Kings Pantomime star reveals how music has followed her around the world

From living in the USA to Thailand, and Iceland to Scotland, music has been a constant source of happiness in Marlene Little Hill’s life.

Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 10:52 am
Marlene as Fairy Bow Bells in the Kings pantomime in December 2020. Picture: Andrew Searle Photography

Since she was a little girl singing in gospel choirs to performing as Fairy Bow Bells in the Kings’ pantomime of Dick Whittington in December 2020, Marlene says ‘music has always been my safe haven’.

Previously, Marlene has been on stage with the Portsmouth Players, Southampton Operatic Society and South Downe Music Society in leading roles. She also has regular singing gigs in Japan and has toured in shows such as Swinging at the Cotton Club, Hairspray and A Harlem Story all while working as a legal secretary across the world.

But Marlene came from humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, growing up with her grandmother and two sisters.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Marlene in Reykjavík in the 1980s.

‘It was a small town and we were a close family. There were two streets and our family and all my cousins lived on them both,’ explains Marlene.

‘I grew up in a gospel choir. All of my uncles were very good singers and led youth choirs – I think it was to keep us out of trouble,’ she says, laughing. ‘We went to church every Sunday.’

After graduating from high school – where she was part of the choir, band and enjoyed voice lessons – Marlene attended community college studying music therapy.

However, Marlene later had to leave community college and get a job when her grandmother fell ill and it was up to her to support her sisters. ‘I worked three jobs and I always have. Some people say it was hard luck but for me that was the reality of life.

Marlene performing at Barakura English Garden, Japan, in 2018.

‘It was difficult. Sometimes we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from but we always had one – it may not have been food we particularly liked but it was all we had. I think my early life has prepared me for the hardships of this pandemic.

‘Music wasn’t going to earn me any money so I had to find a job elsewhere.’

And the job Marlene circled in a paper one day was her ticket to working across the world. ‘I saw an advert in a paper for a secretary for the US government. I somehow got the job and moved to Washington DC,’ she explains. ‘I worked for embassies around the world. I got a posting to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for six weeks. I had never been on a plane before and suddenly I was going to a new country.

‘I didn’t want a lay-over because I wanted to get there as soon as possible. I spent 32 hours in the air on my first flight,’ says Marlene. ‘I met lovely people and travelled a lot.’

On her return to the US from Thailand, it wasn’t long before Marlene was packing her suitcases, once again, to travel to a completely different climate.

She explains: ‘I got a job at the embassy in Reykjavík, Iceland, for two-and-a-half years.

‘The winters are harsh but the summers are beautiful. You could go out for dinner with your friends in the evening, go back to their place for a couple of drinks and before you know it, it’s 3am because the sun is still shining.’

When Marlene was living in Iceland, the country had not yet legalised beer, which happened later in 1989. She recalls how she was astounded at the sheer amount of vodka which was consumed – adding ‘everyone seemed like they drank a lot, to the point where they passed out’ – but more importantly, how she was only one of two black people living in Reykjavík in the 1980s.

‘I remember I was in a taxi and forgot how to pronounce my home address in Icelandic. The taxi driver told me not to worry because everyone knew where I lived,’ says Marlene. ‘I stuck out. I will never forget that. But everyone was very polite to me.’

It was at a US Military Ball just outside of Reykjavík that Marlene met her future husband. ‘John was part of the Royal Marine Band Service and he was playing at this military ball. He was a trombone player. We clicked straight away.’

Thanks to John’s musical career, doors opened for Marlene to reignite her passion for singing when she moved to Rosyth, Scotland, a fter the couple’s engagement in 1991.

‘I had not been on stage or sang for a while,’ admits Marlene. ‘John was always out gigging with his dance band but one day their singer came down with laryngitis and John asked me to step in.

‘I thought “how am I going to play with these highly-educated music readers”. But I loved it. I went straight from work to the gig, sang until 3am and then had a few hours sleep before going back to work.

‘It became a regular thing particularly when we moved to Portsmouth because the city had three bands – one training, one yacht band and a normal band. Bands were closing around the country but we knew we could find something there.

‘Portsmouth is the place I really settled. I got a job at IBM and gigged with John. We loved it, we spent lovely time together.’

Marlene says music has helped her heal during the hardest periods of her life, especially when John died last year.

‘I like to think I am a positive person but when my husband died last year I was naturally devastated,’ says Marlene. ‘We always had music playing and we would play together at home.

‘Even when he was in hospital, I always had music playing in his room or I would sing to him.

When Covid-19 struck in March, Marlene says 19 gigs were wiped off of her calendar immediately. She says: ‘I love jazz music and managed to land a gig with the tour of the Swinging at the Cotton Club and I have been with them for 10 years, touring the UK and Denmark. I normally gig in Japan in August every year but that was cancelled because of Covid.’

Therefore, when the auditions for the Kings pantomime in Southsea opened in 2020, Marlene made sure she was first in line.

‘I had never been to a pantomime before coming to Portsmouth,’ admits Marlene. ‘I was intrigued by this whole “it’s behind you” business.

‘I went to the Kings to watch Cinderella in 2018 by myself and I absolutely loved it.

‘I auditioned this year and got that part as Fairy Bow Bells. The rehearsals were amazing. I loved it, even though it couldn’t fully go ahead.’

Throughout everything – all of the highs and lows of Marlene’s life – music has always been her saviour. ‘I love it all – jazz, soul, pop and classical music,’ says Marlene, smiling. ‘It is my passion and I would not be without it.’

For more information, go to Marlene’s website at marlene-little-hill.co.uk.