As a screen actor, Julia Hills most recently appeared in Series 3 of The Emily Atack Show, and last year, she had a guest role in Doctors playing Susan Rutherford, a show she has had numerous guest roles in previously. Over her years on screen, Julia has played Alison in Small Town Politics, Morag Morgan in EastEnders, Rona in 2point4 Children across all series, and Beryl Hook in Dad. At the start of Julia’s screen career, she was part of the television comedy sketch show Who Dares Wins, which led to a live tour in 1988, and she is set to play Joyce Kremer in the upcoming short film Five Thousand Stars. In the stage play of Calendar Girls, Julia played Ruth on the National Tour in 2008, also playing the character for runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre and the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, and she played Annie in the 2010 National Tour, before returning to the role of Ruth in 2019 for the new musical version by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. Julia originated the role of Dolly Bantry in the first-ever English stage adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d, played Liz in Worst Wedding Ever at Salisbury Playhouse, Edwin Drood in The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Savoy Theatre alongside Ernie Wise and Lulu, and she was nominated at the 1984 Olivier Awards for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Emily Tallentire in The Hired Man. We caught up with Julia about filming Series 3 of The Emily Atack Show, playing Rona in 2point4 Children and her time as Ruth and Annie in the stage production of Calendar Girls.
Most recently on screen, you appeared in Series 3 of The Emily Atack Show, how was this?
I did two sketches with Emily in two different episodes – one was a fairly traditional comedy sketch set on location in a house, and the other was a telephone conversation where Emily was being held hostage in an underground car park, and she had rung the only phone number she could remember, which was her old school friend’s… only her mother (me!) had answered and was chatting away and not really listening and not realising what a predicament Emily’s character was in! It was a very funny piece of writing which had two good parts for women, and raised the fact that young people today don’t learn phone numbers because they rely on their phones for everything!
You played Susan Rutherford in an episode of Doctors last year, and have had guest roles in the show previously, what is Doctors like to work on?
Doctors is a great show to work on because everyone there is at the top of their game. It is recorded very quickly, and so the cast, crew and all the backroom staff are used to producing very high standards of work under the pressure of limited time. They manage to do this with great skill and good humour, and they look after their visiting actors so well. It’s always a pleasure to appear as a guest on Doctors!
Is there anything you can tell us about the upcoming short film Five Thousand Stars and your character Joyce Kremer, and what are you looking forward to for the release?
I’m looking forward to seeing the final cut because I have such faith in the vision of Paul Holbrook, the director, and the skills of everyone who worked on it. It’s a story of transformation and epiphany and my character Joyce learns how to love others and, most importantly, herself.
What was it like playing Alison in Small Town Politics in 2019?
Again, the calibre of the cast and crew made the whole experience a joy, and it was exciting to be part of a project that had been chosen by Sky Arts and was being made locally by the young director Gulliver Moore and members of his family – I think his mother was responsible for keeping us all fed!
How was it joining the cast of EastEnders in 2018 as Morag Morgan and what was the character like to play?
It was an eye-opener for me to see how incredibly hard everyone works on an established soap opera such as EastEnders, and how complicated it is to be producing so many episodes throughout the year. The work that goes on in the offices at Elstree to keep everything running smoothly is awesome, and, just as at Doctors, there are so many unsung heroes keeping the standard as high as it is. Both cast and crew are so skilled at what they do.
What are some of your favourite memories from playing Rona in 2point4 Children over the years and how was it being part of the show?
2point4 Children was a huge development in my career, and Rona will always be one of my favourite parts. She didn’t really fit any stereotype, and so was able to be her own person and a free spirit. My favourite scenes were always the ones where the brilliant writer and creator of the show, Andrew Marshall, would trap Bill and Rona in uncomfortable situations that they couldn’t escape from (trapped on a book shelf with snakes in the room; hanging from a light fitting in a wedding dress when Bill’s head was stuck in the cat flap; literally stuck to a floor etc etc…) and then allow them to muse and chat about the most unlikely topics that had absolutely nothing to do with the extraordinary situation that they found themselves in! I also loved all the dressing up and showbiz of our musical numbers – whether dressing up as Shirley Bassey in a warehouse of her costumes or doing the annual Christmas Special song, it was something that made 2point4 Children unique and special, and wonderful to work on.
Can you tell us about your time filming for Dad as Beryl Hook?
Dad was also written by Andrew Marshall, but was a little more traditional in its production values. George Cole and Kevin McNally were terrific as father and son and, once again, Andrew mined the comic potential of family life with all its inherent tension, frustration and love. I wore a wig as Beryl so that I looked completely different from Rona, and I still have it upstairs in a box! Strangely, my own hair now resembles Beryl – I’ve grown into her after leaving my Rona days behind!
At the start of your screen career, you were in the cast of Who Dares Wins, what do you remember most from working on this series?
Who Dares Wins was one of the coolest and most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved in! It was part of Channel 4’s opening season, and was recorded “as live” in front of an audience at Limehouse Studios in London on a Friday night, before being approved by lawyers and transmitted at pub closing time on a Saturday. Hence the opening credits featuring feet returning from a pub and stepping over vagrants or unlikely comic characters on their way home to turn on their TV and find Who Dares Wins on. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as I was on the first recording of that series because you just had to keep going – no stopping! But it was also thrilling and hilarious and the most terrific team of people. One of the best things to come out of the TV success of Who Dares Wins was our live tour in 1988 when we took some of the most successful sketches and some original live material around the big touring theatres for one night in each venue, and it was the nearest I’ve ever got to experiencing what it must be like to be a rock star!
On stage, you played Ruth in Calendar Girls on the National Tour in 2008 and 2019, at Chichester Festival Theatre and in the West End at the Noël Coward Theatre, and played Annie on the 2010 National Tour, what are some of your stand-out highlights from performing in the play/musical?
It was a very special experience to be in the original cast of Calendar Girls and to be telling the true story of this remarkable group of women, and to be able to meet them and get to know them. Amazingly, an old school friend of mine turned out to be part of their group which made me feel even more connected to them, and they were wonderfully welcoming and really good fun. We opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2008 and then toured the country – packing out big theatres wherever we went and reaching the West End of London in 2009. I then toured again in the play in 2010, but playing the role of Annie this time opposite Elaine C. Smith as Chris. I returned to the story in 2019 to play Ruth again but this time in the musical version with songs that Tim Firth (the writer of the screenplay for the film and the play) had written with Gary Barlow.
What do you enjoy most about playing Ruth and Annie in Calendar Girls and how is it seeing the audience response to the production?
I enjoyed playing both Ruth and Annie in Calendar Girls because the show is such a special event wherever it plays and whichever version is playing. The story is such an uplifting and heart-warming tale, made even more moving by the fact that it is true, and has been prominent in raising awareness for Leukaemia Research and much-needed funds. The audience response is always amazing because they’re seeing themselves on stage – ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing to support their friend in a time of need, and, in doing so, achieving things they would never have expected. It’s a huge roller coaster of a play/film/musical/story and never fails to take you on an emotional journey of celebration. And it features older women who can so often be airbrushed out of stories, and it’s a fabulous endorsement of their wit, their humour and their value.
What was it like touring with The Mirror Crack’d in 2019 and originating the role Dolly Bantry in the first-ever English stage adaptation?
It was a very interesting production because it was directed by Melly Still, who is well-known for her movement work, and it was a very physical piece of work using mime and elements of dance to help to illustrate the intricacies of the plot. Dolly was a lovely part to play as she appears at first to be a rather comic character representing a conservative woman of her time with certain prejudices and unshakeable views, but is revealed to have a truly caring and loving relationship with Miss Marple, which redeems her for the audience, I hope!
You played Liz in Worst Wedding Ever at the Salisbury Playhouse and on tour, how was this?
It was a joy to be in a stage play by such a successful writer as Chris Chibnall, and a pleasure to play such a strong matriarch as Liz. The play itself was an interesting mixture of comedy, aching sadness and live music from a band who played both on the stage and out in the foyer – original and challenging and another emotional roller coaster!
One of your early stage roles was Edwin Drood in The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Savoy Theatre alongside Ernie Wise, can you tell us about some of your memories from performing in this role?
It will always be a disappointment that The Mystery of Edwin Drood did not last longer than it did as it was a wonderful and original show with terrific songs and music. It had been a huge hit on Broadway and we had an all-star cast including Ernie as the Master of Ceremonies and Lulu as Princess Puffer, but it just didn’t gel with the British press. The audiences seemed to love it – in particular, the fact that they were asked to vote at the end to solve “the mystery” – but we had a limited run at The Savoy. It was still a terrific experience for me – in particular, being flown out to New York to audition for Joseph Papp and then flown back within 24 hours – I had to send myself a postcard from Manhattan to prove that I’d actually been!
In 1984, you were nominated for Best Actress in a Musical at the Olivier Awards for your performance as Emily Tallentire in The Hired Man, how was this?
The Hired Man meant a lot to me and to all of us involved in the show. It was a very emotional story by Melvyn Bragg coupled with the most beautiful score by Howard Goodall and had begun its life in Southampton, before transferring to Leicester and then The Astoria in London’s West End. The nomination was, of course, an honour and, although I didn’t win, my husband (who I met doing the show) did for his role as The Hired Man… so we’ve had to share it!
Can you tell us about some of the other stage and screen projects you have worked on over your career so far, which have included The School For Scandal, Piaf, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Casualty and Outnumbered?
Sooo many… where to start? I think some of my most satisfying work as an actor has been in recent years with a company called Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, which would do an annual season of a Shakespeare and a classic play, and allowed me to tackle some of “the big beasts” and brilliant classic parts. I played Lady Sneerwell in The School For Scandal in 2015; Gertrude in Hamlet, which toured to Germany and Romania; and… my favourite always… Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov. That was in 2012… my special year when I played three of my best parts ever – Ranevskaya, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie at The Cheltenham Everyman and Kath in Entertaining Mr Sloane at Leicester Curve. I’m also very proud to have played Toine in Piaf at The Bristol Old Vic at the age of 24, and then again on my 56th birthday in Leicester!
How did you get into acting and was it something you always wanted to do?
I’d always loved performing as a child, but didn’t have the nerve or the confidence to think I could do it as a job and so went to university in Bristol to study English and Drama. Whilst there, I threw myself into being in as many shows/plays as possible and I became part of the student group that took shows to the Edinburgh Fringe every summer. I think this gave me the confidence to start applying for jobs (they were advertised in The Stage newspaper in those days) and I was lucky enough to get work as an Acting ASM in the Christmas panto in York playing a Trembling Tree amongst other things, and… most importantly… gave me my essential (then) magic Equity Card!
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I could watch Hamilton the musical anytime. Galaxy Quest is one of my all-time favourites and Will Ferrell always makes me laugh! I am a regular jogger and walker and like being out in nature.
What advice would you give a new actor starting out?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to advise young actors these days as the profession has changed so much, and there are so many more people seeking work and so many fewer jobs. I was lucky enough to learn on the job in Repertory Theatre seasons, and it built my knowledge and confidence by giving me a breadth of experience. The arena where performance is blossoming and growing is, of course, social media. I think the future for young people is probably to take control and make your own work.
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