Obituary: Bill Travers
Friday 01 April 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.'
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