Sunday sit-down with… Virginia McKenna OBE and Will Travers OBE
We met the BAFTA-winning actress of Born Free and her son and the Born Free Foundation’s president, to chat about the huge exhibition they’ve brought to Newcastle: designed to save lions worldwide and dedicated to Virginia’s late husband – fellow silver screen icon and born and bred Geordie, Bill Travers.
Back in 1966, it was a film that enchanted the world.
Born Free told the true story of Joy and George Adamson, who raised an orphaned lion cub, Elsa, to adulthood before releasing her back into the wilderness of Kenya.
The Oscar-winning film, still regarded as an all-time classic, had another element of true life to it – it starred real-life couple, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, as the intrepid Adamsons.
While many of us who reside in a more mature demographic will instantly be able to conjure Born Free’s iconic theme song, far fewer will know that Bill Travers was a Geordie.
Famed for his performances in Geordie (funnily enough, his breakout role), Bhowani Junction and Ben-Huropposite the likes of Ava Gardner, Eleanor Parker and Oscar-winner Jennifer Jones, Bill had grown up in Jesmond before enlisting in the British Army a few months after the outbreak of the Second World War. He was one of the first allied operatives to enter the Japanese city of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb and earned an MBE ‘in recognition of gallant and distinguished service whilst engaged in Special Operations in South East Asia’.
Bill was an avid adventurer in all aspects of his life, matched only by his equally fearless and magnificent wife, Virginia.
Born in Marylebone to a theatrical family, Virginia spent six years of her childhood in South Africa before pursuing a career in the performing arts. A member of the famous Old Vic theatre company from 1954 to 1955, Virginia made the move to the silver screen as the hero of wartime epic A Town Like Alice, opposite Peter Finch. The role earned her a BAFTA for Best Actress and led to exhibitors voting her as the fourth most popular British star of the mid-1950s.
Both Virginia and Bill had a string of successful box office hits, both separately and together. But it wasn’t until they filmed Born Free on the wild plains of Kenya that their eyes were opened to what would prove to be their life’s work, passion and legacy: wildlife conservation.
After years working with various animal rights charities, Bill and Virginia established the Born Free Foundation in 1984 along with their eldest son, Will – using their fame and influence to film documentaries exposing the appalling suffering of thousands of animals across the globe, while also raising funds to build state-of-the-art sanctuaries for the lions, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, giraffes, elephants, bears, orcas and many other animals they now rescue from captivity, exploitation and persecution.
Theirs is an extraordinary story. And it’s not over.
Bill tragically passed away in 1994. But now, in the year he would have celebrated his 100th birthday – a year which the Born Free Foundation have lovingly christened ‘the Year of the Lion’ in his honour – Virginia and Will have brought a pride of life-sized lion sculptures to Bill’s home city to continue his work here in the North East.
Born Free Forever, the largest free exhibition in the UK, is now open in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park and will remain there until 30th June, 2022. Featuring 25 bronze lions crafted by ‘the most successful and prolific creators of public art in New York’s History’ (New York Times), Gillie and Marc, each lion has their own story to tell and, together, highlight the grave threats facing these magnificent animals around the world, both in captivity and in the wild.
We were lucky enough to be invited to the exhibition’s opening earlier this week and had the absolute honour of sitting down with both Virginia and Will to have a chat about big cats over a coffee…
The exhibition is fantastic! You both must be over the moon with how it’s turned out.
[Virginia] It looks wonderful. It’s in a lovely big space here, and yet the statues are all together so there’s that feeling of a pride, too. I’m pleased that there’s the playground, the tennis courts, the park and the café right beside them. Hopefully there’s going to be lots of people passing through, which is exciting.
Why did you want to raise awareness of the work the Born Free Foundation do in this way?
[Will] Lions face many challenges, both in the wild and in captivity. We simply cannot ignore the calamitous decline in numbers for a moment longer. This life-size, outdoor exhibition, featuring iconic lions – including the world-famous Elsa from Born Free – tells the true stories behind some the issues they face.
The number of wild lions has plummeted by 90% in the last 55 years – why such a rapid decline?
[Will] Lions. are in serious trouble. The number has fallen from around 200,000 about 100 years ago to just 20,000 wild lions in Africa today. The growth in the human population has meant that their natural habitat has been broken up into smaller pieces, although there’s still significant habitat available. Their natural prey – gazelle, zebra and wildebeest – are also in decline, so lions are turning to the next best thing, which tends to be livestock. Livestock are slower and aren’t so aware of predators, so they make for easy victims. But if lions kill a goat or a sheep or a cow, in certain parts of Africa the local community will take revenge and kill a lion. Nobody is a winner in that situation. On top of that, we have trophy hunting – which still goes on, and still means that hundreds of lions are killed every year for fun. We need to do better. A lot better.
As well as being committed to the survival of the species, the Born Free Foundation also take an interest in individual lions, don’t you?
[Will] Absolutely. Elsa was an individual, yet the story of Born Free followed her journey and inspired millions of people. And many individual lions are still suffering – in zoos, circuses, as pets and in the dreadful canned hunting industry in South Africa.
We rescue lions from pretty much everywhere. We’ve just taken four lions from France down to one of our rescue centres in South Africa. Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga have been waiting more than two years to come to us – they were ready to move in early 2020, but along comes Covid and suddenly nobody’s flying, so they’ve had to wait at a halfway house until we’ve been able to move them down to Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where they now live.
Their story is indicative of Born Free’s approach, in that we are relentless. We may not always win, but we will never give up. That’s why I’m so thrilled that this exhibition is here in my Dad’s home city of Newcastle, because he was relentless too. He would continue until we won.
Each one of the statues in the exhibition represents a specific individual with their own story – are these all lions you’ve rescued at the Born Free Foundation?
[Virginia] Yes, they’re all lions we’ve rescued at Born Free or have a personal connection with. We’ve been able to offer them a better life – not always back to the wild, but sanctuary. And the wonderful enclosures we have in our rescue centres are huge, around four acres. So, if we want to introduce two solitary lions to one another, we can keep them in adjoining enclosures until they get to know each other from a distance: recognise one another’s scent and become ‘friendly’ through the netting. Then one day, with people on guard just in case, we can introduce them both into the same enclosure and they have a friend for the rest of their lives.
Are some of the sculptures of historical lions, too?
[Will] Yes. Elsa, for example, didn’t come to our rescue centres, and neither did Christian – one of the cubs. He was a famous lion who originally came from Ilfracombe Zoo in the West Country, then went to Harrods’ pet department, where he was bought by two Australians, John and Ace, and taken to their furniture shop on the King’s Road in London. One day, my Mum popped in to see her dressmaker and my Dad went into the furniture shop to look for a desk. They recognised him and said: ‘can we show you something in the basement?’ He went down, thinking it was going to be a desk, and it was a lion! Christian came from London, lived with us in our house in Surrey for four months while negotiations took place between my Dad, the Kenyan government and George Adamson, and eventually went back to Kenya to be released successfully back into the wild.
The really extraordinary thing is, a year after he was released, John and Ace visited Kenya to see if they could find him. I won’t give away any spoilers – you’ll have to watch the video on our YouTube channel! – but the good news was that neither of them got attacked! There was a lot of hugging!
We also have a sculpture of Cecil: the famous lion from Zimbabwe, who was trophy hunted by an American dentist. So, not all these stories have happy endings, because we want it to be very real for visitors. But many of them do because the lions have come to our rescue centres and have received the most extraordinary care.
What are you hoping this exhibition will help the Born Free Foundation to achieve?
[Will] The exhibition will raise awareness. But also, all these statues are for sale. If you’ve got the space and the pocket, then they will be something you can pass on to future generations and will become part of your own heritage.
The sale of the sculptures will go into the Forever Lions Fund, set up in memory of my Dad, to raise funds to help protect wild lions, resolve human-predator conflict, care for rescued lions, and stop the slaughter of lions for trophy and canned lion hunting. It’s our mission to ensure that all wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, are treated with compassion and respect, and are able to live their lives according to their needs.
Virginia, what has been your career highlight in terms of your work with the charity?
[Virginia] I have two main highlights. The fact that, Bill, myself and Will have carried forward the story of Born Free and the inspiration Bill and I experienced making the film into the present day. And my second highlight is our work with children. All those lovely young people we met this morning, they’re the storytellers of the future.
I’m absolutely overjoyed at the way Born Free Forever has been received in Newcastle this morning. Because it’s all about the lions. It’s about these wild animals that should either simply be sculptures or allowed to live free in the wild.
And what would you say is the secret to a charity achieving success and longevity?
[Virginia] Keep things simple and direct. Build up a trust so that the public, however young or old, will know that, if they commit themselves to helping you, you will follow the path you’ve promised to. You’re not going to say, ‘thanks a bunch’ and then buy a lot of stationery with their money! Of course, as a charity we have some overhead to manage, but online resources help us to be more sustainable and accessible, so that all generations can follow us, while also making sure even more of our funds are given directly back to the animals we help.
Your late husband – and your late father, Will – came from Newcastle. How special is it to bring this exhibition here, to his home city?
[Virginia] I’m deeply moved to have brought our beautiful lion exhibition to the North East, the region where my beloved husband Bill was born and raised. He always remembered his roots, his loyalty and affection for the community never dimmed, and I know the people here will share his desire to save the majestic lion.
I’m proud that Born Free continues his legacy, each day fighting for the freedom of every individual animal. And, without doubt, I know he would be deeply proud of how the charity has developed, and grateful for the way it has evolved under the tireless leadership of Will and the determined efforts, over nearly four decades, of the Born Free team.
[Will] I have to add, especially given the purpose of High Life North, which is all about celebrating women – I’m also celebrating the woman sitting next to me. And my father would be, too. Because he knew, and I know, how special Virginia is in terms of inspiring people, generation after generation.
[Virginia] There are some powerful women here in the North East – let’s join forces and make change together!
Born Free Forever will be at Exhibition Park in Newcastle until 30th June, 2022.
Exhibition Park, Claremont Road, Newcastle NE2 4PZ.