Julia Hilling, one of my most charming friends died last August.
Her stage name was Julia Bretton. She began her career at the age of 17 as a Windmill Girl at London’s Windmill Theatre.
The Windmill was known worldwide as the theatre that “never closed” or should that be “never clothed”? Scantily-clad beauties performed in this basement theatre throughout WWII to keep up the morale of allies and locals alike. It was seen as an important beacon to keep spirits alight during a frightening time and always remained open while bombs dropped.
It was the subject of the award winning film “Mrs Henderson Presents” starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, and is currently being staged as a musical at the Nöel Coward Theatre in London’s West End.
Julia explained to me how, with the other ‘girls’ she slept at the theatre in their dressing room while performing in revues alongside people like Sir Bruce Forsyth. “We were well looked after and any men backstage behaved very gentlemanly”.
As well as starring in other staged musicals as Julia Bretton, she had minor roles in films (talkies) in the1940s.
She outlived five husbands – all of whom were, “absolutely wonderful! – “I loved them all!” One of whom is buried in a cemetery in the New Forest, Hampshire, but she could never remember whether it was in Lymington or Lyndhurst.
I first met her when I called auditions in the mid-90s. She had retired to live in Spain and I was directing The Sleeping Beauty, a pantomime I had drafted for the Salon Variétes theatre in Fuengirola. Julia was having problems remembering lines and moving around the stage by that time, but she had such audience charisma and was so regal that I gave her the part as the Queen, sat her on a throne and taped her lines to props. She was marvellous and even brought her own little Spanish hairdresser to tidy up her locks while she was off-stage.
Although much older than me, we remained friends as we both had a love of opera and Cole Porter. She did a wonderful rendition of “Mad About the Boy” and she belly-danced at my 50th birthday party. When theatre crowds are renowned to be bitchy, no-one I know has ever heard Julia utter a bad word about anyone.
In 2005 she, along with other colleagues on the Costa del Sol, was sold a dodgy, equity-release investment package by fraudulent financial advisors. After handing over the deeds to her home in return for living expenses until death, she was only given living expenses by the Rothschild bank for the first two years, then was expected to hand over her apartment. She took all this in her stride and refused to move.
This enigmatic woman deserves to be on the amazing-people-I-have-known list. She had charm, class and even well into her 80s, had sex-appeal.
Before I left to return to England she started dating another ‘amazing’ friend of mine called Sid – a famous Talk of the Town pianist who accompanied 1960s divas from Shirley Bassey to Julie Andrews.
Julia had a big sexual appetite apparently, and despite both being in their 80s then, Sid complained about the amount of viagra he was having to take to keep up. Sadly he also died. So she outlived him too.
My biggest memory is bumping into her in a Lidl supermarket one morning. She was wafting around with a trolley, just after opening time, wearing a cocktail dress and full make-up including false eyelashes. “Julia! Look at you – always so glamorous” I remarked.
“Oh! I haven’t been home yet, Darling!” She explained: “I’ve been to a party. It lasted all night!”
RIP Julia. Life is a cabaret old chum!