Petula Clark

‘We don’t need to talk about yesterday. That’s over now, I’m glad to say. All that really matters is from now on.’

These are words from the title track of Petula Clark’s new album, From Now On – a strikingly contemporary collection of songs on which the 83-year-old showcases her still powerful voice with the drama of a wiser, more battle-weary Lana Del Rey. But they’re also a heartfelt expression of the singer’s avowed desire to keep marching forwards, eyes front, rather than dwelling on the past. Which makes it more than a little tricky trying to steer her through what, Weekend ventures, has been a rather extraordinary life.

‘I suppose it has,’ she says, not sounding terribly convinced. ‘Of course it has had some twists and turns and ups and downs but… you know, my life goes from day to day, just like everybody else.’

‘Twists and turns’ is perhaps an understatement. Born Sally Clark in Epsom, Surrey, in 1932, the young Petula got her big break when, aged nine, she went along to The Criterion Theatre in London to record a BBC radio message for her uncle, who was stationed in Iraq during the war.

‘The BBC used the theatre because it was like an air raid shelter, underground, with sandbags everywhere,’ she recalls. ‘There was a huge air raid during the rehearsal and the producer, to calm things down, said, “Would somebody like to come up and sing a song?” So I went up on stage, they put me on a box, and I sang. Then they said they’d like to include it in the programme. So that was the beginning – it was thanks to the Germans!’

Dubbed ‘Britain’s Shirley Temple’, Clark rapidly became a household name: she sang for George VI and Winston Churchill, and her image adorned Army tanks as a lucky mascot. Not that it meant much to her at the time.

I didn’t know what being a star was,’ she says. ‘All I knew was I was singing more, and I liked it.’

Plus she got to skip a lot of school? ‘Yes, but school was pretty erratic during the war anyway. Even when I went to school we were in air raid shelters a lot of the time. There was no such thing as a normal childhood for anyone, really.’ 

She went on to star in numerous films for the Rank Organisation and, by the age of 17, had her own BBC TV show. But, by her own admission, she stayed too long doing juvenile roles – they even taped her breasts down to make her look younger – and it wasn’t until she moved to France and met and married her publicist, Claude Wolff, that she was able to reinvent herself as a sexy chanteuse, recording a series of hits in French, Spanish, Italian and German (none of which she could speak).

‘In France, I found myself being accepted without any of my history,’ she says. ‘In Britain, people had known me as a child during the war – which was a special time for them. As they saw me growing up, they saw their youth disappearing in front of them, and they didn’t much like that.’

In 1964, just as it seemed her star might be on the wane, Clark was played a few bars of a tune by her friend Tony Hatch. The resulting song, Downtown, was a worldwide smash that topped the charts in America, ushering in a new era of success in which she enjoyed 15 consecutive US hits. She sang with Frank Sinatra, fended off the attentions of Elvis Presley, and even embarked on a Hollywood career, becoming Fred Astaire’s final on-screen dance partner in 1968’s Finian’s Rainbow.

That same year also saw her make history when the simple act of taking Harry Belafonte’s arm while recording her US TV special resulted in the first televised contact between a black man and a white woman. Fearing a backlash from viewers in the south, Chrysler, the show’s sponsor, insisted an alternative take be used – but Clark and Wolff stood their ground, and ordered every other version be wiped.

‘To me that touch was a simple act of friendship,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even think about it. But once I realised what the sponsors were trying to do, I said, “Okay, this is not going to happen”. It was the principle that mattered.’

In 1969, Clark contributed to another cultural landmark when she sang on John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance ­– recorded during the second of his and Yoko’s famous ‘bed-ins’ for peace in Montreal.

She had gone to Lennon’s hotel in some distress after a series of bilingual concerts in the city had turned into ‘open war’ over tensions between native French and English speakers. ‘I arrived at the hotel in the rain, looking like a drowned rat, and said “I want to see John Lennon”’ she recalls. ‘The guy on the desk said, “Okay, go on up” No security, nothing! So I walk in, soaking wet and crying, and John – who I’d never met before – says, “What you need is a glass of wine”. He was so sweet. I went into the living room, where there were one or two people sitting around. There was music in the background, a very simple little tune. Then after a while they gave out a lyric sheet and we all started singing this song, which was Give Peace A Chance.’

So, all told, not quite a life lived ‘just like everybody else’? ‘I’ll be honest, the only time I ever think about it is when I’m talking to people like you,’ Clark insists. ‘I don’t sit around thinking about it, or listening to my old songs, at all.’

New songs, by contrast, she describes as ‘like having love affairs’ – though audiences on her current UK tour won’t be short-changed when it comes to vintage classics like I Know A Place, Don’t Sleep in the Subway and, yes, Downtown. ‘I’m not going to throw out the baby with the bath water,’ she says. ‘I have been blessed with some great songs, and I still love singing them.’

She and Wolff, who have three children and two grandchildren, separated 20 years ago, but still live together – despite Clark having ‘a very nice’ new man in her life. As for her career, she once said that ‘becoming a star is one thing, staying a star is quite another’. So what’s the secret of her extraordinary longevity?

‘I don’t really know, to be honest,’ she shrugs. ‘I think you have to be true to yourself. I know that’s an old fashioned saying, but it’s true. I guess I’ve grown up, but I’ve never really changed.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 20, 2016

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