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Submitted by Richard Layne
Petula Clark was once one of the world's biggest singing stars and
had everything. So why, in her 70th year, does she now seem
bitter? She tells Simon Hattenstone
Wednesday February 20, 2002
Petula Clark sits on a sofa, elegant and edgy, clasping her hands together for hope and protection. Despite the decades globetrotting, she still combines British restraint with girly sexiness. Clark, 70 this year, is one of the great misunderstoods of pop history. In the late 90s, she played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and critics drew glib conclusions about a time-trapped star playing a time-trapped star.
"I've been asked if I relate to Norma Desmond so many times," she says, somewhat peeved. "No, I don't relate to Norma. I certainly don't live in the past. People have wanted me to, but I don't."
Who wanted her to live in the past? "I was a child performer - well a star, I suppose." She shudders when she says star. "And the Rank Organisation to whom I was under contract didn't want me to grow up because I was more valuable to them as a child than as an adolescent. So I was kept back."
Being a child star sounds awful, I say. So exploitative. "Well it is exploitative." Her father, who had been an army corporal, became her manager. "When I was old enough to start caring about these things I did think I'd like to be able to go home and talk to my dad and not my manager. To be able to separate the two is not easy." Did he ever want to speak to his daughter instead of his protege? "You know, I honestly don't know. I think for him it was a different thing because he had always wanted to be an actor, and I think he was living through me."
The coffee arrives. Clark is coughing - she's just had an infection. I decide to be mum, and pour. There is something vulnerable about her. "No milk, no sugar, please. Sometimes coffee's the only thing that works."
She is still best known in Britain for belting out those classics in the 60s, notably Downtown and Don't Sleep in the Subway - searing vocals, great symphonic backdrop, songs about fighting misery that made us happy. But before that she'd been a huge star in France. And before that she'd starred in film after film for Rank. After her heyday in Britain, she became massive in America. Until recently, she had sold more records than any British female singer. Now she is touring Britain to promote her Ultimate Collection CD.
She has always had an ambivalent relationship with Britain. Born in Epsom, she left for France in her early 20s when she married pop promoter Claude Woolf. Her fans felt betrayed - like the Rank Organisation they didn't want her to grow up. When she came back she was accused of having airs and graces and an affected French accent. "They said I'd changed my image, but I had no idea what they were talking about. I'd just changed, evolved. There'd have been something wrong with me if I'd not come back a bit different."
Clark could be talking about yesterday. The bitterness is still fresh. She still sounds bewildered by British bigotry. At the time, there seemed to be something exotic in marrying a Frenchman.The British press felt the relationship was inappropriate. "Oh, they didn't want sexiness. Sex was definitely out. My God! Our Pet's married a foreigner and a Frenchman what's more. Don't even go there!" What does she mean? "Well our Pet was sexless or asexual anyway." Yes, many fans wanted her to be an eternal virgin. At the same time, she had also had an erotic appeal. Her fans felt they had a claim on young Petula.
She felt oppressed by her public image. She worshipped Peggy Lee, and wanted to sing about fevered passions, and show off her cleavage, but the Brits wouldn't have it. How did it affect her? "Oh I hated it. It's about the last thing you want when you're starting to express some kind of sexuality. It wasn't even that; it was just wanting to be yourself."
A young hunk walks into our hotel room to adjust the fire. He could be straight out of the Chippendales. Clark perks up no end. "You Australian?" she asks. "Where you from? Ah, Melbourne, oh lovely. You're a surfer are you? Yeah, it's beautiful. Just beautiful." She looks disappointed when he leaves.
When she went to France she became huge. Eventually, she outsold Edith Piaf. "I was voted their top singer," she says proudly. Then songwriter Tony Hatch revived her British career with Downtown. By the 60s, a number of British singers were breaking through - Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull. Clark was both of them and not of them. She was still living in France, bringing up her children, and was by now regarded as a bit of a bore for her stability.
Had she become too sensible? "Sensible?" She sounds mildly affronted. "I'm in showbusiness. How can I be sensible? I'm relatively sensible."
In the past, Clark has talked about her open marriage. I ask if she is still married. " Yes..." she says with a quiver. It sounds more like a question than an answer. I ask her what she means by that, but she simply says she's been married for more than 40 years.
Since 1968 Clark has lived in Geneva. I ask her where is her true home. The seconds pass. There is something melancholic in her silence. "I have different homes. I suppose London is my slippers- type home - I feel comfortable here. Paris is more of a spiritual home. And New York is the buzz. I enjoy the competition and toughness of New York. It's like the song - if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere - and New York has always been great to me. And Geneva is a wonderful place to put your feet up and listen to... the silence."
When she was younger she thought she could be superwoman. "At one time in the 60s when I had three children I thought, 'I can do it all. I can be a great wife and mother and a pretty good performer, too.' But you can't actually do it."
How has she failed? Well, she says if she'd not been a singer she would have been a better mum and vice versa. Twenty years ago her eldest daughter Bara developed a heroin problem and blamed it on her mother's frequent absences. Now she and Bara, who has two children, are as close as possible. "She's come through it as an amazing person. And I learned a lot from that, too. I don't wish it on anybody, but there is something to be learned from everything."
She says her children are very supportive of her, and stresses she means personally, not professionally. "Because I don't know what they think of me professionally, actually. They'll come to a show from time to time... I may not be their cup of tea, but... I think it's OK..." She trails off. "I'd hate them to feel embarrassed by me. I'd hate to embarrass myself come to that."
See, I say, you have had it all - married 40 years, three kids, amazing career. For some strange reason I feel the need to comfort the woman who has sold 70m records and was John Lennon's favourite female vocalist. "Yes, but it's not as straightforward as that." You can't help feel she's holding back. Indeed, she tells you she does hold back.
She says she can't wait for this tour, taking in the old smells of England that make her feel she's back home. "I do come somewhat into my own on stage. I'm totally released when I'm on stage." Sometimes, she says, she finds herself crying when she's singing. Is she crying for memories or for the song? "Sometimes it touches something very personal and sometimes you just get carried away with that moment of communication with an audience; That's the great thing about performing live - the feeling that you're not alone."