Last week, I was blown away by the fact that Petula Clark celebrated her 84th birthday. How could this be? Well, Here’s how…
Petula Clark was a star at the age of 11. She starred in the music halls and on BBC radio singing for the troops during WWII. She was a child star in a series of British films from the end of WWII through to the early 1950s, and by 1954 was having hit records. After a move to France in 1960, having fallen for a Frenchman, she had hit records all over Europe, and by 1966 with such hits as “Downtown” and “My Love” having topped the American charts, became a truly international star.
Petula Sally Olwen Clark was born in West Ewell Surrey, England on November 15, 1932. Petula made her first broadcast as a singer for the BBC Radio Overseas Service in October 1942, and became an overnight star on BBC National Radio in December 1942 at the age of 10. With her girl-next-door Englishness, she became known to the British public as ‘Our Pet’, and had a regular radio program with the accent on wartime, morale-building songs. In 1944, she contracted with Britain’s most powerful film studio, The Rank Organization.
Her Welsh mother Doris, a gifted soprano, taught her pretty, confident daughter to sing as she grew up in Epsom, Surrey. Petula’s father Leslie had wanted to be an actor, but was discouraged by his parents. He became Petula’s manager, kept strict control of her life, and many felt he fulfilled his show business dreams through her.
Ms. Clark’s first public performance was in a department store called Bentalls in Kingston-upon-Thames, as she describes, “They had what they called the escalator hall, and in the middle, there was this platform and there was an orchestra playing. I’d never seen an orchestra before and I didn’t know an orchestra was made of people – I’d only heard it on the wireless. I was mesmerized by this. My dad went up to the conductor and said, “My daughter would like to sing with the band”, and so I did. I was paid with a tin of toffees, which I thought was pretty good. I was happy with the sweets.”
Petula says she treated it all as a great adventure. She recalls, ‘The first time I sang at the Albert Hall there was not a nerve in my body. I was reading a comic backstage when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Petula, you’re on.” “I dog-eared the comic, went on, pulled the place down, came off and went back to my comic as though nothing had happened. That wouldn’t happen now! You’d have to shove me out there. As one matures, you know things can go wrong and so much more is expected of you.”
After many radio shows for the BBC during World War 2, Petula made her film debut in “Medal for the General” in 1945. Notable films include the classic Powell/Pressburger film “I know where I’m going” (1945), London Town (USA “My heart goes crazy”) (1946), Vice Versa (directed by Peter Ustinov) (1948), and the classic Huggett trio of family films which were to be the forerunner of television soap operas in the UK (1948-9). Her first leading role was in “Don’t ever leave me” (1949), and “The Card” (USA “The Promoter”) with Alec Guinness and Glynis Johns (1952). Petula was nominated for an award for best supporting actress in the hospital film drama “White Corridors” (1951) which even got shown in East Germany as well as New York. British film-goers voted her their 6th best actress in 1951 just behind Greer Garson and ahead of Jane Wyman.
More films followed, and, likened to another child star Shirley Temple, the teenage Petula was upset when she found Rank was reluctant to let her grow up. It tried to keep her looking as young as possible by having a band tied around her bust to flatten it (see above)
“It hurt physically and it hurt up here in my head,’ she recalls. ‘A child wants to grow up and act older than their age rather than younger. I was employed to be charming and cute though – so I learned how to be exactly that!”
As well as her film work, Petula was a regular on BBC radio and television and British stage variety shows, and from 1957 in France and other European territories. She acted in comedy radio shows such as “Life of Bliss” and radio series with her pianist and musical director Joe “Mr. Piano” Henderson. Petula was a recording star in the UK from 1949, with “The little shoemaker”(1954) being her first top 10 hit (also hitting #1 in Australia) and “With all my heart” which took her to France.
In 1957, after a string of hit records and films, she went to perform in Paris and then caused a stir by leaving the UK – and getting away from her father, who some believe had driven her to the point of breakdown.
The attraction was a handsome PR called Claude Wolff. ‘I was talking to the boss of my French record company when the light in his office went out. We were in the dark and a man came in to replace the bulb, and when the light came on again, I took one look at him and that was it.’ The pair married in 1961 and they have three children, Bara (1961), Kathy (1963) and Patrick (1972).
Sean Connery in Mr. Universe 1953
Petula had always had an eye for a good-looking man. In the early 1950s she flirted with Sean Connery, then a chorus boy in the stage musical South Pacific. “I remember one particularly wild night when we ended up under a piano, drinking gin and cider cocktails.” She also had a long relationship with pianist Joe Henderson. But Claude was altogether different.
“I wasn’t expecting anything like it to happen,” she says. ‘He was the man around Paris. He knew everyone. I fell in love immediately. I couldn’t speak a word of French and I didn’t especially like France. It seemed a bit smelly, particularly going back to that time, France was probably more French than it is now. The truth is I fell in love with a Frenchman and that was it. Claude couldn’t be in England, he couldn’t speak English. He had a career going with the record company, so it was decided I’d go to France and I built a new life there.’
In the 1980s, she and Claude went their separate ways. ‘We didn’t decide to split up – we drifted apart. I don’t think Claude liked America but my career had opened up in the States so I was working there a lot. The real reason we split up is hard to define. I suppose we became different people.’ Why have they not bothered to divorce?
‘At the beginning, it was because of the children, then as time went by he was living his life, I was living mine. In some strange way, it seemed to work. We’d built a lot together and perhaps it just wasn’t in our education to divorce because there was still that bond between us.’
They often reunite with their children. Barbara, the eldest, is married to French interior designer Baron Robert de Cabrol, and they live in New York with their children Sebastian and Annabelle. Kate is a yoga professor and splits her time between Paris and Geneva. Patrick (Paddy) also lives in Geneva and is a golfer as well as the owner of a golf shop.
.By 1962 she became France’s top female singer with such big selling hits as “Chariot”, “Couer blesse” and “Ya ya twist”, securing her the prestigious Grand Prix National du Disques Francais. Her hits in four languages included “Monsieur” selling a million copies sung in German! Her song “Sailor” became her first of 2 #1 hits in the UK.
Although Petula had recorded an album in Hollywood in 1959 and some of her early songs had limited releases in the USA, it was not until 1965 that she became an “overnight” sensation with “Downtown” topping the charts, and the first of many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. It made her the first British female singer to sell a million copies in the USA and with “My love” first to top the USA charts twice! Petula has three Grammy awards (two for “Downtown” and one for “I know a place”, and Cashbox in the USA voted her top female singer of 1966.
Petula also had success as a songwriter with the Top 5 USA hit covered by the Vogues “You’re the one” in 1965, and “Now that you’ve gone” covered by Connie Stevens. In Europe and Canada she had self-penned hits “Je chante doucement”, “Que fais-tu la Petula”, “You’re the one”, “Le agent secret”, and “Bleu blanc rouge”. Petula also appeared as herself and sang and wrote incidental film music for “A Couteaux Tires” (USA Daggers Drawn) in 1964.
By 1966, Petula was one of the most popular and best-selling female singers in the world with other hits including “I couldn’t live without your love”, “This is my song”, “Sign of the times”, “Don’t sleep in the subway” and “Kiss me goodbye”. In 1967 she was presented with the “International Award” by “Midem” (International music industry awards) alongside the Beatles and Tom Jones. Her many USA television appearances included duets with Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Danny Kaye, Helen Reddy, Perry Como, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, Carol Burnett, Richard Carpenter, The Everly Brothers, Peggy Lee, Tom Jones, and even Bob Hope!.
“I was doing a series of concerts at the Place des Arts in Montreal. I’d previously gone to Montreal as a French performer. But then Downtown became a huge hit everywhere and they asked me to go back to Montreal, so I thought I could do a bilingual show and do both French and English songs. I was wrong. I sang in French and the English-speaking audience was unhappy and quite vocal, and the French were particularly vocal when I sang in English. It was like open war. It was really very hard, and I was very hurt and I couldn’t understand it at all. I really didn’t know what to do and I needed to talk to somebody who I had no connection with, and John was in town with Yoko doing a bed-in for peace. So after the show one night I went over to the hotel – no security, of course, I just walked in – and said I wanted to see John Lennon. So up I went, and there they were sitting in bed and he was adorable. He could see I had a problem and he put his arms around me. I told him what it was all about and, well, he gave me some advice that I have always followed when such difficulties would arise: “Fuck ‘em!”
“He said it didn’t matter, let them get over it, and he told me to go and have a glass of wine in the living room, and there were a lot of people in there. It was just chilling out, nothing weird. There was some music being piped in, a very simple little song, and we started singing along with it, and it was Give Peace a Chance. We were all being filmed and recorded, so I’m on “Give Peace a Chance.”
As a dramatic actress on television, Petula starred in the 1957 ITV drama “Guest in the house”. In 1972 she appeared as herself in “Here’s Lucy” with the legendary Lucille Ball playing her secretary for the day! In 1981 in France, Petula had a major role in the French drama serial “Sans Famille”.
Hollywood films included “Finian’s Rainbow” directed by Frances Ford Coppola with Fred Astaire (1968) giving Petula a Golden Globe nomination.
Finian’s Rainbow turned out to be the last movie Astaire danced in. ‘He was great. I don’t think snob is the word, but he hated mediocrity and vulgarity. He was such a classy guy he couldn’t bear being around anything that wasn’t. He didn’t like anything tacky. His home was like a tasteful movie set.
‘He was playing a down and out in the film and the poor wardrobe woman had a hard time making him look shabby. She’d tie a piece of string around him and it would look like it was the latest thing in fashion. He was such a perfectionist he’d stay in the studio at the weekend to rehearse over and over again. He was just as nervous about singing with me as I was about dancing with him.’
As a stage actress her credits are “Sauce for the Goose” (UK 1950), “The constant Nymph” (UK 1954), “The Sound of Music” (breaking house records as Maria in London 1981-2), “Candida” (UK 1983), “Someone like you” (1989-90 UK tour and London, 1990) for which she wrote the music, “Blood Brothers” Broadway (1993-4) and USA tour (1994-5) with David Cassidy and “Sunset Boulevard” as Norma Desmond (London 1995-7) and USA tour 1998-2000).
As a singing star, Petula has taken her one-woman show from London’s Royal Albert Hall to the Sydney Opera House and Washington’s Kennedy Center. Petula has given bilingual concerts at the Paris Olympia and Place des Arts in Montreal. She has been a Las Vegas headliner since 1966, with a million dollar contract to headline at Caesars Palace. In 2015 she made a triumphant return to Vegas this time at the renowned Las Vegas Hilton.
As a television star, Petula was one of, if not the first female singing star to have her own BBC TV series (1946) and since then has had TV specials and series around the world including one notable show which she hosted broadcast live to France from Liverpool’s famous Cavern club. Petula co-hosted the BAFTA awards from the Royal Albert Hall in 1974, and hosted episodes of the legendary American series “Hullabaloo”, Kraft music hall and “Hollywood Palace”. In 1972 David Frost featured her as sole guest on one of his legendary David Frost Shows live from New York, and in 1979 she hosted a “Golden Gala” from London’s Drury Lane celebrating the European Union and broadcast all over Europe. Petula’s three American television specials (1968-70) were shown internationally, and her 1974 BBC TV series “The Sound of Petula” won her the “Most exciting female singer on TV” award. She hosted French shows, notably the popular “Top” and “Numero Un” series which were broadcast live.
As well as her CBE presented by Queen Elizabeth in 1998, in 2012 Petula was awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in Paris, for her distinguished career in France. In 2013 at the age of 80 Petula was back with a new Top 30 album success in the UK (“Lost in you” Sony Records), and her new recording of “Cut copy me” became a remixed dance top 40 hit all over Europe. The song was also voted by the prestigious “Time” magazine into their Top 10 songs of 2013.
Meanwhile, for several years she has had a new partner whose name she declines to divulge.
“It works and we’re both enjoying it. We were friends first and the romantic side happened later. Yes, he’s younger than me. I don’t want to elaborate. If I start getting into details it won’t work. It’s a delicate subject.
For now, the tour occupies all her thoughts. “I’ll probably be knackered by the end of it. It’s intensive, but that’s the job. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And I’m not getting out of the kitchen for a long time yet.”