Est. 1982
July 2004

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Petula Clark: ‘I’m Not A Showbiz Person’

An Exclusive Union Jack Interview By Mike Stax

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 least.

"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.

SURPRISED

"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 country.

"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 unstoppable.

JOYFUL

"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 names.

"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.

BEMUSED

"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 come downstairs.’

ERASE

"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."

SHOW

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 strange thing.

"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 strange feeling!

"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 am."