Virgina McKenna takes Saga Magazine's Grown-up Test

Paula Kerr / 25 November 2014

Actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna, born 1931, was married to Bill Travers, her co-star in Born Free. The couple founded the Born Free Foundation. She still accompanies rescued big cats to its sanctuaries in Africa and India, but how old is she in her head?

What makes getting older easier?
Not worrying about it and just accepting it. Also, be as active as you can and interested in who and what’s around you.  

What makes your heart sing?
Being alive.  I’m thrilled to bits when I wake up in the morning.  I think, hooray!  Unexpected visits from my children and grandchildren fill me with joy, too.

What makes your heart sink?

Hunting animals for sport.  I can’t believe people kill lions and rhinos for fun.  How can they do that? It’s truly horrific.

Glass half-full or half-empty?
Very much full.

Most prized possession?
My wedding ring.  

Your one true love?
My husband. I never had the inclination to have anyone else in my life. I just couldn’t.

How do you relax?
I write poetry. It releases feelings.

Bad habit you can’t break?

I can eat several chocolates one after the next.  All my sins, wine and chocolate, are had in the evening.

Your worst telling-off?
The director of a Shakespeare play I was in gave me such a rocket at rehearsal.  I was quite inexperienced and remember sobbing in the wings. 

Medicine or alternative medicine?
I buy vitamins if I feel tired but I forget to take them.

Boat or plane? 
I prefer boats. I love the sea. When I was nine, my mother and I were sent by ship to Cape Town to escape the bombings during the Second World War. My father stayed behind to work as an ARP warden. We were the last boat to leave Liverpool docks in a convoy of five. I stood on the deck and saw debris in the water. All the other boats were sunk. Later, we were chased by a submarine, but we had a brilliant captain and managed to elude it. If you worry about bad experiences, you’d never leave the house, would you? You can’t live like that.   

Your guiding light?
My husband Bill and our dear friend George Adamson were and still are my strongest influences.  They have inspired me right through to now.

Your unfulfilled ambition?

The closure of circuses that use performing animals.

Sand or snow? 
Sand. It reminds me of summer holidays with my family. 

Follow your heart or your head? 
My heart first. It has to begin with your deep feelings.

Greatest regret?
That I won’t grow old with my husband.

What did turning 80 mean for you?

I’ve never worried much about age. You just have another birthday, don’t you?  I might get a few more wrinkles, but I don’t feel different inside.

Home or away? 
Home in Dorking, Surrey, is definitely where my heart is. My sons all live near me and my grandchildren come.   

Which decade are you most nostalgic for?
The present and future concern me most. You remember the joys and the sadness, but there’s no point in mourning the past. It shouldn’t colour what you do now.

What do you hoard?
I get sent lots of drawings and photos of animals. They all meant something special to the people who sent them and I can’t bear to throw them away.  

Exercise or diet?
A healthy vegetarian diet. I’d like to be a vegan, but I haven’t quite got round to that. I used to swim and play tennis, but I walk a lot now.

Last drink too much?
I sometimes got giggly in my twenties, on a couple of ciders.  Now I have a couple of glasses of wine at night as I sit and watch the news.   

Hope for the future?
I hope the world will calm down a bit. I long for our planet to be a happier place. 

Which animal would you liken yourself to?
A lion. I can be fierce, particularly when it comes to defending animals.  

Lone wolf or run with the pack?
If I’m campaigning, or on a march, I would certainly be one of the pack, but I’m not afraid to stick my neck out. As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that time is finite and you have to say what you believe in more strongly.

Confrontation or seething silence? 
The voice of reason is the best way forward. It’s best to be open. Seething isn’t good. It destroys you. There was a situation with Joy Adamson, who I played in Born Free, which was very sad. My husband was making a film about Joy, her game-warden husband George and the rehabilitation of three lions.  She wasn’t on screen as much as she would have liked and felt demeaned in some way. She took it very badly. We were very close friends but that fell apart. It was a great shame.  

Have you ever needed to be rescued?
While making Born Free, one of the lions, Boy, was frightfully excited. He made a great leap, landed on my shoulders and I fell over and broke my ankle. My husband rescued me by calling the lion off me. We were two miles from camp. He got Boy into a truck, came back and picked me up and took me to hospital in Nairobi. Then I went back and finished the film.  

Your unflagging energy, purpose and positivity put you at a youthful 55.

Virginia McKenna’s book of poetry, Tonight The Moon Is Red, is published by Muswell Press, £7.50

To learn more about the work of the Born Free Foundation visit

A version of this article was published in the December 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month 

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