Michaela Denis

Boucher, Caroline

2003 May 13

Book ID 710

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Boucher, Caroline Michaela Denis, 2003 May 13
Extract Date: May 13, 2003

Wildlife presenter who added style to her husband's stunning camera work

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 ID: 4243