Born 28 August 1914
Dies 4 May 2003
Name ID 1584
Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa
Page Number: 168c
Extract Date: 1950ís
In the late 1950ís few wildlife film makers in East Africa could live without the patronage of Armand and Michaela Denis. Commercial wildlife filming, then in its infancy. had been more or less launched by the Denises' highly popular British series called On Safari. It offered measured dosages of armchair travel, glamour (the extravagantly coiffed Michaela), cuddly pets and wildlife homilies. No one in England could have realized that Armand and Michaela were not in fact the sole camera operators since the film credits noted only their names. In reality they employed up to six wildlife film makers, the entire roster of cameramen in East Africa at the time.
As soon as Armand Denis saw the lily-trotter film he hired Alan and assigned him straightaway to the Serengeti - then a remote expanse of grasslands where the concentrations of game were dizrying. With a sweep of the eye. one could take in several hundred thousand wildebeest, prides of lions often more than thirty strong, creation and extinction balanced against one another with eerie logic.
Alan was one of the first professional cameramen to film here: within a few weeks he hid already exposed the first footage ever of a leopard hauling a carcass into a tree and of a zebra giving birth. "In many ways it was the easiest filming I'd ever done - merely a question of pointing the camera in the right direction."
Boucher, Caroline Michaela Denis
Extract Date: May 13, 2003
Michaela Denis, who has died aged 88, and her husband Armand pioneered a style of animal wildlife programmes shown on the BBC in the 1950s and 60s that was subsequently widely copied, and sometimes parodied.
Accompanied by Armand's running commentary, the two would be filmed getting as close to animals as possible. Just as strikingly, there would usually be a "trademark moment" for Michaela to apply lipstick or comb her hair. She once commented that she could not possibly get into the water with crocodiles until she had put on her eyebrow pencil.
Although the black-and-white programmes make for slightly hilarious viewing today, they were enormously popular in an age when few travelled abroad. Although Michaela and Armand worked all over the world, the bulk of their filming took place in Africa, and the two of them, who never had children, finally settled in Kenya; Michaela said that she always considered Nairobi to be home.
To promote their feature Filming In Africa (1955), they featured on the radio programme In Town Tonight, and the BBC, doubtless intrigued by the combination of Armand's slightly sonorous and heavily accented voice and Michaela's overt enthusiasm and white-blonde hair, signed them up for their first wildlife series.
Initially, On Safari (1957-59 and 1961-65) ran in 15-minute slots. But the allure of Armand's patient and stunning filming and the couple's casually intimate voiceovers proved so popular with viewers that the BBC extended their coverage to half an hour. For the next eight years, the couple pursued a hectic schedule which also included Safari To Asia (1959-61), a series for ATV, Armand And Michaela Denis (1955-58), and the books that Michaela based on their experiences.
Born in London, Michaela lost her Yorkshire archaeologist father when he was killed in the trenches at the start of the first world war. She was raised by her mother and grandmother, and always attributed part of her drive and fearlessness to being an only child.
She won a scholarship to fashion school and trained as a dress designer in Paris, where she lived until the outbreak of the second world war. Then she moved back to London and joined the Women's Voluntary Service, designing her own stylish uniform. In 1945 she met an American admiral, and the next day he proposed to her.
Although Michaela wasn't attracted to him and had misgivings that he was a widower with young children, she accepted because, she said later, she wanted to get to America "and hoped that love would follow".
She arrived in Manhattan, but, week by week, delayed leaving for California to join him. Eventually she told him she had changed her mind. America suited her positive, lively outlook. One night at a party she was introduced to the Belgian film-maker Armand Denis, and they started an affair.
Seventeen years her senior, Armand was waiting for his divorce from Leila Roosevelt to be finalised and had four children. His and Leila's marriage had been stormy, and his friends were adamant that he would not get married again, but by the time his film unit left for an assignment in South America, Michaela was on the trip.
When they arrived at Potosi, high in the Andes, they were married by special licence. Despite her background as a dress designer, Michaela wore an old pullover from a Brooklyn jumble sale and a skirt which she had quickly altered. The ring was from a Christmas cracker and their honeymoon was spent in jail after a misunderstanding at a military outpost.
It was a devoted marriage that lasted until 1971, when Armand died of Parkinson's disease. Michaela nursed him, aparently discovered she had healing powers, and opened a spiritual healing clinic at her home in Nairobi. Great believers in the psychic world, the two were quite sanguine about their sighting of a blue spaceship over the Masai Reserve. Michaela subsequently married her lawyer, Sir William O'Brian Lindsay, who died in his sleep three months later.
Michaela stayed on in Kenya and kept travelling across the continent, arguing with officials and intolerant of injustice. She was also intolerant of other white women who would become famous for living in Africa during her time there: she disliked the writer Karen Blixen for not liking animals and because she burnt trees for her charcoal works, and loathed Joy Adamson for the way she treated her servants.
For many years, Michaela dealt in property around Nairobi. Every summer she would return to her Ealing house to escape the African heat. "Not to vegetate or rot," she once told me, "but to make every second of this life count. Never feel self- pity - what a vice, what a bore for others!"
∑ Michaela Denis Lindsay, wildlife programme maker and writer, born August 28 1914; died May 4 2003
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.