Amazing People Nº4: Julia Hilling (1925-ish – 2015)

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.

Promotional photo for "Mrs Henderson Presents" at the Noel Coward Theatre, London
Promotional photo for “Mrs Henderson Presents” at the Noel Coward Theatre, London

julia windmill

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.

Julia 4I 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.

Julia 3

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.


Julia talking to Sid at the Manilla Bar, Costa del Sol 2014
Julia talking to Sid at the Manilla Bar, Costa del Sol 2014

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!

Southampton Blitz

Photo I took of inside a Spitfire at Solent Sky Museum
Photo I took of inside a Spitfire at Solent Sky Museum
Image of proposed Spitfire memorial to be built in Southampton
Image of proposed Spitfire memorial for Southampton

One could be forgiven if you live outside of Britain for thinking that the WWII  Blitz (bombing of Britain during the second World War) only happened in London. Yes. They did suffer terribly as it had a big population, but bombings happened in cities all over Britain. Photos are few or non-existent of most places that were bombed outside of the capitol as not many owned cameras and most photo-journalists worked in London.

Coventry, an important centre since medieval times was flattened. Every port city was blitzed; Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, Swansea, Plymouth to name a mere handful. The South Coast in particular was a dangerous place to be and was where most of our sea defences were.

Southampton was bombed frequently, firstly because it was an important commercial port and secondly being the home of Supermarine that had two factories here, building Spitfire aircraft. When these were both bombed, killing 100 factory workers, mainly experienced engineers, Spitfire production was spread out all over the South. Garages, laundry rooms, hotels and anywhere that still had a roof was commandeered into the design, manufacture, or storing of Spitfire parts.

southampton blitz six dials southamptonSouthampton Blitz 1

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southampton blitz 8

southampton blitz 6

southampton blitz 11

southampton blitz 7

Southern Echo Office - Echo photo
Southern Newspapers Office – Echo photo

southampton blitz Bernard stSouthampton was grateful for so many ancient vaults to act as air-raid shelters, which saved the lives of many of its citizens and allies staying here.

Guided tours of these amazing undercrofts can be booked and each autumn there is a “Music in the City” festival where by unusual places like these are opened up for a variety of bands to perform in.

undercroft b-w

After the war rationing continued but children found enormous pleasure from playing on bombed sites until the sixties. As a child I found gas masks, bits of junk; there were endless windows to throw stones at and hideouts were dugout from mounds of rubble. Unexploded bombs have been discovered frequently in Southampton since the war and have had to be deployed. The most recent  was discovered by a group of builders in a main street in 2010.

In retrospect these ‘playgrounds’ were extremely dangerous, but nothing compared to the dangers faced during the war.

Britain faced a tremendous rebuilding cost as temporary prefabricated homes were developed. Many houses were built in the 1950s, but as the population started to boom again, concrete became the main building material for quick, cheap imitations of Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture.

We looked towards the new…  (a future blog).