A Zambian Lion
Virginia McKenna went on to establish the Born Free Foundation Zambia Tourism

The depiction of marital bliss between Joy Adamson and her husband George in the 1966 film Born Free has been questioned by the actress who played her. Virginia McKenna, who starred as the naturalist, artist and author told a new Channel 4 documentary that in real life, the couple spent little time together.

Adamson and her husband George adopted a lion cub, Elsa, after its mother was killed by George in self-defence, and rehabilitated her for release into the wild, which the film documents. Though Adamson is revered by conservationists for highlighting the plight of lions in Africa, McKenna describes a complicated character.

Returning to Kenya for the documentary, McKenna, who went on to set up the Born Free Foundation, describes Adamson as a "very strong person" juxtaposed with "quiet, gentle and wonderful" husband George. She said the depiction of the couple's "marital bliss" in the film had been inaccurate and in fact the couple had spent little time together.

"They never divorced. They always loved each other. They just probably couldn't live together," she said.

While George's nature meant he was laid back and calm around the animals, McKenna said Joy was the "antithesis" of this and could be somewhat overbearing in her need for affection from the animals.

"She wanted that physical affection," she said. "She wanted to stroke them and I felt sometimes she did it a little bit too much and they used to get irritated. I used to think 'Oh Joy, don't do it anymore.' But that was her need...Maybe because she couldn't show it very much [to] humans, she tried to get it from animals."

This is not the first time revelations have been made about Adamson's temperament. The author was eventually banned from the film set according to assistant director Bill Cartlidge, after making unannounced visits.

She was murdered in 1980 by Paul Nakware Ekai in Shaba National Reserve, Kenya. Ekai, who had been employed by the Adamsons, described Joy in 2004, as he approached parole, as an ill-tempered and tyrannical employer who would shoot at her black staff members. Ekai claimed he killed Adamson after she shot him in the leg for disobeying her.

"When she blew her top she would draw a pistol. Sometimes she shot some of her workers," the Guardian reported Ekai as claiming. Though that assertion was disputed by other conservationists who knew her, despite admitting she could be highly-strung.

The documentary, Virginia McKenna's Born Free, airs on Channel 4 at 8pm on Sunday October 23.

Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna at a 2013 protest against badger culls Wikipedia