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Petula Clark: "I make the most of every moment"

The popular singer and actress started performing at the age of seven, and nearly 80 years later she has not lost the thrill of walking out on stage. By Simon Evans

At the age of 85 you would think Petula Clark had earned the right to take life easy. Not so. Last year she embarked on her first solo tour of the United States and released a new album, Living for Today, that reunited her with composer tony Hatch, It was Hatch who, more than 50 years ago, supplied Petula with perhaps her most recognisable hit, Downtown.

The new album;s title perfectly sums up Petula's attitude to life: "I've been living for the day for a long, long time. This is really all we have, the moment right now. The background of our lives is sometimes not very nice, so we have to keep on trucking. That's what I do. I make the most of every moment of my life."

For Petula, even at an age when most of us would probably prefer to be sitting back and watching the grass grow, getting yup on stage is still what motivated her.

"Appearing in fron of a live audience is the most exciting thing. When you get on the stage, that's it. That's the moment of truth and I like that."

She should know- Petula's first public performance was at the age of seven singing with an orchestra at a department store, Bentalls, in Kingston-Upon_Thames.

"They had what they called the escalator hall, and in the middle there was this platform and there was an orchestra playing. I'd never seen an orchestra before and I didn't know an orchestra was made of people- I'd only heard it on the wireless. I was mesmerised by this. My dad went up to the conductor and said, 'My daughter would like to sing with the band', and so I did. I was paid with a tin of toffees, which I thought was pretty good."

At the time she was just plain Sally Clark- the Petula came later, invented by her father, Leslie, when she started performing professionally, He joked that it combined the names of two of his former girlfriends, Pet and Ulla. Petula hated it; she still does, although it seems to have stuck. "It sounds like a sort of stage type name," she says, "I much prefer Sally."

Petula's Welsh mother, Doris, a gifted soprano, taught her to sing as she grew up in Epsom, Surrey, Leslie had wanted to be an actor, but was discouraged by his parents, so he became Petula's manager, kept strict control of her life, and many felt fulfilled his showbusiness dreams through his daughter. Petula's career started when, at the age of nine, she went along to a BBc live broadcast of the radio show It's All Yours at the Criterion Theatre in London.

"It was a show that was on the BBC Forces Network- it wasn't heard anywhere in the UK. I was for kids who had their dads, uncles, brothers, serving in the forces and they could go and say, in my case, 'Hello Uncle Dudley, we're thinking of you'.

"in the middle of the rehearsal there was a huge air raid and the place was absolutely shaking. And the producer said, 'Would somebody like to come up and say a piece of poetry or sing a song just to calm things down?' Nobody else volunteered. So I dais, 'Oh I'll sing a song'."

The song was Mighty Like a Rose; "there was a huge response to it and that was the beginning". Petula, 'our Pet', became Britain's answer to Shirley Temple, singing for the troops and doing her bit to keep up morale back home during the war years.

"I just loved to sing. And during that moment in time kids were living a weird kind of existence- we were living in air-raid shelters, and things weren't what you would call normal."

Petula had a regular radio programme with the accent on wartime, morale-building songs, and at the age of 11, became contracted to Britain's most powerful film studio, The Rank Organisation. The life of a young film star was not, however, as glamorous as it seemed, as petula later told the Telegraph:

"I'd do a film then go back to school and I wouldn't have a clue what was going on. the other kids could be pretty cruel. There would be a lot of remarks like, 'You may be famous, but you can't do geometry'."

And it did not get any better as she entered adolescence. "i made some good movies and quite a lot of bad ones. The film company didn't want me to grow up. They wanted me to stay the little girls, and so they would, you know, bind in my bosom and put me in ankle socks."

Singing, however, was what she lived for. "I'm basically shy, so singing is a way of expressing myself. It's wonderful. It's sensual. It's powerful. I think singing must be who I am. It's very deep inside me. There's a huge freedom to it. As soon as I walk in stage to sing I feel free."

Performing in public does not seem to have ever held any fear for her. Petula does not recall, for instance, suffering nerves when, as a child, she sang in front of Winston Churchill at the Royal Albert Hall. "I was backstage reading a comic and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Petula, you're on'. So I dog eared the page and went out onto the Albert Hall, which is quite fearsome. I sang three or four songs, tore the place down, and came back to my comic. It was really as if nothing had happened."

In 1947 Petula recorded her first single Put Your Shoes on Lucy, for EMI. She would, however enjoy most of her early success with the Polygon label, founded by her father and the record producer Alan A Freeman.

During the Fifties she enjoyed hits with The Little Shoemaker, With All My Heart and Alone, but in 1957, after a string of hit records and films, she went to perform in Paris but ended up living there.

"I didn't want to go to France. when I'd been there on holiday I thought it was beautiful, but a bit smelly.

"I only went because my record company thought I should. By then my father and I had parted as manager and artist," she says.

"That situation had to end, it had become difficult. I could never figure out who I was talking to, my father or my manager; we were disagreeing on so many different things."

During her visit to Paris she performed at the Olympia Theatre and, despite suffering a heavy cold, scored a great success. "I could't even say bonsoir, but they went absolutely crazy," she later recalled. the next way Petula visited the offices of her record company, Vogue Records, to discuss a new contract, and it was there that she met her longtime publicist, collaborator and future husband, Claude Wolff. It was, you might day, a lightbulb moment.

'I was talking to the boss of the record company when the light in his office went out, We were in the dark and a man came in to replace the bulb, and when the light came on again, I took one look at him and that was it." That man was Claude Wolff, and the pair were married in 1961. 

"Suddenly, I found myself being a star in France and becoming a woman in France; married, two children, huge career in all the French-speaking territories. People in the UK thought that I had either deserted the country or run away from my life. The press decided to make a bit of a hoo-hah about it. But if I was going to run off anywhere, France would have been the last place. I couldn't speak a word of French"

The French took Petula to their hearts and by 1962 she had become France's favourite female vocalist, even ahead of the legendary Edith Piaf ‘They were warm and welcoming. They found me amusing and they actually found me sexy. I think it was partly that they hadn’t heard an English accent before and I was totally different to anything they were used to. For some reason, they found it extremely charming.

“They liked me the way I was, and that was a nice thing. It turned out I did all my real growing up in France. Suddenly I started to live life and not worry about what people thought of me. I felt completely liberated.’

Recordings in French, Italian, German and Spanish followed, then the composer-arranger Tony Hatch, who had been working with Petula on her Vogue recordings, visited Paris to talk about the next French session.

“He said to me: ‘You really should be recording again in English’. But my head wasn’t in it at the time. I said: ‘Well, you know, if I could find the right song’ and he said he had an unfinished song he wanted to play me, and he played Downtown on the piano. I said: ‘Woah, I like that’. So I asked him to write a lyric up to the standard of the tune, and two weeks later we did it.”

In 1965 Downtown became a global hit, even reaching Number One in the United States and, at the age of 33, Petula was suddenly a bona fide international pop star and a regular on TV variety shows at home, on the continent and in the United States. In 1968 she was granted the rare accolade of her own US primetime special – experiencing racism close-up when she duetted with Harry Belafonte on her own anti-war song On The Path of Glory.

“While I was singing this song I just put my hand on his arm. The sponsor, Chrysler, didn’t like it. And their representative went crazy. He said, ‘No way is my star going to touch a black man’s arm.’ He insisted that we do another version of it, which none of us liked. We wanted it to go out the way it was supposed to be with the emotion in it.

“In the end, it went out that way because we had the other takes erased. There was no way that we were going to be bullied by the sponsor.”

The show was eventually screened four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King and was the first instance on American television of physical contact between a black man and a white woman.

It was a brave gesture, but at the time Petula was riding a wave of popularity with appearances in the films Finian’s Rainbow, in which she danced alongside Fred Astaire, and Goodbye Mr Chips. It was a busy time with more TV specials, her own BBC show, recording and touring.

In 1969 she found herself on stage at the Place des Arts in Montreal, performing a bilingual show in a city where there was, and still is, a big divide between English and French speakers, each feeling threatened by the other’s language.

“I’d previously gone to Montreal as a French performer,” Petula told the Guardian, “but then Downtown became a huge hit everywhere, and they asked me to go back to Montreal, so I thought I could do a bilingual show and do both French and English songs.

“I was wrong. I sang in French and the English-speaking audience were unhappy and quite vocal, and the French were particularly vocal when I sang in English. It was like open war. I was very hurt and I couldn’t understand it at all.”

As it happened John Lennon, an old friend, was in town with his new love, Yoko Ono, staging their bed-in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

“After the show one night I went over to the hotel – no security, of course, I just walked in – and said I wanted to see John Lennon. So up I went, and there they were sitting in bed and he was adorable.

“He could see I had a problem and he put his arms around me. I told him what it was all about and, well, he gave me some colourful advice that I can’t repeat, but the jist of it was, that it didn’t matter, just let them get over it.

“He told me to go and have a glass of wine in the living room, and there were a lot of people in there. There was some music being piped in, a very simple little song, and we started singing along with it, and it was Give Peace a Chance. We were all being filmed and recorded, so I’m on the record of Give Peace a Chance.”

Her relationship with another rock icon does not evoke such happy memories.

In the early Seventies Petula had struck up a friendship with Karen Carpenter, and together they went backstage after an Elvis Presley show in Las Vegas to meet the King himself.

“He was flirting with both of us: ‘Oh wow, the two biggest pop girl stars in the world in my dressing room!’ The all-American, beautiful voice, Karen Carpenter. The all-British pop star. He had the best of both worlds. Well, he didn’t have us exactly, but he had a darn good try! Karen was quite naive and, by then, I wasn’t. I could see what was going on and I felt very protective, almost like I was her big sister. After a while I said, ‘Karen, it’s quite late and you’ve got to do that thing early tomorrow morning’. She just looked confused and said, ‘What thing is that?’ ” In the end, I shoved her out of the room. In fact, I shoved both of us out of the room. Elvis found it quite funny. As we were leaving, I turned around and he was smiling as if to say, ‘I’ll get you one day.’ But he never did.”

Although stardom has had its rewards, a main home in Geneva, where she still lives for most of the year, a holiday chalet in the French Alps where she likes to ski, and a pied-a-terre in London’s Chelsea, Petula still worries about the effect her lifestyle had on her children.

“I wasn’t a good mother because I was away 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. Sorry, but it just can’t. I had a good stab at it, but being a parent and married is a full-time job.

“Emotionally, it was a real wrench every time I had to leave, and I think the whole sad business of saying goodbye to each other so often stayed with the children for many years. I always rushed back home whenever I could and turned down a lot of offers of work so I could be with them, but I still had to make a living. Whatever I may have got wrong then, I hope I’ve managed to put right since.”

And she still feels uncomfortable with some of the trappings of fame.

“The stretch limo with the blackout windows and the bodyguards are fun, but I prefer going out alone with just my bus fare in my pocket and catching a number 19 bus. The scenery’s the same whatever form of transport you’re using,

“I’m fairly solitary. I’m good at being on my own so I don’t need to be surrounded by people.”

And, despite her bubbly persona, Petula told the Mail she has suffered from depression in the past.

“I’ve always had ups and downs. There are moments when I feel elated, and others, especially when I look at the world, that I find a bit desperate. But I’ve always been like that. I’ve never taken anything for granted.”

She split up with Claude in the Eighties, but they have never divorced.

“At the beginning it was because of the children, then as time went by he was living his life, I was living mine. In some strange way, it seemed to work. We’d built a lot together and perhaps it just wasn’t in our education to divorce because there was still that bond between us.

“Of course, it’s painful to think something that was so wonderful had changed but he has his life and I have mine. We had three wonderful children together and we love each other very much. It’s just different now. It’s perhaps not perfect but we make the most of it.”

Petula has since found new love, and with 70 million record sales behind her, could afford to take life easy; but that’s not in her nature. “Becoming a star is one thing, staying a star is another. People are very nostalgic about me, which doesn’t bother me, although I don’t sit around listening to my old records or looking at my old movies. It’s now that matters.

“Sometimes you think, ‘Wait a minute – shouldn’t I be growing radishes somewhere?’ But frankly, this is much more fun!”

Are you a fan of Petula? What's your favourite film/performace of hers?

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