Gillian Hills: Beat Girl Pt 1
In the first of a two-part feature, Rockfort tells the story of the early years of 60s star Gillian Hills. As a teenager, Hills was presented to the world as a glamorous 'new Bardot' and appeared in the teen classic Beat Girl. In this first part of an article that originally appeared in Ugly Things magazine (www.ugly-things.com), Kieron Tyler traces her first forays into the worlds of singing and acting.
According to the sleeve of her first EP, issued in France in November 1960, Gillian Hills “is 16 years old, the age of her first cigarette. Today her name is known, tomorrow it will be celebrated. Gillian Hills is ravishing, good humoured…also she has a very pretty voice, is very fresh and has a surprising sense of rhythm.” By this time, Gillian had already been touted by director Roger Vadim as his new Brigitte Bardot, played the saucy pouter Jennifer in the British film Beat Girl and caused much international frothing under the collar. And she really was only just 16.
Gillian would go on to record a series of French EPs that define a particularly Gallic musical flavour. Although mostly brought up in France, her father was British and her accent hasn’t gained a French tinge. Nowadays, she seems British through and through. In many ways, her trajectory through music and film in the ‘60s set the template for Jane Birkin at the end of the decade. Which is appropriate, as her appearance with Birkin in 1967’s Blow Up was a landmark moment for British censorship, pushing the limits of mainstream cinema further than they had been before. But Gillian lacked a svengali-like Serge Gainsbourg figure to steer her into long-term, sustained mainstream recognition. She really was ahead of her time.
When Gillian began making records in 1960, there was hardly any home-grown US-style pop or rock ‘n’ roll in France. Notably, she also wrote her own songs. For the records alone, Gillian would be intriguing and delightful enough, making her an icon of French pop. But the path she followed makes her even more fascinating – she was integral to the ‘60s explosion and defining the era’s new boundaries. Until now, her story has been elusive in the English-speaking world. It’s a story that’s as distinctive as you might expect.
It’s 1958. Fourteen-year-old Gillian Hills is strolling in Nice, on France’s south coast. She’d been living there since just before her ninth birthday. A passing man approaches. “He said, ‘there’s this film director, I’m a very good friend of his,’” recalls Gillian. “‘Would you mind if I speak to him about you? I think you’d be perfect for a part.’” Gillian later found out that the presumptuous stranger was Christian Marquand, the co-star of Roger Vadim’s 1956 And God Created Woman, the film which launched Brigitte Bardot’s international career.
Gillian had no idea who Marquand, then-current heart as a throb, was. As she puts it, “I lived a very silent existence. I had been brought up to be silent and not seen. I came from a proper convent – I arrived there when I was two.” Gillian’s early years had become fragmented after her parents separated. Born in Cairo, she had also spent time in Alexandria. Although fluent in English and German, her life was sheltered, shielded from the outside world by her mother. Early on, it was enough to luxuriate in the atmosphere of the French Riviera. “I loved France and fell in love with the country,” says Gillian. “The sea was there, it reminded me of Cairo. I had a vivid memory of palm trees, the Mediterranean was a dream.”
The meeting with Marquand was to open her life up. “I didn’t think very much about it,” says Gillian of her reaction to Marquand’s proposal. Yet she did follow it up. “We didn’t have a phone, so I went to the post office and had Vadim on the phone. It was the first time I had spoken to anyone on the phone.” Gillian learnt that Vadim was casting a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and that Marquand has suggested her for the part of Cécile de Volanges, the young girl that Juliette de Merteuil is intent on corrupting. With Gillian having been a real-life convent girl, it was clear that Vadim was clearly on the lookout for headlines and maybe another Bardot. For Gillian, although she’d never acted, the suggestion that she play a part wasn’t too far fetched. As well as singing professionally, her mother had acted. Her grandfather on her mother’s side had been in theatre. “He was Polish and had directed,” explains Gillian “He had brought modern stuff to Poland. It was very avante garde, he brought Japanese Noh to Poland. He was also a wonderful poet, he’s now recognised, his name was Boleslaw Leśmian. My mother had lived in an environment that was acting and poetry, so it was normal for her to see this happen to me.”
Vadim held the auditions in Paris in December 1958. It was the first time Gillian had been here. “It was quite extraordinary to go into the studio,” says Gillian. “I didn’t want to be made up. I didn’t understand make up and thought I would look completely ridiculous. Vadim told me that I was the best, he’d done 500 screen tests already and not to worry as I would get the part. I knew nothing about acting. I was just a kid, very natural. My mother only knew theatre and didn’t see it as something bad at all. When I got the part she was very excited for me.”
Moments after Gillian was given the part the media went into overdrive. In January 1959 Paris Match plastered her on the cover, announcing that an English girl from Nice had realised every young girl’s dream. Later that month the story travelled beyond the French border when the Australian magazine Weekend asked “would you let a 14-year old be another Brigitte?” The next few months saw story after story on Gillian Hills, the new Brigitte Bardot. “Mother came to her senses pretty quickly,” recalls Gillian. “One journalist was a very close friend of Vadim and he said to mother ‘do you understand what you are doing to your daughter? Vadim met Bardot and she was very very young, she was 15. Your daughter is 14 – do you understand the ramifications of this?’ He frightened the life out of her and she changed. She would never leave me. Vadim realised that mother became different and very frightened, and this became detrimental. When he was going to film she would be on the set.” The combination of the media attention and Gillian’s mother’s anxieties proved too much and the role of Cécile was given to Jeanne Valérie. Gillian ended up playing a small part in the film.
“I was very shy, not confident and overwhelmed when the whole thing fell apart,” says Gillian. “I just felt I’d like to disappear. I didn’t know I was having a nervous breakdown, I just sat at the window swaying backwards and forwards. I felt very isolated. I was pretty upset that I had to leave my school. I wanted to draw, acting was not on the horizon for me.”
By this point Gillian was contracted to a production company and had little choice in whether or not she would act, whatever her mental state. A solution came along with the offer of a part in a British film. Getting out of France had the benefit of reducing the pressure. “We were in Paris, dead broke,” remembers Gillian. “I really wanted to do it because I recognised that the character was very much me: quite artificial, couldn’t express herself, all front, just furious. And I was furious at having my life hi-jacked.”
Filmed in summer 1959 at MGM’s Hertfordshire studios, Beat Girl became a classic piece of British cinema, mixing juvenile delinquency, coffee bars and rock ‘n’ roll with plain-old titillation. The soundtrack was amongst John Barry’s earliest efforts. Gillian played Jennifer, the daughter of a divorced architect who had recently married a younger woman. Jennifer takes against her new French stepmother, behaves as badly as possible and starts hanging out with beatnik types in coffee bars and cellar clubs. When she discovers that her father doesn’t know that her new stepmother might have been a stripper, she decides to follow her lead, getting involved with a scummy nightclub owner. Ads for this extraordinary confection were emblazoned “My mother was a stripper – I want to be a stripper too.” Gillian was tagged “The Beat Girl”. When submitted to the British Board of Film Censors, cuts were ordered before they would give an X certificate.
Appearing alongside Gillian was Adam Faith, in his first film role. At this point he hadn’t charted: his breakthrough hit came with the Buddy Holly-esque 'What Do You Want', issued in November 1959. Faith played Dave, the surly but charismatic leather-jacketed beatnik that haunted the coffee bars. “Adam Faith was lovely,” says Gillian. “We had dressing rooms next to each other. He seemed a good deal older then me [18 to Gillian’s 15]. He couldn’t approach me because my mother was there and of course – jailbait! It was impossible. But I really really fancied him, he was the bees knees.”
As for the films sauce quotient, Gillian’s mother made sure that was kept in check. “At one point I was meant to twirl around in my bra. My mother said it’s a terrible thing without me knowing. So they put someone else in that part. I saw that when the film came out. If I’d known they wanted to do that, it should have been my body, it should have been me.”
Beat Girl might have generated a few British column inches on its release in April 1960, but by then Gillian was back in Paris, unsure of the next move. “It was very fallow period and I had to find an agent,” she notes. The next chapter would open with music. After a hunt, she signed with the agent of Eddie Constantine, the chiselled ex-pat American actor who’d based himself in Europe during the early ‘50s. With Edith Piaf’s patronage, he’d launched himself in France as a singer and starred in a string of films as private eye Lemmy Caution. It would prove an important moment for Gillian, laying the foundations of her recording career. “My agent saw Beat Girl and I said I wanted to record. It was terribly disappointing that I didn’t sing in Beat Girl. He came up with Barclay Records and Eddie Constantine.”
Considering her recent history, Gillian’s first record was ironic. It was a Barclay EP titled 'Allo Brigitte…ne coupez pas!' (hello Brigitte…don’t cut), released in June 1960 (Barclay 72383). The cover featured a Bardot look-alike, naked behind an opaque sheet, holding a pair of scissors, ready to cut a hole. The memory of Gillian as the new Bardot clearly hadn’t faded. Musically, the two songs featuring Gillian were fairly anodyne cha-chas arranged by Henri Salvador, which Gillian hums or la-las along with and purrs interjections like “tell me you love me.”. Her next outing was a proper debut, kicking off with the lead track “Ma Premiere Cigarette” (Barclay 70352). The four tracks were off the shelf compositions chosen by her label.” I had no choice,” says Gillian. “Everything was chosen. I go to the studio – this is it.” The lightly orchestrated pop had a jazz swing that suited Gillian’s conversational vocal style. The lilt of a version of Jo-Ann Campbell’s US hit 'A Kookie Little Paradise' sounded radio friendly, but it was the lead track with its “puff puff” lines that remains Gillian’s favourite. "I love ‘Ma Premiere Cigarette,’” she says. “For me it meant meeting a boy, which of course I was desperate to do, but couldn’t. It was soft and had a rhythm that suited me. That’s the direction I wanted to go.”
Also completed at the same October 1960 session was a pair of duets with Eddie Constantine, made for one of his EPs (Barclay 60238). It was marketing sense for Barclay to release the EPs at the same time, but where Gillian’s release was softly attractive, the contrast between her and Constantine is marked. Both performances were showtune-ish, and on 'Specialisation' Constantine’s croony mid range doesn’t complement Gillian’s trilling voice. The limp version of 'Let’s Make Love' is best forgotten. Gillian says that singing with Constantine wasn’t a highlight: "I didn’t know he really wanted to record it with his daughter, not me. He kept stopping every five seconds. In the studio they told me ‘don’t worry, just continue.’ I was told he was trying to trip me up, as he wasn’t happy.”
The next release, recorded in February 1961 (Barclay 70372), was much more satisfactory. Eddie Barclay, her label’s boss, was right behind her. “He was very happy with what I’d done and believed totally in me,” says Gillian. “The fact that Charles Aznavour wanted to write for me was something, a true gift. But I didn’t think I had a voice that was French. I was jazzy, instinctive. But Aznavour was very very French. The only way I could swim in those waters was to act it.” Aznavour had written two songs for Gillian, 'Jean-Lou' and 'Ne Crois Surtout Pas.' She might have had misgivings, but her vocal approach made for a much more striking performance than on her first EP. “Jean-Lou” is still a sort of jazz pop, but there’s a bite that was missing the previous year.
By this time, the French music industry was beginning to take notice of rock ‘n’ roll and it was inevitable that Gillian’s records would reflect the changing climate. Her next EP (Barclay 70387, recorded May 1961) sported a charmingly kittenish version of Sophia Loren’s 'Zou Be Zoo Be Zoo' that featured alongside a cover of “Jingle Bell Rock” – the French title was the non-seasonal 'La Tête A L’Envers' (Back To Front). Deepening her voice made Gillian’s vocals stand out more.
Asked whether her early releases made an impact, Gillian laughs and explains “about six months after I did the thing with Eddie Constantine, my mother and I thought we should go to the accountant and see if there was anything there. He was terribly rude and said it hasn’t sold at all, we don’t owe you anything!” She did however score a coup by appearing on the bill at Johnny Hallyday’s first season at Paris’ prestigious Olympia Theatre in September/October 1961. Hallyday had played live for the first time in December 1959 and released his first record in March 1960. His second release – 'Souvenirs, Souvenirs' – was a massive hit later in the year. Close to the new French rock ‘n’ roll, Gillian was at the heart of the change. Even a year earlier in 1960 she’d been saddled with material that could have been performed by (and for) any age group. Gillian had met Hallyday earlier on at a radio show. “Johnny was so beautiful, very fresh indeed,” she says. “I did a tour with Johnny after the Olympia shows. My mother came. It was total shower for everybody, the boys wanted to get up to jinks and she was at the back of the bus. One freezing cold night we were in Belgium, it was a place with red lights. I said ‘I’m so cold, take me with you.’ A real Belgian bordello. The girls were horrified, they couldn’t do their business. It was nice and warm though.”
Part II to follow...
© Kieron Tyler 2010