Julienne Stretton was born in Morrinsville in the Waikato. Married at 18, she soon had four children. When they were school age, the solo mother enrolled at Auckland University and studied sociology and anthropology. Although she took a film paper (taught by Roger Horrocks), after graduating she pursued a career as a social worker. A chance meeting with a cameraman friend on the street led to an opportunity at TVNZ, kickstarting a 30 year screen career.
Stretton began in the documentary department of the new second television channel, as a staff researcher. In the mid-70s the NZ TV industry was modelled on the BBC, and research — exploring the stories and people that would work onscreen — was considered fundamental to productions.
Stretton worked on current affairs show Perspective, alongside George Andrews, Bill Saunders and Sam Pillsbury (with whom she made an exposè on mercury in fish). She was a researcher on Feltex Award-winning documentary Moriori (1980), and big-budget series Landmarks. Other subjects included graffiti, depression in the elderly, the controversial Centrepoint commune, and a Kaleidoscope piece on the demolition of architectural heritage.
In the early 80s, as television was shifting from in-house production to contracting, she united with Diane Musgrave, Colleen Hodge, and Liz Greenslade to form research company Bluestockings. They travelled the country interviewing World War I veterans for Feltex Award-winning documentary Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story.
Stretton also worked as researcher or line producer on a run of 80s productions, many directed by then husband Geoff Steven. These included tattoo docos Skin Pics and Signatures of the Soul. Stretton was line producer for the American Pie series, and spent six months on the road in the US, on a mission to find what made that country tick. She also researched Adventures in Māoriland - the Making of Hei Tiki, the story of a Hollywood director who came to NZ for an ill-fated 1930s film.
In 1985 she directed Nola: Our Own New Zealand Girl, a documentary profile of Nola Luxford: one of the first Kiwi actors in Hollywood, a pioneering women radio broadcaster and the ‘Angel of the Anzacs’ as a WWII club hostess in New York.
Stretton teamed up with researcher Gillian Boddy, and producer Sue Kedgley (future Green Party MP) the following year to examine the life of another Kiwi who was a bright star on the international stage: Katherine Mansfield. Credited with changing the course of the English short story, Mansfield died in France in 1923, at age 34. Shot partly in Europe, the documentary was filmed ahead of the 1988 centenary of Mansfield’s birth.
In 1990 Stretton, with producer Colleen Hodge, tracked severely disabled Miles Roelants from his 21st birthday through a year that culminated in him meeting his hero, actor Michael J Fox, in Los Angeles. Roelants was born with spina bifida. Miles Turns 21 also featured Shelly West (real name Michelle Belesarius) who is blind with rheumatoid arthritis.
Stretton and Hodge formed Partnership Productions, and followed Miles and Shelly as they got together and went flatting. The documentaries provoked public debate at the time of screening about the right of disabled people to live ‘normal’ lives. Stretton described Miles as “a unique person who just happened to be disabled”. Two more documentaries ensued; the first tailed Shelly (with a new partner) as she gave birth, and the second recorded her facing the travails of raising a child.
With budgets reduced from those enjoyed by documentary productions in the 70s and 80s, and an observational filming style that spanned many years, the series presented large filming challenges. But Stretton revelled in the collaboration with producer Hodges (the pair had met working on Perspective). She rates the award-winning series a career highlight, and recalls her excitement at being able to “go deep” and experiment with observational shooting techniques that are now commonplace on reality TV.
In the early 90s Stretton was on contract to TV3, directing stories for current affairs shows 60 Minutes and 20/20, working with reporters Janet McIntyre and Keith Davis. 60 Minutes reports on sleeping pill addiction, and a profile of an ex Miss NZ’s journey to becoming a successful opera singer in Europe, scored the team a 1992 Qantas Media Award.
Through the 90s Stretton was a freelance producer and director, making documentaries and factual TV for production company Communicado. They included Animal Phobias, Animals and Us and Instant Families (on Kiwi families who have adopted kids from overseas, written and co-directed with Fiona Niccol).
She was in the director’s chair for half the six episodes of ambitious Ninox Productions’ Our People Our Century series (2000). Our People was a millennial survey of New Zealanders over the century just gone. The series won a Best Factual Series gong at the 2000 TV Guide Television Awards, with Stretton in charge for the ‘A Piece of Land’, ‘Winning and Losing’, and ‘Families at War’ episodes (the latter won another Television Award, for writer Philip Temple’s script).
Stretton continued on the national identity celebration theme, with Partnership Productions’ five-part Our New Zealand. The series explored New Zealanders connection with the landscape. Stretton said in a 2003 NZ Herald interview with Greg Dixon: “It's where we talk of being at one. And the whole thing of being at one with the universe or something is a spiritual kind of concept and experience. And that came out again and again in the people we spoke to for the series.”
Stretton and Colleen Hodge pulled together a team which included writers Geoff Chapple and Temple, and director Tainui Stephens. Stretton, a keen sailor and tramper, remarked: “It is a celebration, there is a lot to do with New Zealand identity in it, I think. I hope viewers feel proud and think, 'Aren't we fantastic, aren't we lucky to be able to have these places and enjoy these places?’”
By the mid-2000s the predominant style of broadcast documentaries had shifted towards presenter-driven formats, with observational documentaries having fallen from favour for network commissioners. In 2016 Stretton reflected that a major change in the industry over the span of her career was that in the beginning documentaries “were able to spend money on research ... nowadays you just turn up and film what you get.”
Over the next decade Stretton travelled to and from India, and studied meditation. She now lives on Waiheke Island.