Born Free's Virginia McKenna back on screens large and small

MoliFilms Entertainment

Golden Years opens in New Zealand cinemas on October 13.

Bank robberies have lured double Bafta-winning actress Virginia McKenna out of self-imposed retirement.

But don't worry, the 85-year-old Born Free star hasn't turned to a life of crime, she's just playing a pensioner who decides a redistribution of wealth is in order in the new British film Golden Years.

McKenna is Martha Goode, who along with her husband and fellow Bristol bowling club members, decides to take matters into her own hands when their economic future and happiness is threatened.

Virginia McKenna has come out of retirement for the new British black comedy Golden Years
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Virginia McKenna has come out of retirement for the new British black comedy Golden Years

Describing the film as in the "vein of an Ealing comedy", McKenna says she was enormously flattered to be asked to be in it since she hasn't really acted in anything since 1998's Sliding Doors. "I thought it was delightful. There is a serious thread running through it, but it is dealt with in quite a light-hearted and nice way."

READ MORE: Movie Review: Golden Years

Admitting to being nervous before the shoot, McKenna says she did forget her lines "one or two times, but I was not the only one – thank God". And despite never having met her fellow cast mates like Simon Callow, Bernard Hill and Phil Davis before, she bonded easily. "Una Stubbs and I became good chums. We stayed in the same hotel in Bristol and we would have supper together."

Virginia McKenna struggled with using a paintball gun during the filming of Golden Years.
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Virginia McKenna struggled with using a paintball gun during the filming of Golden Years.

While happy to still do her own "stunts", McKenna confesses that she struggled with using a paintball gun. "I donned all the gear, but I was an awful shot wasn't I?" she says, aware that Golden Years paints her as less than accurate with it. "I never hit the target. Bernard was perfect, so that was all right."

Filming in Bristol also brought back memories of her last trip there, in 1966, to visit the local zoo with husband Bill Travers (who died in 1984) while making a follow-up documentary to their much-loved drama Born Free. That began a now 50 year involvement as a supporter of wild animal rights and the protection of their natural habitat, culminating in the establishment of a Born Free Foundation in 1991.

"My main interest is wild animals in captivity," McKenna says. "I don't think they should be there at all. The idea that you can educate children by showing them animals in that way is misguided. I'm not saying that life in the wild is easy, it's a tough life for them, but being in captivity is like us spending most of our lives in a flat in the city and never going out. It doesn't matter how comfortable you are. Then, there are the truly impoverished conditions some of the animals live in, I never stop trying to make that better."

Virginia McKenna bonded with Una Stubbs while filming Golden Years
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Virginia McKenna bonded with Una Stubbs while filming Golden Years

Made an officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to wildlife and the arts in 2004, McKenna has also recorded albums, audiobooks and wrote her autobiography, The Life in My Years in 2009. As well as being in demand as a foreword writer for a number of wildlife books, McKenna is about to find herself back in the spotlight when a Channel Four documentary on the making of Born Free, entitled Virginia McKenna's Born Free, airs in Britain this weekend.

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Based on Joy Adamson's 1960 non-fiction book of the same name, 1966's Born Free saw McKenna and Travers play Joy and George Adamson who raised an orphaned lion cub (cinema's most famous Elsa until Frozen came along) and released her into the wilderness of Kenya.

Virginia McKenna on the set of Born Free in the 1960s.
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Virginia McKenna on the set of Born Free in the 1960s.

McKenna admits they were just a couple of actors with no idea how they were going to make the film or if it would even get finished. "I don't think the producers knew either. It was all quite an adventure and a challenge – on many levels. George Adamson guided us through it, especially working with the 22 or 23 lions, all of whom weren't trained. We had to get to know them individually, learn their mannerisms and anticipate what they were going to do."

In the new documentary, she reveals that she was injured twice by lions jumping on her – resulting in a broken ankle and a bite to her shoulder. However, she tells me that she wouldn't change a thing in how they operated on set.

"We managed, in a way, to reproduce the relationship between the Adamsons and the lions. People could tell it wasn't contrived."

That's unlike the Adamsons themselves, whose marriage wasn't as rosy as that portrayed onscreen, with McKenna recently revealing to Britain's Daily Mirror that Joy used to get on George's nerves so much he would need a whisky after she had left the set. "George was very laid-back and she was the opposite."

McKenna and Travers' one real regret though, she says, was that the producers sold all but three of the lions to zoos and safari parks after filming.  However, the pair followed the fortunes of that trio, documenting it in The Lions are Free, and delighting in their return to the wild.

Golden Years (M) is now screening.

 - Stuff

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