Petula Clark: ‘I’m Not A Showbiz Person’
Union Jack Interview By Mike
PETULA CLARK has been in the public spotlight
for most of her life, enjoying success in pop music, film and
musical theatre. Her enduring appeal can be attributed not
only to her talent as a singer and performer, but also her
intelligence and a canny sense of self-awareness that has kept
her grounded in the real world. So-called ‘divas’ are a dime a
dozen these days, but this kind of hollow, glitzy
self-mythology doesn’t seem to interest Petula Clark in the
"I’m not a showbiz type person at all," she
admits. "The funny thing about being famous is that I’ve been
famous, I suppose, for so long that I don’t really know what
it feels like anymore. I don’t remember any time really
not being famous, so I don’t even notice it. I don’t
even really know what being famous is!"
Her role as a child star in the 1940s is one she
left behind a long time ago. "I think I started learning
something about this business when I stopped being a
child star," she explains. "Being a child star I was being
manipulated a bit by the film company. I wasn’t allowed to do
this or dress like that – they kept me young for a long, long
time. I didn’t really know what I was doing half the time. I
started learning something about this business probably just
before I went to France."
In 1957 after a performance at the Olympia
theatre in Paris she met her future husband, Claude Woolf, an
event that opened the door to a new phase of her career. "I
went to Paris for one show. They had to talk me into doing
that and I didn’t speak French at all, and it just so happened
that after I did that one night show the next morning I met
the man I married.
"Nobody could be more surprised than me," she
laughs, "falling in love with a Frenchman! If I’d chosen
anywhere to go to get away from England in any way, I think
France would’ve been the last place, because it was to me the
most foreign place I’d ever been to. But I fell in love with a
Frenchman, and I found myself living in France."
Under the guidance of Woolf, she began making
records for the French market, singing in French. Audiences in
France took to her immediately and to her surprise she very
quickly became one of the most popular hit makers in the
"I wasn’t like the other singers in France," she
explains, "I had an English accent and I had a way about me
that was different to the French, and that was I suppose part
of why they liked me. The lovely thing about it was they knew
nothing about my past. They knew nothing about the child star.
So it wasn’t anything to do with what I had been, it was who I
was. So it was very nice!"
Over time she became fluent in French, losing
much of her accent and gaining acceptance as an authentic
French chanteuse, with a repertoire drawing from some of
France’s finest songwriters, such as Serge Gainsbourg. During
the same period she was also recording hit records in Italian
and German, but it wasn’t until 1964 that she was took another
shot at the English market, with a song written for her by
Tony Hatch: "Downtown."
"Downtown," of course, was a smash hit, not only
in Britain but around the world, reaching Number One in the
USA and launching her as an international singing star. A
string of hits followed including "I Know A Place," "A Sign of
the Times" and "Don’t Sleep In the Subway," all the product of
her creative partnership with Tony Hatch, who acted not only
as her chief songwriter (often with wife Jackie Trent), but
also her producer, musical arranger and studio pianist. For a
while the Clark-Hatch coalition seemed virtually
"It was joyful and actually quite easy,"
remembers Petula. "When you’re on a roll like that, going into
the studio is a marvelous experience, and everybody would be
excited about it, the orchestra would be excited – because we
were working live. We were doing all the records mostly in
London with really almost a symphonic sounding orchestra
sitting on top of a rock and roll band.
"I think with ‘Downtown’ we were recording live.
I think we did three takes and used the second one!" she
laughs. "You don’t do that very often anymore, unless you’re
doing a live concert, but these days [in the studio] you
hardly ever see a musician."
Petula has some fond memories of her visits to
America in the 1960s, such as appearing on The Big TNT
Show, a concert movie, alongside the Byrds, Ike & Tina
Turner, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley and a host of other big
"The TNT Show was kind of great. It was a
marvelous meeting: Phil Spector was leading the orchestra, and
that alone was pretty amazing, he was sort of leaping up and
down like a deranged pixie. Ike & Tina Turner were on,
Joan Baez, Bo Diddley and a whole load of other people and we
were all together in the same studio and it was absolutely
wonderful. It was one of those great moments that I remember
about the Sixties."
But Sixties America also had a darker side, and
in 1968 Petula inadvertently found herself at the centre of a
racial controversy. The incident, which caused headlines at
the time: touching Harry Belafonte’s arm during a duet on her
own NBC TV show.
"I remember being a bit bemused about it," she
reflects. "To me it was a storm in a teacup. I had come in
from Europe where we I suppose at the time we were a little
more – I don’t know, educated? Sophisticated? Whatever you’d
like to call it – about such things.
"Anyway, we were singing this anti-war song
actually, it was something I had written, and Harry liked it a
lot and we did it as a duet and we had rehearsed it. We were
always very moved by it and Harry’s a very emotional
performer, and so am I … I think we did one take with the way
we wanted to do it, and that was where I touched his arm – I
mean, big deal! I mean, we’d been hugging each other and
larking around for three weeks, you know?"
After the take ended, a message came down from
the control room. The producers wanted to try another take.
"We’ve got some artistic ideas," the singers were told.
"Really it’ll look wonderful on the screen. Why don’t you go
back, separate on the screen. Just move back there, Harry,
about three to four – no, maybe make that nine feet back!"
Petula laughs as she remembers both the
awkwardness and absurdity of the situation. As transparent as
the ruse might seem now, at the time she was unaware of what
was happening and reluctantly agreed to go along with the new
take. "Harry wasn’t pleased about it," she admits, "but I
didn’t twig it at all, because I was totally innocent of all
that kind of stuff."
After the second take, with the duo
uncomfortably singing across a safe distance, the lights went
out and everybody was instructed to take a break. Petula’s
husband came down from the control room, along with their
lawyer. "I said, ‘What was all that about?’ He said, ‘Just
"We went downstairs," she continues, "down into
the basement where they keep all the tapes of all the takes
that I’d done. There were only two takes of this song, ‘Path
of Glory,’ and we went to this technician down there keeping
an eye on all the taping, and our lawyer said, ‘This is Petula
Clark, this is her husband, who is the executive producer on
the show, and we want you to erase everything you have on this
except this particular take.’
"The guy said, ‘I can’t erase that! We always
need at least one take extra in case something goes wrong!’ He
said, ‘This is an order. I’m a lawyer. You do it.’ And the guy
very reluctantly erased everything we had on the song except
for the take when I touched his arm."
Claude Woolf had accurately surmised the racist
motivation behind the re-take of the duet. Outraged, he had
taken action to ensure that the right take would be used for
the broadcast – and all subsequent repeat broadcast.
"What had happened," explains Petula, "was the
guy who was representing the sponsor was in the sponsor box
and he went mad when I touched Harry’s arm. ‘We’re selling
cars! I want to sell cars in the South and he don’t want our
star touching a black man.’ I couldn’t believe what I was
hearing! But of course Harry had seen this coming."
The show went out over the air with the original
take, showing the completely innocuous but apparently
unprecedented physical contact between a white woman and a
black man – a small but in a way significant victory for the
civil rights movement.
"It hit all the papers," remembers Petula. "For
me it was just so silly, but I didn’t realize I was stepping
into the United States in 1968, which was a very big year,
let’s put it that way. Without even realizing it I suppose I
had done my bit in a way."
Petula will be back in the United States this
month for a show at Humphrey’s in San Diego on July 15. I
asked her what the audience could expect to see and hear.
"Obviously I’ll be doing most of the songs that
people might expect me to: ‘Downtown,’ ‘Subway,’ ‘My Love,’
‘This Is My Song – all of those hits. In a nutshell,
everything in the show is personal to me in one way or
another. Either the hits, or songs I’ve done in movies like
Finian’s Rainbow or Goodbye Mr Chips, or musical
shows I’ve been in, Sunset Boulevard and Blood
Brothers, or songs that I’ve written, because I do quite a
lot of writing. I’ll also be playing piano and I’ll be
reciting poem – the only poem I’ve ever written! So it’s a
very personal show."
Like Petula, most Union Jack readers are
British expatriates. We talked about that definition and what
the expatriate experience means to her.
"I suppose it’s a choice that we make somewhere
down the line without actually making the choice," she
says. "When I left England for France, I left because I was in
love with a Frenchman and it seemed a perfectly natural,
normal thing to do, and I found myself being very happy in
France, which would happen to you somewhere along the line if
you adapt well enough, which I did. But that means that you’re
losing some of your identity as an English person. It’s a very
"When I first came back to England after living
in France, I was having problems speaking English, hesitating
– as I am tonight, actually, because I’ve been speaking French
for a week! And you’re not quite the same person you were
before and you don’t see things in quite the same way. It’s a
"Of course if you use it well it can broaden you
mind and can be a wonderful thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in
the States; I work a lot in the States. I work in many
different countries and I find it absolutely fascinating to
see how other people live and how they speak and how they eat.
I love it. That’s one of the great things about being in this
business, you travel a lot and if you can get out of the hotel
and the limousine type syndrome, which I always do, you can
use it and learn. But it does somehow cut you off from your
own country a little bit. You’re not quite the same as the
rest of the people who stayed at home."
Never the same as the rest, Petula Clark
continues to make her own choices, letting her charm, class
and natural talent carry her career forward.
"I’m not a yesterday person," she insists, "and
what I’m doing now is much more fun for me too. I feel much
freer in what I do. So if people come see me on stage they
really will see who I am, not somebody’s idea of who I