Tag Archives: Born Free

My Family’s Roots in East Africa

Cover photo MW

‘I’d like to go to Africa,’ I declared as a little girl, ‘and see forests full of parrots.’ This I did. Everything I had ever hoped to see was spread out before me and the experience left a profound impression.

Mailer Estate in 1970

My great-grandparents began farming at Usa River, just west of Arusha in 1919. I first arrived in northern Tanzania in 1972, when my mother took these photographs of the house and garden where her family lived for fifty years. I longed to climb the ancient fig tree in the garden but was told a cobra lived there. It was probably on the lookout for parrots coming anywhere near it.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_m50ecfa90 - Copy

By the early seventies the family were busy farming coffee and often had visitors to stay. My great-uncle Tony used the farm as a base for his safaris and served as an honourary game warden having worked for many years in the Kenyan Police Force and Game Department. He was well-connected and once took Bing Crosby bird shooting, although this fact was kept secret until 2015.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_4b186671 - Copy

I loved the outdoor way of life, was intrigued by the kitchen that was seperate from the main house, and amused by the hot water system that consisted of small cylindrical  tanks known as ‘donkeys’. Everything smelt of wood smoke. The best thing was that I was able to sleep in a safari tent set up in the garden, in true ‘Swallows and Amazons’ style. It felt as if I was being swept along in an adventure portrayed in the film ‘Born Free’ when Virginia McKenna played the artist Joy Adamson who became well known for bringing up a lion cub called Elsa, eventually releasing her into the wild.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_3c38f792 - Copy

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Filed under adventure, Africa, Autobiography, Biography, Family Life, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized, Virginia McKenna

‘Man Friday!’ found in the pages of an old copy of Lancashire Life

Virginia McKenna rowing

The 2014 Blu-ray of  ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

Forty two years ago, this shot was taken of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, rowing away from what I had decided was a desert island. We were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A2 - lr

Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

NPG x126895; Stars of the British Screen by Norman Parkinson

‘Stars of the British Screen’ by Norman Parkinson. Virginia McKenna sits bottom centre, Suzanna Hamilton bottom right, either side of Susannah York.

Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’

Virginai McKenna with an Oscar

Virginia has appeared in over thirty feature films, numerous television dramas and many fascinating documentaries. She won a  BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in ‘A Town Like Alice’ and was nominated Best Actress by BAFTA for playing Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride.’. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Joy Adamson inBorn Free’ , which won the composer John Barry two Academy awards. She is still happy to work as an actress, soon to appear in ‘Golden Years’ with Simon Callow and her granddaughter, Lily Travers.

Virginin McKenna with Born Free composer John Barry

Virginia McKenna with ‘Born Free’ composer John Barry

If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of  Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.

Virginia McKenna in Mail on Saturday 214

2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.

Virginia McKenna onthe cover of Saga Magazine

Virginia has written about her career and conservation work in a number of books including Into the Blue and an autobiography entitled The Life in My Years available online from the Born Free shop.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

42 years ago we were filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District.

To read the sections of my diary on filming Swallows & Amazons on Peel Island, please click here.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, animal stories, Biography, British Film, charity, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking

‘Man Friday!’ ~ filming with Virginia McKenna in 1973

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in Cumbria, during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia McKenna was in the Lake District.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville

‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.

Bill Travers watching Virginia McKenna

Bill Travers watching the scene featuring his wife Virginia McKenna who is talking to Director Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson in ‘Born Free’, Kenya 1964. Virginia later devoted her life to The Born Free Foundation.

I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.

There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.

Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.

Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.

me up a tree

‘Up a tree for fear of ravenous beasts’ with David Bracknell the First Assistant Director ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, e-publication, Family Life, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ getting used to sailing our boats in preparation for making the film back in 1973

Sunday 13th May 1973

Sailing on the lakes ~

Swallows Diary 13th May

Swallows Diary 13th May page 2

…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it.  I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.

I’ve always felt the cold.  Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which is such a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.

The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow.  It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together.  But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick.  I remember both were difficult to turn unless you did have a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.

Swallow photographed by Martin Neville

A photograph of Swallow in 1973 taken by Martin Neville

We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker.  She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequneces, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.

Virginia McKenna photographed by Daphne Neville

Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm ~ photo:Daphne Neville

As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife.  A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright WaterAn Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.  She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic.  Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.

Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend.  He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.

Richard Pilbrow and Neville Thompson ~ photo:Daphne Neville

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