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McKenna, Virginia (1931-)


Main image of McKenna, Virginia (1931-)

In the three major film roles most strongly associated with Virginia McKenna - Born Free (1965), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and A Town Called Alice (1956) - she played women of courage, compassion and integrity. Her ability to convey ordinary women undertaking extraordinary tasks made her one of Britain's finest actresses in an era where good female leading roles were scarce.

Born in London in 1931, she went to South Africa with her mother in 1940 for the duration of WWII. On returning to England, she trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her film career took off after The Cruel Sea (d. Charles Frend, 1952) where she met actor Denholm Elliott. They married in 1954, but only for a few months.

McKenna earned a BAFTA for her lead performance in the adaptation of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice (d. Jack Lee, 1956). In Carve Her Name With Pride (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1958), she again excelled as Violette Szabo, a young British agent who was posthumously awarded the George Cross during the Second World War. In 1958 she married actor Bill Travers, after having already appeared alongside him in such films as the comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (d. Basil Dearden, 1957).

In the 1960s McKenna and Travers appeared in several wildlife-themed films, starting with Born Free (d. James Hill, 1965), the true story of conservationists George and Joy Adamson. This was followed by Ring of Bright Water (d. Jack Couffer, 1969) and An Elephant Named Slowly (1969). The latter featured a young elephant named Pole Pole, whose subsequent premature death in captivity at London Zoo prompted McKenna and Travers to establish Zoo Check in 1984. Renamed The Born Free Foundation in 1991, it campaigned on behalf of animals' quality of life, ideally in their natural habitat.

In 1979 McKenna won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in the stage musical of The King and I, playing opposite Yul Brynner. Increasingly, her work as an animal welfare campaigner took over from acting. She was awarded the OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts.

Eddie Dyja

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Thumbnail image of Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

Moving biopic of WWII resistance heroine Violette Szabo

Thumbnail image of Cruel Sea, The (1952)Cruel Sea, The (1952)

Distinguished Ealing war film about the inexperienced crew of a naval warship

Thumbnail image of Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)

Nostalgic comedy about a couple who inherit a failing cinema

Thumbnail image of Swallows and Amazons (1974)Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Enduring children's classic about holiday adventures in the Lake District

Thumbnail image of Town Like Alice, A (1956)Town Like Alice, A (1956)

WWII drama about women and children forced to trek across Malaya

Thumbnail image of Camomile Lawn, The (1992)Camomile Lawn, The (1992)

Controversial WWII drama series adapted from Mary Wesley's novel

Thumbnail image of Passage to India, A (1965)Passage to India, A (1965)

The first screen adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic novel

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