Clark a Hit in America Once Again
by Pat Craig
Contra Costa Times

October 12, 1999


After nine months on the road with "Sunset Boulevard," Petula Clark finds herself encountering a sort of reverse deja vu she has no recollection of ever being in places where people are telling her they're happy to have her back.

"It's strange, really," says Clark. "There are so many places on this tour I thought I was visiting for first time, and then people come up and say, 'Oh it's been so long since we've seen you, welcome back.' Then they say I was here in the '60s."

That was when Clark, with hit songs such as "Downtown" and "I Know a Place," was a pop diva from Swingin' England. She was riding the crest of the first British Invasion, the mid-'60s pop music phenomenon that brought the Beatles to America and made all things British more popular in the states than the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, combined.

"It was a real change," says Clark. "Up until then, it was like one-way traffic for popular music; you'd get a lot of stars coming over to England, but none of us going back. Then it all changed, and suddenly we were calling the tunes, and we loved it. It wasn't just a musical thing in the '60s, it was a huge upheaval, a kind of reaction to everything that had gone before. It really was a revolution, and music was just part of it."

For Clark, now 66, the British pop music invasion came mid-career. She was in her early 30s when "Downtown" became a hit and pleasantly complicated her life.

"I had been in the business ever since I was a kid, and a lot of people in this were just making it for the first time, so I suppose I had a little more wisdom than a lot of them," she says. "But the fact is it almost happened by accident for me. I was married with two small children and living with my husband in Paris at the time. I was recording everything in London, even the French music, so I was aware of what was going on, but I wasn't mixed up in all the madness."

In fact, she was enjoying a nice wave of popularity in France, which meant she and her tunes were enormously popular everywhere French was spoken, from French Canada to Morocco.

As "Downtown" skipped up the charts in America, Clark was on a tour of Canada, singing to French-speaking audiences and trying to keep Ed Sullivan at bay.

"It was really quite unusual. I wasn't that far away; I was in Quebec and Ed Sullivan really wanted to get me on his show," she says. "But it was so hard to explain that I really had to get back to France because in its own way, I was the No. 1 singer in France and had another career that was just as big as what was happening in the states."

She was eventually able to balance things out, but for a while, her life became "pathetically complicated," which explains why she doesn't recall all the towns she's revisiting now with "Sunset Boulevard."

Clark is in something of an unusual position with the show. With her nine months of portraying Norma Desmond in the United States and 18 months in the role in London, she has played the part of the aging silent screen diva longer than anyone else. She was also the most resistant to the role when it was offered to her.

She saw Glenn Close play the role in New York and left the theater impressed with the show, but not emotionally engaged.

"I felt it was a rather cold show," she says, "and I couldn't figure out why at first." It turned out the enormous set stole some of the human element from the presentation, but there was the Norma character, too not exactly a woman of extreme warmth and cuddly charm.

But Clark was asked actually begged to do the role by director Trevor Nunn, who essentially made her an offer she couldn't refuse by telling her he believed she could bring her unique sense of humor and vulnerability to the role.

Nunn had been impressed with Clark's performance in "Blood Brothers," which also had a limited tour in the United States, and apparently had more faith in the singer than Clark had in herself. But she became fascinated with the Norma Desmond character, a silent screen star bent on making a comeback in 1950s Hollywood.

The story focuses on Desmond's attempts to return to movies and the tangled relationship she develops with Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. He views Desmond as a meal ticket at first, but later becomes ensnared in the actress's increasingly bizarre life.

"Every woman who has played the role has done it differently," says Clark. "I kind of like it to be fun, in a way. I mean she's not 'Hello, Dolly!' she's not lovable, there's little awww factor to her. But somehow, if you find a way to make people like her, it makes the ending of the show even more meaningful."

Clark developed her version of the character by looking for clues that would give Desmond some charm and vulnerability.

"I like to show the audience little glimpses of something else going on with her, and that she wasn't always this deluded person, but rather a young movie star, probably very lovely and very good," says Clark. "And when she flirts with Joe, she can be very charming and attractive, so I want to show that is underneath. That's where really part of her sadness is over the years, she's locked herself away in the mansion, and she's grown this sort of veneer over herself."

Desmond, Clark says, is particularly an American film industry creation. When she arrives at the theater two hours before curtain time, Clark says she spends much of her time converting herself into the Desmond personality, and part of that is adapting an American accent.

Even though her British film career goes back more than 50 years, Clark says she can't remember ever meeting anyone like Desmond.

"We really didn't have that sort of star system that you have over here," she says. "We saw it, of course and thought it very glamorous," says Clark. "Things were more austere in England; we'd gone through a bad time during the war and were making sort of men movies with John Mills and Jack Hawkins. We weren't able to make those glamorous movies because they cost too much nothing like Betty Grable or Bette Davis. To all of us, Hollywood was the true glamour, and all that was a kind of mystery."

In a sense, that was what made the '60s British Invasion of the United States so sweet for Clark. She was a popular child actress and performer in England through World War II; she made dozens of British films; had top hit records in France and England and was an enormous European star all before "Downtown" made her the first female British singer to top the American charts.

Clark brings all of this to the Desmond role. And this time, as she tours the country, she gets a little time to stop and see where she is.