Best Actress for A Town Like Alice; the BBC’s TV Award for Best Actress for Romeo and Juliet; the Belgian Prix Femina Award for Carve Her Name with Pride; the Variety Club’s Best Actress Award for Born Free; a nomination for Best Actress in Cheap in August, one of TV’s Shades of Green series.

Transcribed by Caitlin Shaw, De Montfort University, July 2013

[1] Fay Compton (1894-1978) was an English stage actress best known for starring in several J.M. Barrie productions and for  playing Ophelia opposite both John Barrymore’s and John Gielgud’s Hamlets. Her brother, Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), was a prolific author and cultural commentator best known for his plays Whisky Galore (1947) and The Monarch of the Glen (1941), and for co-founding the Scottish National Party in 1928. The siblings were part of a theatrical family which extended back to their grandfather, Henry Compton, a notable Shakespearean actor.

[2] From 1918 onward, UK pupils studied for two standard qualifications: first the School Certificate and later the Higher School Certificate to which McKenna refers. In 1951 these qualifications were abolished and replaced by the General Certificate of Education examinations at O-level (Ordinary level) and A-level (Advanced level).

[3] The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School is a theatre school in Bristol opened by Laurence Olivier in 1946. The Central School of Speech and Drama, founded in 1908, is a public research university in London which specialises in speech and drama.

[4] The Dundee Repertory Theatre is a theatre and arts company in Dundee, Scotland.

[5] Black Chiffon is play by Lesley Storm (1898-1975) that premiered in London in 1949, starring Flora Robson. It ran in Dundee the following year. Northanger Abbey is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. This 1950 Dundee Repertory Theatre version was adapted by Constance Cox (1912-1998) and starred McKenna as Catherine Morland.

[6] HM Tennent was a theatrical company co-founded in 1936 by theatre producer, impresario and songwriter Henry Moncrieff Tennent (1879-1941) and his former mentee, theatre manager and producer Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont (1908-1973). Although Tennent died of a heart attack in 1941, Beaumont continued to head the company until his death in 1973, producing over 400 plays, musicals and revues.

[7] Daphne Rye (1916-1992) was a director, actor and casting director. As the casting agent for HM Tennent, she discovered a number of significant actors including Richard Burton and Kenneth More.

[8] John Whiting (1917-1963) was an English actor and playwright. His 1951 play A Penny for a Song is a farce about an eccentric aristocratic family living in Dorset in 1804.

[9] Peter Brook (b. 1925) is an English theatre director whose experimental productions have been highly influential for contemporary theatre. He is currently based in France.

[10] Basil Radford (1897-1952) was an English actor best known for appearing alongside Naunton Wayne as Charters of Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-obsessed comic duo who first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and recurred in British film and television throughout the 1940s. Marie Lohr (1890-1975) was an Australian actress who later appeared again alongside McKenna in A Town like Alice (1956) as Mrs Dudley Frost. Ronald Squire (1886-1958) was an English character actor best known for appearing in 1950s comedies such as The Million Pound Note (1953) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

[11] Ronald Howard (1918-1996) was an English actor and writer best remembered for portraying the title character in the 1954 American television series of Sherlock Holmes. His father, Leslie Howard (1893-1943), was a prominent English stage actor known for his roles as Englishmen in Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Pygmalion (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

[12] Frederick Rowland Emett (1906-1990) was a cartoonist and kinetic sculptor whose cartoons and whimsical machines featured in several stage plays and in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

[13] Sir Arthur John Gielgud (1904-2000) was one of the most distinguished English stage actor-directors of the 20th century, known best for his extensive Shakespearean work. Gielgud also had a significant career in film and television, earning BAFTA awards for his performances in Julius Caesar (1953) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and an Oscar for Arthur (1981).  Dame Flora McKenzie Robson (1902-1984) was an English actress best known for character roles such as Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Diana Wynyard (1906-1964) was an English stage and film actress remembered as the first British woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, for Cavalcade (1933), and for her performance in the British version of Gaslight (1940) opposite Anton Walbrook.

[14] Richard Gale (1921-1983) was an English actor who appeared in several London stage productions throughout the 1950s as well as in television series in the 60s and 70s such as The Flaxton Boys (1969-73) and Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76).

[15] Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (1904-1980) was an English photographer, interior designer and stage and costume designer for film and theatre. Beaton is best remembered for his iconic photographs of Winston Churchill and for his Oscar-winning costume designs for the Lerner and Loewe film musicals Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964).

[16] Pamela Brown (1917-1975) was an English stage and film actress known for her role in as Jennet in the successful 1949 London stage production of The Lady’s Not for Burning, which later ran on Broadway from 1950-51, and for her work in films such as Cleopatra (1963) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). Hugh Sinclair (1903-1962) was an English stage and film actor best remembered as The Saint in The Saint’s Vacation (1941) and The Saint Meets the Tiger (1943).

[17] Father’s Doing Fine is a 1952 British comedy film directed by Henry Cass and based on the play Little Lambs Eat Ivy by Noel Langley.

[18] ‘Elstree Studios’ is shorthand for a series of film and television studios in and around the towns of Elstree and Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. By ‘ABC’ McKenna is referring to the Associated British Corporation, a television production company and cinema chain for which the parent company was the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). ABPC owned the Associated British Elstree Studios in Borehamwood where Father’s Doing Fine was filmed.

[19] Richard Attenborough (b.1923) is an English actor, film director and producer known best as the Oscar-winning director and producer of Gandhi (1983) and for his roles in such films as The Great Escape (1963) and Jurassic Park (1993). Brian Worth (1914-1978) was an English actor who starred in such films as Scrooge (1951) and An Inspector Calls (1954). Heather Stannard was an English stage actress who appeared in several theatre productions in the 1950s but did not star in Father’s Doing Fine. It is likely that McKenna is referring to Heather Thatcher (1896-1987), an English actress and dancer who, aside from starring in Father’s Doing Fine, also appeared in such films as The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) and Gaslight (1944).

[20] The Cruel Sea was a 1953 film directed by Charles Frend and based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Monsarrat. It focuses on the war between the British Navy and German U-boats, told from the perspective of those serving on British escort vessels during the Second World War. John “Jack” Hawkins (1910-1973) was an English stage and film actor who starred in such films as Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Welsh actor Sir Stanley Baker (1928-1976) is remembered for starring in films like Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955) and Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), and later for producing films such as The Italian Job (1969).

[21] Denholm Elliott (1922-1992) was a three-time BAFTA-winning English stage, film and television actor. He is best remembered for his roles in such films as Alfie (1966), A Room with a View (1985) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and was also Virginia McKenna’s first husband; they were married for just a few months in 1954.

[22] Noël Coward (1899-1973) was a highly prolific English playwright, composer, singer, director and actor. Some of his best-known work includes the play Private Lives (1930), the popular song “Mad about the Boy” and his work as producer and screenwriter of Brief Encounter (1945), based on his play Still Life (1936).

[23] In Which We Serve (1942) is a British war film which, aside from Coward, also stars John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson and Richard Attenborough. As well as starring, Coward also directed, wrote, produced and composed the score for the film. It is likely that the interviewer confuses this film with The Cruel Sea because both are set at sea during the Second World War.

[24] Charles Frend (1909-1977) was an English film director who began his career as a wartime propaganda film director and went on to direct popular films such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and A Run for Your Money (1949).

[25] The Oracle, also known by its American title The Horse’s Mouth, is a 1953 comedy film directed by C.M. Pennington-Richards about a journalist who, while on holiday in Ireland, meets a fortune-teller who foretells the next day’s track results. Michael Medwin (b.1923) is an English actor and film producer best known for his television roles in ITV’s The Army Game (1957-61) and BBC’s Shoestring (1979-80). Joseph Tomelty (1911-1995) was a Northern Irish actor and playwright whose work included roles in A Night to Remember (1958) and Hell is a City (1960).

[26] Sir Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) was an English actor and writer whose work included a BAFTA-winning performance in Darling (1965) and the lead role in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Simba is a 1955 film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which aside from Bogarde and McKenna stars Donald Sinden and Basil Sydney.

[27] Pinewood Studios is a major film studio in Slough where several successful productions have been filmed, including the Carry On, Superman and James Bond film series. All of the dramatic scenes in Simba were shot at Pinewood with a second unit filming Kenyan landscapes.

[28] The Mau Mau Uprising was a military conflict that took place from 1952 to 1960 between the Kenyan anti-colonial group Mau Mau and the British Army. Over 12,000 people were killed in the uprising. 

[29] Charles Morgan (1894-1958) was an English-Welsh playwright and novelist. His play The River Line (1952) was adapted for the 1952 Edinburgh Festival from his 1949 novel of the same name. It depicts a group of allied pilots hiding from the Nazis in a farmhouse in occupied France.

[30] Paul Scofield (1922-2008) was an English theatre and film actor best known for his Academy Award- and BAFTA-winning performance as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966). Other notable performances include roles in A Delicate Balance (1973) and Quiz Show (1994), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

[31] Michael Goodliffe (1914-1976) was an English actor remembered for his performances as Thomas Andrews in A Night to Remember (1958) and in the television series Sam (1974-5). John Westbrook (1922-1989) was an English actor who worked mainly in theatre and radio. His best known film performance was as Christopher Gough in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Michael Macowan (1906-1980) was a theatre, film and radio producer and director who also directed the Stratford Theatre Festival’s 1946 production of Macbeth starring Paul Scofield the 1958 production of Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed (1957) at the Globe Theatre in London, starring John Gielgud.

[32] Robert Hardy (b. 1925) is an English theatre, film and television actor who began his career as a classical stage actor and later became known for film roles such as Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films (2001-11). The final stage production to which McKenna refers was Winnie, a 1988 West End musical about Winston Churchill starring Hardy as Churchill and McKenna as his wife Clementine. Incidentally, Hardy has performed the role of Winston Churchill five times in various stage and television productions. See footnote 150 for further details.

[33] Ealing Studios is a film and television studio at Ealing Green in West London which, having opened its doors for film production in 1902, is the oldest continuously running film studio in the world. It is most commonly associated with the popular ‘Ealing Comedies’ produced there between 1947 and 1957 which include Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Love Lottery (1954) and The Ladykillers (1955).  

[34] The Ship that Died of Shame, also known by its American title PT Raiders, is a 1955 crime film directed by Basil Dearden and starring McKenna, George Baker, Richard Attenborough and Bill Owen. As its title suggests, it is the story of a Royal Navy vessel that withstands severe attacks throughout the Second World War but begins to break down when it is later used for smuggling black market items.

[35] George Baker(1931-2011) was an English actor and writer remembered for portraying Tiberius in I, Claudius (1976) and Inspector Wexford in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1987-2000).

[36] By ‘Inspector Wexfords’ McKenna refers to a number of episodes in the television series The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1987-2000) based on the works of Ruth Rendell. Fifty-five of the episodes were adapted from detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, who was portrayed in the show by George Baker. McKenna appeared in the episode “The Speaker of Mandarin: Part One”, which aired on 27 September 1992.

[37] Dorothy “Dodie” Smith (1896-1990) was an English novelist and playwright best known as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1965), on which the 1961 Disney film is based. I Capture the Castle

[38] It is unclear if the play was ever performed in Newcastle or Liverpool. However, the production was performed in Glasgow at the King’s Theatre on 25 January 1954, over a month before it debuted at the Aldwych Theatre in London on 4 March of that same year. It is therefore likely that Glasgow is the city to which McKenna refers.

[39] McKenna was married to actor Denholm Elliott, whom she had met on the set for The Cruel Sea (1953), for a few months in 1954. The marriage ended due to the bisexual Elliott’s affairs.

[40] McKenna worked with Elliott on The Blue Dress (1983), although she is uncredited. Elliott’s second wife was Susan Robinson, to whom he was married from 1962 until his death in 1992.

[41] A Town Like Alice is a 1956 film directed by Jack Lee. Based on the 1950 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute, it is about an English woman (McKenna) who returns to Malaya to help build a well for villagers who assisted her during the Second World War, and simultaneously recalls an Australian man (Peter Finch) who helped her as a prisoner of war. Peter Finch (1916-1977) was a British-born Australian actor best known for his Academy Award-winning role as television anchor Howard Beale in Network (1976).

[42] Laurence “Laurie” Lee (1914-1997) was an English poet, novelist and screenwriter whose best known works are the autobiographical novel trilogy consisting of Cider with Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991). His brother, Jack Lee (1913-2002), who directed A Town Like Alice, is also remembered for directing The Wooden Horse (1950) and Robbery Under Arms (1976).

[43] Lee was less than a month shy of his 89th birthday on January 9, 2002, when this interview was recorded. He died on October 15 of that same year. 

[44] Vincent Ball (b. 1923) is an Australian actor who has also appeared in such productions as the Carry On films Carry On Cruising (1962) and Follow that Camel (1967), Dixon of Dock Green (1967-72) and more recently, The Man Who Sued God (2001).

[45] The Old Vic is a theatre in London established as the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1818 but renamed the Royal Victoria Hall in 1834. By the 1880s it was already commonly referred to as ‘the Old Vic’, and in 1963 became the home of The Old Vic Theatre Company, founded by Laurence Olivier.

[46] John Neville (1925-2011) was an English theatre and film actor who moved to Canada in 1972. He is best remembered for his roles in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and in The X-Files (1993-2002), as well as for his work in Canadian Theatre that included artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from 1985-89.  Eric Porter (1928-1995) was an English theatre, film and television actor best known as a Shakespearean actor but also remembered for television roles such as Fagin in the 1985 BBC production of Oliver Twist and Professor Moriarty in Granada Television’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985). Rachel Roberts (1927-1980) was a Welsh film actress best known for her roles in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963), for which she received an Academy Award nomination.

[47] George Rose (1920-1988) was an English theatre and film actor whose notable film credits include The Pickwick Papers (1952), A Night to Remember (1958) and The Pirates of Penzance (1983). Ann Todd (1909-1993) was an English film actress and producer best remembered for her roles in Perfect Strangers (1945), The Seventh Veil (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947).

[48] Sir Robert Helpmann (1909-1986) was an Australian dancer, actor, theatre director and choreographer. He is best remembered for his directorial work with the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera.

[49] Robert Helpmann’s 1955 production of As You Like It was designed by Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970), an Italian painter and stage designer.

[50] Tony Britton (b. 1924) is an English actor who has appeared in such films as Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and Agatha (1979).

[51] ‘Shout Aloud Salvation’ (15 April 1951) was a play produced for the BBC television series “Sunday Night Theatre”, which ran from 1950 to 1959, and again from 1971 to 1974.

[52] Michael Barry (1910-1988) was a British television director, producer and executive best remembered as the BBC Television Head of Drama from 1952-1961.

[53] Daphne Slater (1928-2012) was an English actress best remembered for her Shakespearean roles and appearances in period television plays such as the BBC’s Elizabeth R (1971).

[54] McKenna’s second husband William Lindon-Travers (1922-1994), known professionally as Bill Travers, was an English actor, screenwriter, director and animal rights activist. Many of his best-remembered roles have been alongside McKenna in such films as The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), Born Free (1966) and Ring of Bright Water (1969). He is perhaps best known for his work as an animal rights activist, directing such documentaries as The Lions Are Free (1967) and founding, along with McKenna, Zoo Check in 1984, which eventually evolved into the Born Free Foundation in 1991.

[55] Basil Dearden (1911-1971) was an English film director best remembered for his work at Ealing Studios through the 1940s and for larger-scale films in the 1960s such as Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969).

[56] Frank Launder (1906-1997) and Sidney Gilliat (1908-1994) were English film writers, directors and producers who first worked together as scriptwriters on films such as The Lady Vanishes (1938) and later produced a number of films that included The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and the St. Trinian’s films (1954-1966).

[57] The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), directed by Sidney Franklin, is a remake of Franklin’s earlier 1934 version of the same name. Based on the 1930 play of the same name by Rudolf Besier, it dramatizes the romance between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

[58] Jennifer Jones (1919-2009) was an American actress best known for her Oscar-winning performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943).

[59] Maxine Audley (1923-1992) was an English stage and film actress remembered for her extensive work with the Old Vic company and Royal Shakespeare Company and for film roles that include Mrs Stephens in Peeping Tom (1960).

[60] Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) is a British film set during World War II and based on the true story of Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo. See footnote 62 for details on Szabo.

[61] Lewis Gilbert (b.1920) is a British film director, producer and screenwriter whose notable directorial credits include Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and the James Bond films You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).

[62] Odette Sansom Hallowes (1912-1995) was a World War II Allied heroine who worked for the French underground during the war and later testified against Ravensbrück concentration camp prison guards at a 1946 war crimes trial.

[63] Violette Szabo (1921-1945) was a World War II French-British secret agent. After the death of her husband at the Battle of El Alamein, Szabo decided to offer her services to the British Special Operations Executive, for whom she completed a successful first mission. She was captured while on her second mission to sabotage communication lines during German attempts to stem the Normandy landings. Szabo was executed by SS firing squad at Ravensbrück concentration camp on or about 5 February 1945.

[64] Major Maurice James Buckmaster (1902-1992) was the leader of the French section of Special Operations Executive who wrote two memoirs about his service with the Resistance. Major Fernandes: unknown reference.

[65] McKenna’s home is in Dorking, which is about 35 miles from Pinewood Studios.

[66] Passionate Summer (1958), also known by its alternative title, Storm Over Jamaica, is a British film directed by Rudolph Cartier and based on a novel by Richard Mason about a British schoolteacher who relocates to Jamaica after a divorce, where he meets a new woman.

[67] Two Living, One Dead (1961) is a British-Swedish thriller based on the 1937 Norwegian film To levende og en død, adapted from the 1931 existentialist novel of the same name by Sigurd Christiansen. The film is about a Post Office worker who is ostracised by his community after he refuses, in an effort to protect his family, to participate in defending the office against a robbery attempt.

[68] Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009) was an American-born actor raised in Ireland and Britain and best known for his starring roles in the 1960s television series Danger Man (1960-2, ‘64-8), released as Secret Agent in the US, and The Prisoner (1967-8), which he co-created.

[69] Anthony Asquith (1902-1968) was an English film director known for his collaborations with playwright Terrence Rattigan on such films as The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951) and for such directorial credits as Pygmalion (1938) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

[70] Sir Donald Sinden (b. 1923) is an English actor and author. He is best known for his roles in several 1950s Rank films which, aside from The Cruel Sea, include Mogambo (1953), Doctor in the House (1954), Twice Round the Daffodils (1962) and Mix Me a Person (1962), and for his award-winning theatre performances in the Ray Cooney farces Not Now Darling (1967), Two Into One (1984) and Out of Order (1990).

[71] The Aldwych Theatre is a West End theatre in Westminster. The Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-Upon-Avon based its London productions at the Aldwych from 1960 until 1982, when it moved to the Barbican Arts Centre.

[72] Dorothy Tutin (1930-2001) was an English stage, film and television actress. She is remembered for her extensive work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and for film credits that include Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). The Devils is a play written by John Whiting and based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. Set in France in 1634, it is about secular priest Urbain Grandier whose public opposition to Cardinal Richelieu makes him a political target, and who after being charged of witchcraft is subjected to torture and executed.

[73] Peter Wood (b. 1927) is an English theatre and film director whose credits include directing the debut performance of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1957.

[74] Richard Johnson (b. 1927) is an English actor, writer and producer known for his performances in such films as The Haunting (1963) and Khartoum (1966) and for being among the first group of Associate Artists of the Royal Shakespeare Company. More recently, he has appeared in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

[75] The Beggar’s Opera is a satirical ballad opera written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. The opera satirises the representation of upper classes in Italian operas popular at the time, as well as politicians like Robert Walpole and criminals like Jonathan Wild.

[76] “Some Other Love” is a television play that aired as episode 7.22 of ITV Play of the Week (1955-1974) on 12 June 1962.

[77] Born Free (1966) is a British film based on the real-life couple Joy and George Adamson, who raised an orphaned lion cub and released her into the wild in Kenya.

[78] Aside from for directing Born Free, British film and television director, screenwriter and producer James Hill (1919-1994) is best remembered for his documentaries and short subjects such as Giuseppina (1960) and The Home Made Car (1963).

[79] Tom McGowan (b. 1921) is an American director known for his 1980s B-movies Cataclysm (1980) and Night Train to Terror (1985).

[80] The Scots Guards is one of the Foot Guards regiments of the British Army.

[81] George Adamson (1906-1989), also known as Baba ya Simba, or ‘Father of Lions’ in Swahili, was a, Indian-born British wildlife conservationist and author and is the subject of Born Free. He and his wife, Joy Adamson, wrote the best-selling memoir on which the film is based.

[82] Joy Adamson (1910-1980) was an Austrian-Hungarian naturalist, artist, and co-author, along with husband George, of the memoir on which Born Free is based. In 1977 she was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art.

[83] The Maasai Mara National Reserve is a game reserve in Narok County, Kenya. It is known for its exceptional population of lions, leopards and cheetahs, as well as the annual migration of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle and wildebeest.

[84] Travers directed such wildlife documentaries as The Lions Are Free (1969), The Lion at World’s End (1971) and The Tender Trap (1974) and worked as a producer on others, such as three episodes of The World About Us (1973-76).

[85] Travers’ documentary The Lions Are Free (1969), a true-life sequel to Born Free, simultaneously follows McKenna as she visits a zoo in the United Kingdom and Travers as he visits George Adamson, whose efforts have ensured that the lions used in Born Free are living free.

[86] Waris Hussein (b. 1938) is a British-Indian television and film director best remembered for directing the first ever Doctor Who serial, An Unearthly Child (1963).

[87] The 1965 television adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India, A Passage to India”, was aired as episode 1.2 of BBC Play of the Month (1965-83) on 16 November 1965.

[88] Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) was an English actress. She is best remembered for her extensive theatre work in both Britain and the United States. Notable film performances include Nurse Edith Cavell in Dawn (1928), Mrs Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (1948) and Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).

[89] “Girls in Uniform”, an adaptation of Christa Winsloe’s 1931 play Gestern und heute, was aired as episode 3.1 of BBC Play of the Month (1965-83) on 15 October 1967.

[90] Francesca Annis (b. 1945) is an English actress best known for her television roles in Reckless (1998), Wives and Daughters (1999), Deceit (2000) and Cranford (2007).

[91] The Admirable Crichton (1968) is a television film directed by George Schaefer and based on J.M. Barrie’s 1902 stage play of the same name.

[92] “Mary Queen of Scots” is an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart, about the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was aired as episode 4.5 of BBC Play of the Month (1965-83) on 12 January 1969.

[93] Ring of Bright Water (1969) is a British film directed by Jack Couffer based on Gavin Maxwell’s 1960 autobiographical book of the same name. The film is about a Londoner and his pet otter living on the Scottish coast.

[94] Much of the film was shot in nearby Ellenabeich.

[95] An Elephant Called Slowly (1969) is a film written by Bill Travers and directed by James Hill. The film follows Travers and McKenna, starring as themselves, as they befriend three elephants in Kenya. George Adamson, the subject of Born Free, makes an appearance.

[96] Tsavo National Park, divided into Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park, is located in the Coast Province of Kenya and is one of the country’s oldest and largest national parks.

[97]Dame Daphne Sheldrick (b. 1934) is a Kenyan author and conservationist who specialises in raising and reintegrating orphaned elephants into the wild. Her husband David Sheldrick (1919-1977), a Kenyan farmer and park warden, founded Tsavo National Park in 1948. After David’s death in 1977, Daphne Sheldrick established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a wildlife conservation charity, in his honour. It is still active today.

[98] The Zoo Check Campaign, established by Travers and McKenna in 1984, combats animal confinement and exploitation and seeks to phase out zoos. It is today one of several campaigns under the umbrella of the Born Free Foundation, founded in 1998, which is an international organisation devoted to animal welfare and conservation.

[99] Bloody Ivory (1978) was nominated for Best Documentary Programme and Best Film Editor at the 1980 BAFTA Awards. Bill Travers is uncredited in the film’s entry on the Internet Movie Database.

[100] Sir Ian Holm (b. 1931) is an English stage and film actor known best for his Tony Award-winning performance as Lenny in The Homecoming in 1967, his Oscar-nominated performance as Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire (1981), and more recently, his role as Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and The Hobbit (2012-4) trilogies. Judy Parfitt (b. 1935) is an English theatre, film and television actress whose notable film roles include Vera Donovan in Dolores Claiborne (1995) and Maria Thins in Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), and who more recently has appeared in the television series Call the Midwife (2012-3) and Up the Women (2013).

[101] Waterloo (1970) is a Soviet-Italian film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. Starring Rod Steiger as Napolean Bonaparte, it dramatizes the Battle of Waterloo.

[102] Three Sisters is a 1900 play by Anton Chekhov; Masha is the middle sister. Daniel Massey (1933-1998) was an English actor and performer best remembered for his role in the BBC television series Roads to Freedom (1970) and for his Golden Globe-winning performance as Noel Coward in Star! (1968).

[103] The Lion at World’s End (1971), also known by its American title, Christian the Lion, was written by Bill Travers and James Hill and directed by Travers. The film reunites Travers and McKenna with George Adamson, the subject of Born Free.

[104] The Beheading is a play by Thomas Muschamp. The 1971-2 production in which McKenna appeared was staged at the Apollo Theatre and was directed by Noel Willman.

[105] The Edwardians (1972-4) is a BBC television series that explores the lives of those who helped to define the Edwardian era. The episode ‘Daisy’, which aired on 2 January 1973, stars McKenna as Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, the long-time mistress of King Edward VII, who was converted to socialism and joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1904.

[106] The Dragon’s Opponent (1973) is a BBC television series which stars Ronald Pickup as Charles ‘Mad Jack’ Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, who worked as a bomb disposal expert during the Second World War. Ronald Pickup (b.1940) is an English actor whose notable roles include Giuseppe Verdi in the TV mini-series Verdi (1982) and performing opposite Judi Dench in the serial Behaving Badly (1989).  More recently he appeared in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011).

[107] George Cole (b. 1925) is an English film and television actor best known for his roles as Arthur Daley in the ITV drama Minder and as Flash Harry in the St Trinian’s films of the 1950s. Country Life is a play by Nicholas Wood that was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in 1973.

[108] The play was written by Nicholas Wood, who is now a lecturer at The Central School of Speech and Drama. It is unclear how he is related to Sybil Thorndike.

[109] Sybil Thorndike was born in 1882, making her 91 years old in 1973.

[110] As McKenna explains later in the interview, she was performing in a production of Something’s Afoot at the Hilton in Hong Kong. For information on the production, see footnote 129.

[111] Swallows and Amazons (1974) is a British film directed by Claude Whatham. It is based on the 1930 novel by Arthur Ransome about the adventures of two families in the Lake District of England over the summer holidays. McKenna’s character’s credited name is Mrs. Walker.

[112] Sophie Neville (b. 1960) is a documentary producer and wildlife artist. She is a Fellow of the Endangered Wildlife Society and founder of the Waterberg Welfare Society, a charity that addresses HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

[113] For information on The Devils, see footnote 72.

[114] ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ is an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 play of the same name, which aired as episode 9.7 of BBC Play of the Month on 17 March 1974. Peter Egan (b. 1946) is an English actor whose television roles include Hogarth in the ITV television serial Big Breadwinner Hog (1969) and Paul Ryman in the BBC sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-9).  Stephen Murray (1912-1983) was an English actor remembered for his extensive work in radio plays and particularly for his role as ‘Number One’/ Lieutenant Commander Murray in The Navy Lark (1959-77).

[115] ‘Cheap in August’ is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s short story of the same name, which appeared in the collection May We Borrow Your Husband? (1967). It aired as episode 1.2 of Shades of Greene (1975-6) on 16 September 1975.  

[116] Leo McKern (1920-2002) was an Australian stage, television and film actor who performed extensively at the Old Vic theatre in London and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and who appeared in such films as The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Help! (1965) and The Blue Lagoon (1980). 

[117] Alvin Rakoff (b. 1927) is a Canadian film and television director who has directed over a hundred British television plays from the 1950s through the 1990s, and whose film direction credits include Crossplot (1968) starring Roger Moore and Hoffman (1969) starring Peter Sellers.

[118] The actual title of this film is The First Olympics: Athens 1896 (1984). It is a mini-series that charts the founding of the modern Olympics, focusing on the creation of the American team and its preparations for the Athens event.

[119] Peter Pan (1976) is a Hallmark television adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play directed by Dwight Hemion. Danny Kaye (1913-1987) was an American actor, singer, dancer and comedian whose notable performances include Burleigh Sullivan in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and the title roles in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and The Court Jester (1956). Mia Farrow (b. 1945) is an American actress, singer and former model best known for her BAFTA- and Golden Globe-nominated role in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and for her starring roles in John and Mary (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978).

[120] The interviewer refers here to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), a film adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name. Kaye stars in the film as Walter Mitty.

[121] Wendy’s brothers John and Michael Darling were played by Ian Sharrock and Adam Stafford respectively. The Lost Boys were portrayed by Michael Deeks, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Andrew and Simon Mooney, Adam Richens and Jerome Watts.

[122] The Dorking Dramatic and Operatic Society is an amateur theatre company in Dorking, where McKenna lives. It was founded in 1927 and produces a yearly musical with a production budget of over £35,000.

[123]A Little Night Music is a musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).  Jean Simmons (1929-2010) was a British-American actress remembered for her roles in such films as The Robe (1953), Guys and Dolls (1955) and Spartacus (1960). Before McKenna, she performed in A Little Night Music, first touring the United States and then premiering the show in London in 1975, for three years. Joss Ackland (b. 1928) is an English actor remembered for his stage performances at the Old Vic and in the original West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, as well as television appearances in productions such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979).

[124] Beauty and the Beast (1976) is a Hallmark television adaptation of the fairy tale of the same name, directed by Fielder Cook.

[125] George C. Scott (1927-1999) was an American stage and film actor, director and producer. His best known roles are as the title character in Patton (1970) and as General Buck Turgidson in Dr Strangelove (1964).  His fourth wife Trish Van Devere (b. 1943), to whom Scott was married from 1972 until his death in 1999, is remembered for roles such as the original Meredith Lord in the American soap opera One Life to Live (1968-present) and alongside Scott in films such as The Changeling (1980).

[126] Fielder Cook (1923-2003) was an American television and film director, producer and writer best known for his 1971 television movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

[127] The Disappearance (1977) is a British-Canadian thriller film directed by Stuart Cooper and based on the novel Echoes of Celandine by Derek Marlowe. Donald Sutherland (b. 1935) is a Canadian actor best known for his performances in MASH (1970), Ordinary People (1980), JFK (1991) and more recently, The Hunger Games (2012).

[128] Kirk Douglas (b. 1919) is an American film and stage actor, producer and author whose notable films include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). Holocaust 2000 (1977) is a British-Italian horror film directed by Alberto De Martino about a wealthy industrialist who discovers his son’s plot to use a nuclear power plant he is constructing to end the world.

[129] Something’s Afoot is a musical that spoofs murder mysteries in general and most especially Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None. It debuted on Broadway in 1976.

[130] Vivian Martin (1893-1987) was an American stage and silent film actress who performed in such films as The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England (1914) and Louisiana (1919). For information on George Cole, see footnote 107.

[131] The Flame Trees of Thika is a 1959 book by Elspeth Huxley set in Thika in Kenya’s Central Province.

[132] Elizabeth Counsell (b. 1942) is an English actress who has worked extensively in British television. Her father, John Counsell (1905-1987), helped to re-establish repertory theatre at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, which had been converted to a cinema after burning down in 1908.

[133] The King and I is a musical by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the 1860s.

[134] Yul Brynner (1920-1985) was a Russian-born but American-based actor whose best-known role is as the King of Siam in The King and I, both on stage and in the 1956 film version. Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) wrote, respectively, the music and lyrics for The King and I.

[135] McKenna’s and Travers’ four children are called, in order of age, William Jr., Louise, Justin and Daniel.

[136] Waters of the Moon (1983) is a television adaptation of N.C. Hunter’s 1951 play of the same name, directed by Piers Haggard. Penelope Keith (b. 1940) is an English actress best known for her BAFTA-winning performance as Margo Leadbetter in the British sitcom The Good Life (1975-8).

[137] The Blue Dress (1983) is a BBC television film directed by Peter Hammond. McKenna is uncredited on the Internet Movie Database.

[138] The Case of the Frightened Lady (1983) is a television adaptation, directed by Christopher Menaul, of the 1932 play of the same name by Edgar Wallace.

[139] ‘High Hopes’, also starring Philip Joseph and Eiji Kusuhara and directed by Mike Vardy, was aired as episode 1.4 of Sharing Time (1984), a series of stories set in a time-share flat. Dandy Nichols (1907-1986) was an English actress who is best remembered as Else Garnett in the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75).

[140] The original Globe Theatre, where many of William Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, was built in 1599 and burned down during a performance of Henry III in 1613. It was rebuilt the following year, but was closed down in 1642 by the Puritans. The Gielgud Theatre was known as the Globe Theatre from 1909 to 1994, when it was renamed in honour of Sir John Gielgud. In 1997, a modern reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre was opened on the London Southbank, about 750 feet from the site of the original theatre.

[141] For more information, see footnote 118.

[142] McKenna is referring to Puccini (1984), directed by Tony Palmer. The television film dramatizes events surrounding an incident in 1909 in which Puccini’s wife, Elvira, publicly accused Doria Manfredi, a maid working for the Puccini family, of having an affair with Puccini, leading to Manfredi’s eventual suicide. In the film Elvira is portrayed by McKenna. Sir Robert Stephens (1931-1995) was an English stage actor remembered for his leading roles in the early years of the Royal National Theatre. 

[143] Roger Rees (b. 1944) is a Welsh actor known for his role as Lord John Marbury in the American television series The West Wing (1999-2006) and for his Tony-winning performance as Nicholas Nickleby in the original London production of David Edgar’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

[144] Brian Blessed (b. 1936) is an English actor and comedian known for such roles as Caesar Augustus in I, Claudius (1976), the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) and Richard IV in the first series of The Black Adder (1983).

[145] McKenna and Rees did eventually reunite to perform the programme again. It was performed at The Questors Theatre in Ealing on 12 April, 2010 as a fundraising event for The Questors.

[146] The book is entitled Beyond the Bars: The Zoo Dilemma and was published in 1987.

[147] Winnie was a 1988 West End musical written by Robin Hardy (no relation) about a group of stage actors who, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, enact a musical about Winston Churchill.  Robert Hardy has actually performed the role of Winston Churchill in four other productions: Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981), War and Remembrance (1988-9), Bomber Harris (1989), and the Marple series adaptation The Sittaford Mystery (2006). He was scheduled to reprise the role for a sixth time in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience (2013), but was forced to withdraw due to fractured ribs after a fall.

[148] Duel of Hearts (1991) is a romantic television film directed by John Hough and starring Alison Doody, Michael York, Geraldine Chaplin and Benedict Taylor. It is based on the novel of the same name by Dame Barbara Cartland (1901-2000), a romance novelist and one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.

[149] Heathcote Williams (b. 1941) is an English poet, actor and playwright best known for his 1988 polemical poem Whale Nation. Sacred Elephant (1989) is a poem that examines elephants in their native habitat and in captivity and explores their mistreatment.

[150] Lovejoy (1986-94) is a British comedy-drama series, based on the picaresque novels by John Grant, about the adventures of Lovejoy (Ian McShane), an antiques dealer in East Anglia. McKenna appeared in Series 3, Episode 8, ‘Loveknots’ (1992), as Harriet Fisher.

[151] The English student to whom McKenna refers is award-winning screenwriter Christian Taylor, who later became known for his work on the American television drama Six Feet Under (2001-5). He attended New York University.

[152] Taylor’s short thesis film won the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. It can be viewed here:

[153] The actor’s name is Rodney Hudson.

[154] The Camomile Lawn (1992) is a television adaptation of Mary Wesley’s novel of the same name, about the lives and loves of a family of cousins from 1939 to the present.  Peter Hall (b. 1930) is an English theatre and film director best known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961.

[155] This eventually became Into the Blue: A Book about Dolphins (1992).

[156] Dr. Horace Dobbs is a pioneer of underwater research and founder of both the Oxford Underwater Research Group in 1963 and International Dolphin Watch in 1978.

[157] Travers died on 29 March, 1994, aged 72.

[158] September (1996) is a television adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel of the same name, directed by Colin Bucksey and starring Jacqueline Bisset, Edward Fox and Michael York.

[159] Staggered (1994) is a comedy film directed by and starring Martin Clunes (b. 1961), an English actor and comedian best known for his roles as Gary Strang in Men Behaving Badly (1992-8) and Doctor Martin Ellingham in Doc Martin (2004-present).

[160] Sliding Doors (1998) is a British-American comedy-drama film directed by Peter Howitt and starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film alternates between two paths the protagonist’s life takes depending on whether or not she catches a train.

[161] Michael Morpurgo (b. 1943) is an English author, poet, playwright and librettist, and was the third Children’s Laureate. The Butterfly Lion (1996) is a children’s novel about a boy who rescues a lion in Africa but is forced to part with it when sent to boarding school. Why the Whales Came (1985) is a children’s story set on one of the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, in 1914.

[162] Polesden Lacey is an Edwardian house near Dorking, where McKenna resides.

[163] Women’s Institutes.

[164] The album is entitled Virginia McKenna sings The King and I.

[165] These programmes, which have also starred Hugh Bonneville and Robert Powell, have included The Gift of Christmas, Life Love Laughter, Twentieth Century Revue, Funny Valentines and Now We are Sixty, all of which were devised and directed by Tutin’s daughter, Amanda Waring.

[166] The Violette Szabo G.C. Museum is located in Wormelow, Hereford and is open every Wednesday from April to October.

[167] The Life That I Have is a poem by Leo Marks. It was originally composed in 1943 in memory of Marks’ girlfriend, who had died in a plane crash, but in 1944 Marks, who was the codes officer of the Special Operations Executive in London at the time, issued the poem to Violette Szabo as a poem code. It was made famous by its inclusion in Carve Her Name with Pride.

[168] The Eilean Bàn Trust has managed the island of Eilean Bàn as a wildlife sanctuary since 1998. Gavin Maxwell’s book, on which the film Ring of Bright Water was based, was inspired by the island’s thriving otter population. 


BIOGRAPHY: Virginia A. McKenna OBE (b. 1931) is a BAFTA Award-winning stage and screen actress and wildlife campaigner. After attending the Central School of Speech and Drama, McKenna performed in several stage productions at the Dundee Repertory Theatre and in London’s West End. Her first film performance was in The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1952), directed by Dallas Bower.   In 1956, McKenna won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for her performance in A Town Like Alice (1956), directed by Jack Lee. Two years later, she was again nominated for the award for her role as the World War II Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). Perhaps McKenna’s best-remembered role is in the 1966 film Born Free, in which she and her husband Bill Travers star as the real-life couple Joy and George Adamson, a Kenyan couple who raised an orphaned lion cub and released her into the wild. The film sparked both McKenna and Travers to become life-long supporters of animal rights and wildlife preservation, and they starred together in several other films focusing on wildlife including An Elephant Called Slowly (1970) and Ring of Bright Water (1969). In 1979, McKenna starred in the West End production of The King and I alongside Yul Brynner, for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress. However, she continued her work as an animal rights activist and in 1984 she and Travers founded Zoo Check, a campaign to expose the effects of animal captivity and to phase out zoos. This expanded into the Born Free Foundation in 1991, an international organisation dedicated to animal rights and wildlife conservation.