Obituary: Bill Travers

William Lindon-Travers (Bill Travers), actor, conservationist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 3 January 1922; married secondly 1957 Virginia McKenna (three sons, two daughters); died Dorking, Surrey 29 March 1994.

BILL TRAVERS was an actor of rugged good looks and a cheery personality at a time when the British film industry was not much interested in creating or maintaining stars. Like such contemporaries as Michael Rennie and Richard Todd he was wooed by the Hollywood studios, but he is best remembered for his British movies.

The younger brother of Linden Travers, the charming vamp of the Thirties and Forties, he had much experience in the theatre before making his film debut, in Conspirator (1949). He was first noticed as one of the PoWs in The Wooden Horse (1950) and then as the teacher keen on cricket in Anthony Asquith's film of Terence Rattigan's play The Browning Version (1951). After a number of other supporting roles he played Benvolio in a film which has seemingly gone missing - Romeo and Juliet (1954), gorgeously filmed on locations in Verona by Renato Castellani, who persuaded the Rank Organisation to let him have an amateur Juliet, Susan Shentall, and an unconvincing Romeo, Laurence Harvey: but the director George Cukor liked Travers sufficiently to cast him in MGM's ambitious Bhowani Junction (1956) - much to the actor's satisfaction, as the author of the original novel, John Masters, had been his Brigade Major when he had served in the Chindits. Travers also felt that his six years in the East had given him an insight into the vulnerability of the Eurasian railway superintendent that he played - as well as teaching him the accent that the role needed. The stars were Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner.

Before the film was shown Travers was about to join Windsor rep when he was asked to test for Geordie (1955), the first venture of the writer-producer-director team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat following the death of Alexander Korda. They had put their own money into the project, but had difficulty persuading the distributor, British Lion, to let them cast a virtual unknown in the title-role - that of a puny Highland lad who takes a correspondence course in physical education and ends up throwing the hammer for the British Olympic team at Melbourne. The critic Gavin Lambert wrote: 'Bill Travers is a young player of individual gifts, and he conveys the shy, honest simplicity of Geordie most pleasingly; this is a performance attractively free of mannerism, and has a genuine freshness.'

The film was a great success, both in Britain and in the United States, overshadowing Travers's stint as an earnest young lawyer in Footsteps In The Fog (1955), which starred Stewart Granger and his then wife, Jean Simmons, both being villainous. Granger was under contract to MGM, which did not find him entirely docile. That studio signed the more amenable Travers after liking his work in Bhowani Junction, and cast him as Robert Browning in the remake of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1956), directed by Sidney Franklin, who had made the original screen version in 1934. John Gielgud offered a more convincing character study of Mr Barrett than Charles Laughton had done; and Jennifer Jones was suitably inhibited as Elizabeth.

Henrietta Barrett was played by Virginia McKenna, who became Mrs Travers in 1957. They received a splendid wedding present in William Rose's script for The Smallest Show On Earth (1957), an affectionate and funny comedy about a young couple who inherit a flea-pit and keep it open against the competition of the supercinema round the corner. Their antique staff consisted of Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers and Bernard Miles, and they were all of them delightful in this Launder and Gilliat production directed by Basil Dearden.

Travers followed with a couple of flops. The Seventh Sin (1957)was MGM's injudicious remake of Somerset Maugham's story The Painted Veil, which had starred Garbo. Eleanor Parker was no substitute as the unfaithful wife and Travers could not make sense - nobody could have - out of the cuckolded husband. Passionate Summer (1958) was Rank's retitling of Richard Mason's best-seller The Shadow and The Peak. The film's director, Rudolf Cartier, had achieved an eminence in television but proved ill at ease with a movie for the large screen; Travers plays a schoolteacher in Jamaica, and McKenna the air hostess with whom he is in love.

Though McKenna had provided Rank with two of its biggest hits of the decade (Carve Her Name With Pride and A Town Like Alice), she and Travers became as a result of Passionate Summer - in Travers's own words, 'less than favourites with the Rank Organisation'. He returned to Launder and Gilliat for The Bridal Path (1959), another Highland story, but it did not repeat the success of Geordie. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made his Broadway debut in an army comedy, A Cook For Mr General, which folded after 28 performances.

Since he and McKenna were no longer box-office names they were surprised to be cast as the Kenyan game warden George Adamson and his wife Joy, in Born Free (1966), based on Joy Adamson's memoir about bringing up the lion-cub Elsa. The result was seen by almost as many millions who had loved the book, leading to a Hollywood offer for Travers - to play a cavalry lieutenant alongside James Garner and Sidney Poitier in Duel At Diablo (1966).

But, paradoxically, Born Free lessened the Travers' interest in movies per se (and he kept the beard he had grown for it). They declined to appear in the sequel, Living Free (1972), and were replaced by Nigel Davenport and Susan Hampshire, but in the meantime had made a documentary, The Lions Are Free (1967), as well as two more films concerning animals, Ring of Bright Water (1970) and An Elephant Called Slowly. They devoted their lives to animal causes, never afraid of those whose views they challenged. Playing Joy in Born Free, 'a real person, who was not only alive, but there during much of the filming, made it a unique experience', McKenna said in 1989. 'The relationship that developed between Bill and me and the lions sowed the seeds of the work that Bill and I do in our charity, Zoo Check, now renamed The Born Free Foundation.'

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone