Gillian Hills was more than just a pretty face. Though her sultry good looks and mane of blond hair saw her billed as a British Brigitte Bardot, like the French star, she proved she could turn her hand to both film and pop. However, the lead role in Beat girl and, later, bit parts in Blow up and A clockwork orange, brought her much greater notoriety than her forays into music on either side of the Channel.
She was born in Cairo, Egypt, on 5 June 1944. Her father was British and her mother was of Polish origin.
In 1958, at the age of 14, she was discovered by French film director Roger Vadim, who offered her a part in his film Les liaisons dangereuses. Vadim was recently divorced from Brigitte Bardot, whose career he had launched, and the physical similarities between the two perhaps explain his interest in the young Briton. However, fearing her youth would cause a scandal, he gave her only a minor part. Nevertheless, Gillian’s appearance in the film prompted an appearance on the cover of Paris Match magazine.
If Gillian had been disappointed to lose the starring role to Jeanne Moreau, consolation came in the form of Beat girl. She took the lead role of teen terror Jennifer Linden in the low-budget British film. The soundtrack music came courtesy of John Barry, who is better known for his later work on the James Bond film scores.
The film was released in Britain in 1960 after censors insisted that some of its wilder scenes be cut for fear of corrupting the youth of the day.
Almost inevitably, her notoriety led to the offer of a recording contract, and she joined Paris-based Barclay Records.
She was teamed with future world-renowned orchestra leader Paul Mauriat her first solo EP. The release featured Ma première cigarette, Cou-couche panier, Si tu veux que je te dise and Le paradis pour toi (a version of Jo-Ann Campbell’s A kookie little paradise).
Cou-couche panier proved the most popular track and became a top ten hit in January 1961, competing against versions by Jacqueline Boyer and Maria Candido.
The early years saw Gillian record as many duets as solo tracks, with partners including Henri Salvador and the Ramirez Cha Cha Band (on Près de la cascade) and Eddie Constantine (Spécialisation and Aimons-nous, both originally Marilyn Monroe songs from the film Let’s make love).
Gillian’s second solo EP, Jean-Lou, was issued in March 1961. Two Charles Aznavour songs – the title track and Ne crois surtout pas – proved the highlights of the release. A third EP, Zou bisou bisou, followed that summer.
The singer used a stint on the road as support act for Johnny Hallyday at Paris’ prestigious Olympia and various television appearances to boost her profile further. She also joined Hallyday and Catherine Deneuve in the film Les Parisiennes and released the track C’est bien mieux comme ça (backed by rock group Les Chaussettes Noires) from the film. The song gave her another hit, reaching the top 20 in February 1962.
En dansant le twist – a version of The Shirelles’ Mama said – was issued on her only solo EP of 1962. The disc also included two Helen Shapiro covers, Je reviens vers le bonheur (Walkin’ back to happiness) and Mon cœur est prêt (Don’t treat me like a child).
The release proved a musical mark in the sand for Gillian. By 1963, yé-yé girls were all the rage, and Gillian’s next release, Tu mens, was a slab of Sylvie Vartan-styled yé-yé. One of the chief differences between the two singers, however, was that Gillian had begun writing most of her songs herself – and all four tracks on the EP were her own compositions. But in spite of their quality, the disc failed to sell as well as expected.
In an effort to promote the singer, Barclay had her take part in a tour with established star Hugues Aufray. She also appeared on French TV screens with Serge Gainsbourg, performing Une tasse d’anxiété, although the pair never issued the song on vinyl.
1964 saw the release of a second set of songs that Gillian had written. American guitarist Mickey Baker (perhaps best known for his part in the duo Mickey and Sylvia) directed the orchestra on the four tracks, Qui a su, Je partirai, Oublie and C’est le garçon. Again, however, the EP languished on record shop shelves.
Meanwhile, she maintained her film career in the camp Franco-German romp Lana, Königin der Amazonen.
On the pop front, even a switch to DiscAZ for the release of the EP Rien n’est changé in early 1965 couldn’t improve her fortunes. The title track was a gentle Françoise Hardy-esque number that Gillian had penned herself. But with her own compositions having previously attracted surprisingly little interest among French record buyers, she reworked three international songs for the remainder of the EP – Tut, tut, tut, tut (US girl group The Lollipops’ Busy signal), Oublie, oublie-la (Irish singer Jackie Lee’s My heart is your heart) and Rentre sans moi (British band The Zombies’ Leave me be). The EP was produced by Gérard Hugé, the man behind many of Pussy Cat and Stella’s recordings.
Sadly, it proved her last French release. That autumn, however, she issued a one-off single in Britain. She promoted the gentle Look at them on Ready steady go!, but it, too, failed to sell. For many, the B-side, Tomorrow is another day, proved the stronger track.
Its failure prompted a return to acting and, confirming her wild-child reputation, a newly brunette Gillian appeared alongside Jane Birkin in a brief but steamy scene in Michelangelo Antonio’s classic Blow up.
She went on to appear in various TV productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including The owl service and Upstairs, downstairs, before returning to the big screen – again, naked – in Stanley Kubrick’s A clockwork orange.
She abandoned acting in the mid-1970s for a successful career as an illustrator, based in New York, and later married Stewart Young, the manager of AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Foreigner and Zucchero, amongst others.
The pair currently live in England.
Our pick of the pops
Tut, tut, tut, tut
En dansant le twist
Qui a su
Rien n’est changé
Je reviens vers le bonheur
Tomorrow is another day
Buy online now
Twistin' the rock
Find Gillian Hills 45s and CDs at GEMM
Follow the links to hear other singers’ versions of Gillian Hills songs
Je reviens vers le bonheur
Helen Shapiro: Walkin’ back to happiness