I was 10 years old when I stood up in front my my somewhat small class of 8 students in Southern Spain to talk about my heroine and great inspiration in life…Virginia McKenna. Having seen the Born Free film, and found out about the astounding efforts of the actress turn conservationist I felt compelled to learn more about this beautiful, spirited and passionate individual. 11 years later, little did I know that I would be producing a film about the plight of lions and my heroine for the Born Free Foundation! It truly is a dream come true and I am incredibly excited to share this with you all. I am certain you’ve all loved watching the Born Free, a story of true determination, passion, love and drama – and one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. Lion’s need our help more than ever, and this is why I want to share this story now…
After several trips to the car with various tripods, c-mounts, pro mic kits, radio mics, cameras, lenses, lights, gaffa tape, XLR cables, mixer… we set off! Virginia lives in a most beautiful part of the country, Surrey. The skies were clear and a deep azure, you could even see the reminiscent red silhouettes of the Red Kites as they soared with the thermals over the A4. Trails of happy holiday goers could also be seen with white airplane clouds trailing behind. I was reading over my questions with great excitement, I could not believe I was about to meet my childhood heroine.. she had been part of my early life through television, books and of course podcasts and audio books where her powerful words would inspire me to write, and read poetry about wildlife.
We were let into one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen by her incredibly passionate son Will Travers (president of the Born Free Foundation). He looked remarkably like her, with those dazzling blue eyes and handsome face. Down the bluebell woods which were dappled with a soft spring light, under the trees that whispered in the wind…and into Will’s gorgeous home to set up the kit. Gosh has he travelled. Adorned with relics from every country, the place had such a welcoming and warm feeling. The garden was such a retreat, with its quiet still and calmness– the birds and bees clearly sought refuge in this little piece of Surrey serenity.
After discussing plans with Will about the trip itself and the interview, we met Virginia who had come up from her house.. I must say my heart was pounding! She was even more beautiful in real life and her voice so welcoming. We sat down and began the interview after setting the sound and framing with the cameras. From descriptions of the intense pulse of Africa, her Born Free role, her brilliant husband… to the future of Africa’s lions…to me there is something more remarkable than this woman’s countless number of achievements over the past 50 years. More than her bravery in changing her entire career path onto one of conservation, more than establishing one of the most successful animal charities in the world, more than helping thousands of individual animals and people through her hard work and determination.. it is her sense of hope and light that emanates from her. You not only see it but feel every word she says with such verve and passion that it truly resonates with you. I’ve conduced many interviews before but never felt so moved and inspired afterwards- her ability to listen is something that I believe has allowed her to help change the lives of so many.
After the interview we chatted more about her love for Meru National Park, and I mentioned that I would be thrilled if I saw a naked mole rat (don’t ask me why but its something about their incredible evolutionary strategy which rather excites me..!), and she jumped in delight for my love of them, she was also a lover of all creatures small and mighty. We filmed a few cut aways of her in her garden and sauntered through to her stunning section of the house. Through the pathway an amazing view caught us by surprise, “That’s where Christian the lion use to stay when we helped keep him for Ace and John..” I had to restrain myself from squealing with excitement- CHRISTIAN THE LION! The famous lion from the YouTube video where he remembered his old owners in a fond and loving embrace. And then further down the garden was the most resplendent carving of a lion you’ve ever seen! By a very talented welsh chainsaw artist…the eyes were soft in contrast to the sharp, crisp details of his lustrous mane. Along his back perched a small butterfly; what could be more iconic as a sign of hope…Virginia’s very own butterfly lion although I am told he is called the Lion Guardian.
After visiting her beautiful home, we thanked each other after an embrace and wished each other the best of luck on each of our journeys. This was the most incredible day of my life! There is always that fear at the back f your mind that one of your heroes, should you be so fortunate as to meet them, might not like you, think you’re somewhat annoying or downright boring…but Virginia’s warmth and compassion came through and I felt so welcomed by both her and Will. I now see that this is their haven to retreat to after all the suffering they see with the animals they fight so hard to save. They are different to any other charity I’ve seen. They truly believe in what they do and care about every individual, and I feel greatly honoured to be starting my journey with them next week as I travel to Kenya, Meru National park- the original heartland of where George and Joy Adamson released Elsa the Lioness into the wild. It’s remarkable to think that now in 2016, the Year of the Lion and the 50th Anniversary of the Film, that the Foundation they set up is still going strong and making such a difference- keep up the hard work! And last week Virginia was awarded the Inspiring Lives Award in San Francisco- she couldn’t be more deserving.
Please help support their work, and also please check out my IndieGoGo site for A Lion’s Tale (https://igg.me/at/alionstale/x/11469504) for more details, and I’m giving $1000 to Born Free if we can reach our target; thank you! More to come soon about the story and film I’m making for my MA Wildlife Filmmaking course (Bristol BBC NHU) as I travel with my camera assistant Adrian to Nairobi, but for now, asante sana and Hakuna matata!
Photography by the incredible Robyn Gianni, check out her work and where you can get her prints! http://www.robyngianni.org/