On Petula Clark‘s latest album Lost in You is a track called Reflections. The music is by Bach [BWV 208] and the lyrics by Petula herself. They hark back to a time when she roamed barefoot in the Welsh mountains near the home of her grandparents with whom she spoke Welsh. They were the years before she was famous, before the British public claimed her as “our Pet” – which means they are very distant indeed.
Fame came to Petula at the tender age of nine when she was “discovered” singing during an air raid on a wartime Forces broadcast in 1942. At eleven she was singing at the Royal Albert Hall and by her teens she was a radio star. Nicknamed the “singing sweetheart,” she performed for King George VI, General Montgomery and Churchill. It was, in her words, a “weird” childhood. “But I wasn’t unhappy. I loved singing because when I sang I didn’t feel so shy. My life wasn’t all showbiz. My sister and I stayed for months at a time with our grandparents in their stone cottage [in Abercanaid, near Merthyr Tydfil] with no electricity and I just loved it. What’s a normal childhood anyway? And let’s not forget, it started me on a very good career.”
Indeed so. Hers has spanned more than seventy years, four continents and just about every performance medium – radio, television, film, recording and stage. She has sold seventy million records and is the most successful female artist the United Kingdom has ever produced. A month off her eighty-first birthday she has just embarked on a ten-date British tour.
After seven decades at the top she has very firm ideas about how she wishes to present herself. The one subject guaranteed to incur her wrath is age. Even over a bad phone line the frostiness is palpable.
“It’s offensive and it’s rude and people keep ramming it down your throat,” she says. “I said to my agent the other day, ‘Is this how it’s going to be now – age becomes the reason for an interview?’ I don’t think about my age and I don’t care about anyone else’s. It’s about doing what you do well and about learning and progressing. I’m still learning. I don’t ever think I know how to do this.
“When I was a child I had no nerves at all. That certainly isn’t true nowadays because more is expected of me. But every time I go on stage I think ‘tonight I’m going to get found out.'”
Point taken. But isn’t a performer still working and at the top of her game at eighty something to be celebrated? After all, touring is arduous for anyone.
“I don’t find it arduous. Things are taken care of and you have a lot of laughs. I’m seeing parts of the country I haven’t seen for years. I really love touring and it’s not as if I’m doing a world tour like a rock band.” Oohhkaay.
Her career divides easily into chapters. In the Forties she was Britain’s answer to Shirley Temple, singing in her own TV shows and acting in films such as Here Come the Huggetts. In the Fifties her father Leslie – whose own showbiz dreams had been scotched by his parents – formed record label Polygon Records to manage Petula’s burgeoning recording career.
She was doing well in Britain when a French promoter invited her to perform at the Olympia in Paris in 1957. After much persuasion she agreed and her life changed for ever.
“I wasn’t keen to go. I couldn’t even say hello in French and I thought France smelled of garlic. I was so English. But they kept calling me, saying there was this French performer called Dalida who was copying my records and I must come over to ‘defend’ my songs. They nagged me into it. I did one performance – not very well because I had a cold – and they went crazy.”
As a result Vogue Records in Paris wanted to discuss her recording for them. During the meeting the next day the lights went out and someone came in to change the bulb. When the light came back on the bulb-changer was revealed to be Claude Wolff, the company’s very good-looking PR man. It was a coup de foudre, love at first sight.
“That was it,” says Petula. “I didn’t care about having a career in France. He was my motivation.” And was it the same for him? “Well he had a girlfriend at the time which made things a bit complicated but yes, apparently it was.”
Neither spoke the other’s language – “We had rather halting conversations” – but in 1961 Claude and Petula married. They lived in France because it was easier for her to work there than for him to work here. Moving to France also enabled her to break away from her father. She had found fame and fortune as a child and he wanted her to remain one, whereas to the French she was a sexy young woman.
Her fame soon spread beyond France to other French-speaking territories and throughout Europe. As well as French, she recorded in German, Italian and Spanish.
Everything changed again in 1964 when songwriter Tony Hatch played her a few bars of a song inspired by his first trip to New York. It was still unfinished but Petula liked it. The song was Downtown. It became a worldwide hit (it is still her best known song) and launched her into what was arguably her golden age. America couldn’t get enough of her and she made TV history there.
During a duet with Harry Belafonte for her own “special” for NBC, she took hold of his arm. The sponsors were horrified by this inter-racial affection and demanded a retake. Petula and Claude not only refused, they also ensured all other takes were destroyed, leaving only the touching take. “This was 1968. The Civil Rights Movement was in full flow and they were worried about selling cars!” she says, still exasperated.
In the same year she became the last woman to dance on screen with Fred Astaire when they starred in Finian’s Rainbow and in 1969 she hung around with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “Bed-in” and sang on Give Peace a Chance.
By then Petula also had two young daughters – Barbara and Kate – who stayed in Europe with their father while their mother was working in America. Recently she spoke of the guilt she still feels at having left them so much.
“I tried hard to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife and a great performer. I thought I could do it all but it can’t be done. I had a good stab at it but being a parent and married is a full-time job. And you married is a full-time job. And you don’t turn your back on America.” For their part her children assured her there is nothing to forgive.
Nonetheless she scaled down her workload in the mid-Seventies after the birth of her son Patrick. But she and Claude had drifted apart. They separated in the Eighties but have never divorced and remain close. She admits to having “someone special” in her life now but declines to elaborate.
The next chapter of her career surprised even Petula when Trevor Nunn asked her to play Norma Desmond in the stage production of Sunset Boulevard.
“At first I said ‘no way’. Then I asked ‘What do you think I can bring to it?’ and he said, ‘Vulnerability and humor.’ He broke me down.” She has now played Norma longer than anyone else. “I’ve always played nice people so it was great fun to play a bitch!” Whom does she admire among today’s artists? “There are many great women out there but I’m certainly not in the same business as Lady Gaga.”
Unlike many of her pedigree she is not dismissive of X Factor and its wannabes. Then again her own success came more or less overnight. The difference is that hers has never stopped.
Unlike fellow child star Julie Andrews she has yet to be made a dame. “I don’t think I care. What’s important is doing your job well. When I go out on stage I still ask myself ‘do I really know how to do this?'”
Anna Pukas – Daily Express