For others, she is forever Violette Szabo, the staggeringly- brave Second World War secret agent murdered by the Nazis and honoured in Carve Her Name With Pride (1958). Children of the 70s probably remember her best as Mrs Walker in Swallows and Amazons and Dr Mary from Ring of Bright Water.
To Bafta-winner Virginia McKenna, however, that was all "a million years ago". In 1984, she and her late husband Bill Travers set up the animal conservation and rescue charity the Born Free Foundation, having become committed wildlife advocates after starring together in the film. That and other organisations McKenna supports, such as the veterans' mental health charity Combat Stress, are now, at 81, the main focus of her energies.
"I don't think of myself as an actress any more," she says resolutely. "I suppose that inside me there will always be a bit of an actress, and I do poetry readings, which I really love, but I don't play parts any more.
"I am a campaigner. I campaign with my colleagues at the Born Free Foundation, for a better deal for animals, and at Combat Stress, we campaign for a better deal for people."
Her latest project, then, which will see her back on stage in St Andrews, is quite a rarity. On Saturday she will be at the Byre Theatre giving a special one-off performance in support of Combat Stress. The Best of Times, the Worst of Times features stories, poems, acted scenes and music from the First and Second World Wars. McKenna will be reciting poetry and prose – including Leo Marks' wartime love poem The Life That I Have, which featured in Carve Her Name With Pride – and "doing a song" ("I'm not sure I could call it 'singing' any more. When you get to my age, you're not very good at singing.")
She will be joined by actress and singer Lindy Alexander, who devised the programme, actor David Simeon and pianist Martin Hall. "It's certainly not unadulterated doom and gloom," says McKenna. "There's a pretty good amount of humour as well."
McKenna, who was awarded the OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, had the idea while at home in her Surrey village one day. A neighbour had been encouraging her to hold a poetry reading in the local church and she was mulling it over. "I'd been thinking about the two world wars as a subject and then just happened to turn on the radio. I heard someone from Combat Stress saying that Prince Charles had just become their patron and they were talking about the work they did. And I thought, 'this is meant to be'."
McKenna organised a village performance in aid of Combat Stress. Subsequently, when she was asked to perform in St Andrews by Jimmy Spankie, vice-president of the Friends of the Byre, the project was ready to go, though it has been adapted slightly for the St Andrews audience to include Scottish elements.
There may be greater awareness of veterans' mental health problems today than after the Second World War, but it still takes an average of 13 years for individuals to seek help, by which time many have developed complex problems. Combat Stress, which was founded in 1919 as The Ex-Servicemen's Welfare Society, is currently working with more than 5000 former service personnel. The youngest, McKenna was shocked to learn, is 20, "just a kid".
McKenna believes there is a place for simple story-telling on the big screen about war. She herself was part of the 1950s wave of British war films when upper lips were still well starched. With roles like Szabo, Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice (1956) and Second Officer Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea (1953), McKenna embodied the Second World War ideal of the beautiful, resilient, courageous, self-disciplined romantic heroine. It may not have been uncompromising realism, but the stories were told simply and powerfully. "They focused on an individual person in the war arena in some way," she reflects. "Now we don't seem to have quite that personal touch. Filming was more simply done in the 50s. Now we have lots of different techniques where we can create explosions and lights and flashes and bangs, and it's on a bigger scale and therefore, perhaps, less poignant in a funny sort of way. In the past I think you got more involved with the character you got to know well, for example in The Wooden Horse [about an escape attempt from the POW camp Stalag Luft III] and Odette with Anna Neagle [about a French-born SOE operative]. I'm not sure it's so easy for us these days to relate to war films and individuals in them."
McKenna's experiences as a film actress have tended to have long-lasting effects on her. Born Free transformed her into a champion for wild and maltreated animals, something she is still "100%" involved in (the charity is now run by the eldest of her four children, Will). Similarly, the 1969 film adaptation of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, which also starred both McKenna and Travers, motivated her to get involved in saving Maxwell's house on Eilean Ban, near Skye. Together with local people, she helped form the Eilean Ban Trust. "I was given the responsibility to recreate his large sitting room," she says enthusiastically. "So armed with photographs and stories from people who knew him, I toured antique shops to find things that resembled, as near as possible, artefacts in the room. I bought from various friends and acquaintances, things that were in the room, like the sofa and table. It was the most fascinating job to do, wonderful. It took many months."
She adds: "It was a great privilege because I stayed on the island a few times. People said 'aren't you scared because there are ghosts'. I must admit I never heard any of those things, but I did see otters and seals. It was just absolute magic."
Her other link to Scotland, appropriately, is St Andrews, where her aunt once lived, in a house that is now Rufflets hotel. McKenna joined the Dundee Rep after the war and used to go to tea there on Sundays.
This visit, however, is all about Combat Stress. She's delighted to have the chance to raise money for the charity - and for a short while to become Virginia McKenna the actress once again.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, September 1. For tickets, visit www.byretheatre.com or call the box office on 01334 475000
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