Joan Bilceaux was the daughter of Jean and David Bilcock Sr. David was a pioneer Melbourne film maker whose amateur films, some featuring Joan as a child, gained awards and were the foundations of a lifetime career. Born on 4 February 1930 in Croydon, the oldest of five children, Joan showed early ability as a singer and in her teens became a member of an entertainment troupe called The Croydon Merrymakers.
First working with a Flinders Street clothing manufacturer as a bookkeeper, she was invited by her employer to do some part-time modelling of his range. She soon became a full-time mannequin and photographic model, early in her career being disappointed that she was rejected by Man magazine as being ‘too wholesome’ for its pin-up pages. Tempted to look for a professional name, she chose to use Bilcock with the pronunciation ‘Bilco’ favoured by a branch of the family; but one day when asked by a reporter to spell it, she came up with B-I-L-C-E-A-U-X. Joan Bilceaux was born.
She had continued to pursue her love of singing and became recognised as a singer of jazz and blues, gaining a strong following with bands like The Steamboat Stompers. Basin Street Blues became her signature song and the opening line, ‘Won’t you come along with me . . .’, delivered with her characteristic power, invariably triggered a roar of applause that often drowned out, ‘. . . down the Mississippi’. She often appeared with visiting overseas artists of the stature of Louis Armstrong and Bob Hope.
Her modelling career bloomed; she became President of the Mannequins Association and was Mannequin of the Year in 1955. The ‘wholesome’ good looks that had denied her a pin-up career coupled with her height and slim, athletic figure, enabled her to win high fashion engagements while still modelling sports and swim wear. Joan was ‘athletic’ in more than appearance; she was an enthusiastic rower and with her sister Linda, formed a successful rowing team that won competitions in coastal events such as the Anglesea Ocean Regatta.
In 1952 – a time when Australia had no feature film industry and when most so-called Australian films were produced here by overseas companies – Joan’s father was involved in a local feature called Night Club. It starred Joan, with future television comedians, Joey Porter and Joff Ellen, in lead roles. Joan was not well served by writer-director A.R. Harwood and the film’s failure convinced her that she was not meant for the screen. She was wrong. With the coming of television in 1956, Joan was chosen for the original cast of Channel Seven Melbourne’s Hit Parade – an ambitious mime show that won a huge audience.
She became one of the Channel’s most popular stars while still performing at concerts and continuing her modelling. When sharp-angled refrigerators replaced the curved lines of the 40s and early 50s, it was Joan who launched ‘The Sheer Look’ in a stunning long gown, her gloved arms forming a fetching right-angle. With Chanel Seven director, Ian Jones, she created an early TV gem, Blues Studio One, a relaxed, partly ad-libbed show built around Joan rehearsing with Len Barnard’s jazz band. The show’s theme was the arrangement of Moonglow used in the film Picnic. Fans still speak of remembering her when they hear it.
Joan married Ian Jones in 1958 and, soon after, retired from television, singing and modelling. The couple had three children Darren, Angus and Caitlin. They were divorced in 1983. Joan worked in the Art Department of Crawford Productions and also did some antique dealing with a friend. She travelled to Bali and India way before it was fashionable to do so and became an expert in astrology, cultivating a rich spiritual life. She had slipped happily from the limelight and lived out her years as a loved mother and grandmother to Eva, Rosie and Oliver. Joan died peacefully on Tuesday 6 March 2012 at Victoria Gardens Hawthorne from kidney failure. She was 82.
Darren Jones P 0438 505 595 4 June 2012. Used with permission.