At 83 and with an incredible career behind her, Petula Clark isn’t standing still. She’s even recorded a new album, writes Lorraine Wylie
IT’S hard to imagine a time when social media didn’t exist. An era when twitter was birdsong and friends were people you actually knew. Born in 1932, Petula Clark’s generation was free from the tyranny of internet and mobile phones. But instead of a cacophony of ring tones, the soundtrack to Clark’s childhood was more sinister. As World War II raged across Europe, life was constantly interrupted by the shriek of sirens and exploding bombs.
“During the war, life was hard for everyone and most children missed out on a lot of things. Yet, there were also some very special times. Somehow children can find joy, even in the darkest moments.”
For Clark, 83, some of her happiest moments were spent at her grandparent’s home in South Wales.
“I was very close to my grandparents. They lived in a tiny village in a house, with no electricity or running water. Grandad was a miner and nana was plump and a little bossy. They spoke very little English so I learned to speak Welsh, although, I’ve forgotten most of it now. Nana was always going to chapel and liked to take me with her. I sang there many times. I’ve some very fond memories of playing with my cousin. We used to slide down the tips on the lid of a biscuit tin.”
Considering her Welsh heritage its little wonder that music has always featured in Clark’s life.
Her mother Doris, a gifted soprano, is credited with teaching her daughter to sing, but when the nine-year-old used her talent to calm a BBC audience during an air raid, no could have imagined the result. Her impromptu rendering of ‘Mighty Lak’ a Rose’ launched her into the limelight and brought her some very important fans, among them George VI and Winston Churchill. Although neither dignitary made much of an impression.
“It didn’t matter to me who was in the audience. I suppose, as a child, I wasn’t really aware of the VIP side of things. I just loved to sing. I’m still the same today.”
Her father gave her the name Petula Sally Olwen Clark but to the public she was affectionately known as ‘Our Pet’. Adopted by the nation, she began her career entertaining troops on radio as well as appearing at venues across the UK. Touring, often accompanied by Julie Andrews, another child star, could be exciting. But there was one obvious drawback.
“My schooling was rather skimpy, and naturally, my education suffered. I was so busy performing that, when I was in school, I felt as though I was constantly playing catch-up with my classmates. Not easy.”
In 1944, when film director Maurice Elvey cast her in his wartime drama, Medal for the General, he unwittingly made Petula’s dream come true.
“I was around six years old when I made up my mind to become an actress. My dad had taken me to see a 1938 production of Mary Tudor and from that moment, my dream was born. In fact I wanted to grow up and become Ingrid Bergman.”
A string of films followed in quick succession, among them a popular series of Here Come the Huggetts. Gradually, as adolescence approached, the role of ‘child star’ became an uncomfortable fit. The young girl was growing up but Rank Organisation wouldn’t alter their script. In an attempt to delay the more obvious signs of maturity they insisted she wear a band to flatten her bust.
“As an artist, I felt frustrated that my choice of songs and the roles I was offered were too young for me. Growing up is a natural process but the Organisation wanted to hold it back. The crepe bandage I wore didn’t cause any physically pain but as a young teenager, it probably caused a few psychological bruises.”
The 1960s ushered in a cultural revolution, changing everything from fashion to music. The era was also to mark a new chapter in Clark’s personal life.
“I’d been invited to appear at the Paris Olympia but at the time I was suffering a bad cold and almost turned it down. Fortunately, I decided to go and the French went crazy. The next morning, I went along to the office of Vogue records to discuss a contract and during the meeting, the light went out. A guy came in to replace the bulb and as soon as I saw him I was smitten. I didn’t speak a word of French but I knew he was the man for me.”
WOLFF IN CHIC CLOTHING
The good looking stranger turned out to be Claude Wolff, the company’s PR man and although he had a girlfriend at the time, Cupid’s dart had found its mark. “We started dating and although conversation was a bit halting, we managed fine.”
The couple married in 1961 and as well as gaining a husband Petula found herself with a new manager.
“Until then, my dad had always been my manager. But, there were times when the situation was difficult. Combining the role of boss with parent wasn’t easy and sometimes the two clashed. Working so closely with family can be tricky. It sounds great but in reality, it has its challenges. By the time Claude took over, we had learned from previous mistakes and recognised which dangers to avoid. He was very good, understanding and supportive. When I was away, he looked after the home and took care of the kids.”
Initially, her decision to move to France, ruffled a few British feathers but her records continued to sell and her popularity soared, especially when ‘Downtown’ hit the charts.
“When Tony Hatch came to see me, he had a few bars of a song inspired by his trip to New York. There was something about it I liked and I asked if he could come up with lyrics that were equally good. The rest is history.”
The 1960s continued to be a golden era both sides of the channel. The song ‘Romeo’ sold over a million copies globally and won her first gold disc. In France, she became the only female artist to have a successful recording of ‘Ya Ya Twist’. By this stage, America was also clamouring for attention but with two small children, Petula was finding it increasingly harder to balance home and career.
“My success in America came at a time when my career in France was already taking off. I was inundated with work and obligations I had to fulfil. I felt torn between the demands of work and the needs of my family. In the beginning when the kids were small, we could take them with us. But as they started school, it wasn’t always possible.
“It seemed we were always saying goodbye. For a long time, I felt guilty that I hadn’t spent enough time with them. Now, they assure me that far from feeling neglected, they understand how the hard work paid off and they appreciated the good things, such as education and a nice home.”
In the early 1970s, Clark decided to scale back her work and spend more time with her family. A decade later and with her children’s blessing she returned to the stage, starring as Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music.
In 2004, Irish fans flocked to see her at the Cork Opera House where she gave a repeat performance of Norma Desmond (from Sunset Boulevard by Adrew Lloyd Webber).
“I had a great time in Cork and have been back a number of times since then. Unfortunately, Ireland isn’t on this tour’s schedule but, who knows, what will happen? All that can change in the months ahead.”
It’s been seven decades since she sang to a wartime audience. Today, as her latest album, From Now On, proves, her voice is as youthful as ever. So what’s her secret?
“In all honesty, I don’t do anything special for my voice. I just get up and sing.”
Today, many celebrities advocate the use of cosmetic surgery and Clark admits to having a scar above her eyebrow removed. How did she get the scar?
“I was admiring my new shoes,” she laughs. “My mum had bought me new shoes and I was so busy looking at them, I wasn’t watching where I was going and walked straight into a lamp post.
“But, in all honesty, I don’t have a particular beauty regime. I just accept life and make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all anyone can do.”
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