Book ID 758
Michaela Denis, 2003 May 5
Extract Date: 5 May 2003
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003.
Michaela Denis, who died on May 4 aged 88, was, with her husband Armand, a pioneer of wildlife programmes on television.
Their first British television series, Filming Wild Animals, was shown in 1954, the same year in which David Attenborough embarked on Zoo Quest. The chief problem of filming on location at that time was the weight of the equipment; undeterred, the Denises and their technicians would travel through the wilds of Africa with a car and two trucks piled high with impedimenta.
The baggage always included Michaela's cosmetics box. "I wanted to be glamorous," she admitted, and certainly her looks added greatly to the appeal of the programmes. As luck, or good management, had it, she looked particularly good in khaki shirts and men's trousers. And her hair would remain impeccable even when attempting to net crocodiles.
No sooner did the Denis convoy arrive at a village in the back of beyond than Michaela would leap out of the car and befriend everyone she met. After that, Armand, the chief photographer, found the natives eager to help him in whatsoever way he required.
On screen the couple's foreign accents, and their recurrent exchange - "Look, Michaela", "Yes Armand" - inspired much mimicry. Nevertheless they admirably complemented each other.
Michaela Denis again and again demonstrated that she possessed the right stuff, remaining unphased even when charged by a hippopotamus, bitten by a baboon, and nearly strangled by a python. Hasty tree-climbing became a standard method of escape.
In one of her earlier ventures Michaela Denis had understudied Deborah Kerr in King Solomon's Mines (1950): "I did odd things with snakes, and got pretty close to some lions." But she always held that the wild animals of Africa were less daunting than the wolves of New York.
Fortunately, though, the animals also engendered considerable income, the more so as Michaela Denis proved thoroughly competent in dealing with the business side of the enterprise. One television series followed another: Filming in Africa (1955); On Safari (1957-59 and 1961-65), Michaela and Armand Denis (for ATV, 1955-58) and Safari to Asia (1959-61).
In addition the Denises made full-length films, such as Below the Sahara (1954). Curiously their cameras were in place to record a leopard's attack on a native described as "unaware that he was being stalked". Later the victim was shown clutching his bloodstained face. Apparently it did not occur to the Denises to warn the poor man of his fate. Or was the whole episode faked?
Michaela Denis also profited from her books, including Leopard in My Lap (1957) and Ride on a Rhino (1960).
With their hard-earned income the Denises built a house close to Nairobi, and were to be found inhabiting a penthouse in New York, a residence in Florida, and another in Antwerp. In London they rented in Curzon Street, or stayed at Claridges. Yet riches neither robbed Michaela Denis of her enthusiasm and spontaneity, nor bestowed any false dignity.
Passionately opposed to hunting and to bull-fighting, in 1963 she took a swing at a picture of a wounded bull exhibited on the railings in Piccadilly. "I bonkered it, I bonkered it," she cried.
She was born Michaela Holdsworth in London on August 28 1914. When she was three months her father, a Yorkshireman and an archaeologist, was killed in the First World War. So she was brought up by her White Russian mother.
As a teenager Michaela attended an art school in England, and after the Second World War worked as a fashion designer in New York. "I could have gone into films," she explained, "but didn't want to slide in on my back, sleeping with some fat little director."
It was in New York that she met Armand Denis, who, 17 years older than her, had already had an extraordinarily diverse career. Born in Antwerp, the son of a Belgian judge, and related through an aunt to Han Suyin, author of A Many-Splendoured Thing, he fought in the First World War before escaping to England, where he read chemistry at Oxford and encountered Sir Julian Huxley.
For a time Denis worked at Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, on lubricating oils. He then returned to Belgium and set up as an expert on coke ovens. Subsequently, in America, he transmogrified into an electronics boffin, the inventor of an automatic system of volume control. He also married Leila Roosevelt, a relation of the President's, and began to make films about animals.
Armand's first marriage, Michaela reported, had been dreadfully unhappy. Having met Armand in New York, she saw him again in 1948 in Bolivia, where they married in La Paz. "I was in an old pullover from a Brooklyn jumble sale," she remembered, "although I'd always wanted to wear virginal white. Not that it would have been quite appropriate"
Soon afterwards Michaela Denis was involved in a bad car crash, and required the services of Sir Archibald McIndoe to remodel her face. The marriage was blissfully happy; indeed, in 1963 Armand, rich in experience of the animal kingdom, declared that "the finest creature in the world is a woman".
Armand Denis died in 1971. In 1975 Michaela married Sir William O'Brien Lindsay, formerly the chief justice of Sudan. Three months later he died in his sleep. According to Michaela this was because he had made himself so angry thinking about his previous wife.
Subsequently Michaela Denis established some reputation in Kenya as a spiritual healer. She believed she had always been psychic, and recalled how she and Armand had once seen a blue spaceship moving noiselessly across the horizon over the Masai Reserve.