Lion’s share of adventure

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If it wasn’t for the efforts of Hampden resident Peter Whitehead, it’s unlikely the classic film Born Free would have been produced. Mr Whitehead, who has lived in Hampden since 2005, has lived a remarkably varied life. His story started in China, where he was born in 1924 to an English father and Scottish mother. His father worked in the cotton trade, which was thriving in Asia until the late 1930s.
Under the Child Migrants Programme, which Mr Whitehead described as a “sordid scheme”, he was sent to Australia. It was there he first worked with animals. “As one of those child immigrants in Australia, I was issued to a sheep and wheat farm in the middle of New South Wales, which didn’t appeal to me a great deal. It was work from 4.30am to 7pm seven days a week … That’s pretty hard yakka, believe you me.” He then relocated north, where he worked as a “wood and water joey” on a sheep and cattle farm. He soon developed a love for horses and later worked as a contract horse breaker. Shortly after the outbreak of World War 2, he decided to join the army after being rejected by the navy. He was shipped off to Holdsworthy, outside Liverpool, to break horses for the armed forces.
After the need for horses abated, Mr Whitehead was given the choice of a discharge or transfer to another unit. He chose the latter, eventually being accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force as a crew member. He served in the Pacific theatre during the war, before returning to Australia and gaining an agriculture qualification. He was keen to work with animals again, and felt Africa would be the perfect fit.
“I was in a pub talking to a mate. I’d just seen the movie The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber. It depicted people hunting in Africa and I thought, `That’s the job for me’.” In 1949, he was offered a job in Nigeria assessing indigenous cattle for further domestication, and in 1952 he went to work as a game ranger in Zambia. In 1962, he got a job with the game department in Tanganyika, and he later worked as an animal handler on the set of the film Hatari!, about men who trap wild animals in Africa and sell them to zoos. Mr Whitehead returned to Australia with his wife Lorna, but was only there briefly before he returned to Kenya. Meanwhile, a crew from the United States had arrived in Kenya hoping to make the book Born Free into a film. He was asked to go to the set to meet the film’s technical director, George Adamson. He did just that, and was given a job. “He said he could take me on and said I could sit outside the wire cage with the lions and if they got out and started eating the actors, I could shoot the lions.” However, all was not well on set. Mr Whitehead said he didn’t know where the lions originally being used came from, but they weren’t tame enough. As a result, a representative from Columbia Pictures visited the set and ordered pre-production work to cease. But Mr Adamson was adamant that with Mr Whitehead’s help, they could turn the troubled production around. Mr Whitehead, through his contacts, found half a dozen lions that were tame, having been “kept as pets”. When new producer Carl Foreman visited the set and found the lions were literally walking alongside the actors with no issues, the cameras started rolling in 1965. “In the end, the result was they made a fantastic film,” Mr Whitehead said. Other productions he worked on, as either an animal handler or in the logistics field, were The Last Safari (1967) and movie/television series Cowboy in Africa (between 1966-68), both shot in Africa.
Mr Whitehead later moved to South Africa to work on a polo property for 13 years until 2005.
He them settled in Leeston to be close to his daughter, before relocating to Hampden, where they both live.