Petula Clark has a complicated love life. She’s been married to Claude Wolff, the father of her three grown-up children, for 55 years but no longer lives with him.
Instead, she shares her life with a boyfriend (she discreetly refuses to say who) whom she fell in love with ‘a few years ago’.
‘It’s a wonderful thing falling in love,’ she says. ‘There’s a song I wrote called Happiness – that sweet and fleeting feeling we all need to know is waiting here inside us.’ She half sings, half speaks the words. Stops. Smiles. ‘Being in love is that crazy, fantastic, warm feeling.’
Petula today shares her life with a boyfriend (she discreetly refuses to say who)
Petula lights up like a flashbulb as she speaks about falling in love, which is all rather wonderful given she has reached an age when... well, let’s say the only warm feeling many of her generation hanker after is a mug of Horlicks before bed.
Sitting with Petula you have to keep reminding yourself that she’s 83, for she could easily pass as a woman in her 50s. In fact, her only concession to her age is a sensible pair of crepe-soled shoes. From the ankles up, she’s a vision of flowing scarves and glowing skin, albeit a rather more lived-in skin than when she recorded her first big hit, The Little Shoemaker, in 1954.
‘I’m a woman so I have my good days and my bad days,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to lose a bit of weight at the moment, just around my hips. But as soon as I lose it, I’ll lose it on my face and up here.’ She cups her breasts. Shakes her head. ‘The places I don’t want to.’
We meet because Petula is about to release her latest album From Now On, created at the west London home of record producer John Williams, in his ‘studio at the bottom of the garden, two doors away from where David Cameron used to live’.
To date, Petula has sold 70 million records, with hits including Downtown and Don’t Sleep In The Subway. She was this country’s first female to win a Grammy, has sung with Frank Sinatra, danced with Fred Astaire and joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed (more of which later). Yet she says she’s ‘still learning all the time, still striving for perfection’. Hence this latest studio album made in a ‘Wendy house’, as Petula fondly refers to it.
‘John’s garden is a beautiful, real English garden with a building that looks like a Wendy house. By the mic I had a window and could see the flowers and the trees, hear the birds. We were working mostly with quite young people writing. I was a bit hesitant at first because I don’t look on myself as a songwriter, but John would get an idea, then I’d get an idea, then someone else would come in and we’d put it in a pot and mix it up.’
The album is astonishingly contemporary. Lyrical. Poignant.
Petula dancing with Fred Astaire in 1968 movie Finian's Rainbow
‘There are times when I get frustrated with myself at the microphone, times when I think I can’t sing or don’t like the sound I’m making. John knows how to handle me: tea and biscuits.’ She smiles. It’s this that defines Petula: her desire to ‘nail it’.
In the flesh, she’s a shy, tiny figure of a woman who, for all her fame, is not in the least bit starry. But, when she sings, well, best let her explain. ‘I’m basically shy, so singing is a way of expressing myself. It’s wonderful. It’s sensual. It’s powerful. I think singing must be who I am. It’s very deep inside me. There’s a huge freedom to it. As soon as I walk on stage to sing I feel free.’
Freedom is a word that crops up time and again in this surprisingly personal interview. Indeed, she tells me that when she thinks about a life beyond this one she likes to imagine flying free as a bird. ‘I’d like to think there is something afterwards and I’d like to be a bird,’ she says. ‘It must be the most wonderful freedom to be able to fly.
‘My apartment in Geneva is level with the trees. I watch birds all the time. I’ve got a little blackbird who comes and sings for me here [at her house in Chelsea]. I’ve got a tiny place on a one-way street so you don’t get much traffic. I open the window and hear the birds at night.’
There’s a sense in which Petula has been trying to fly free since adolescence. A child star at the age of nine and managed by her overbearing father, Leslie, her film career began after she sang at the Royal Albert Hall as a 12-year-old. With her girl-next-door Englishness, she was employed by the Rank Organisation to be cute and became known to the British public as ‘Our Pet’.
‘As a child I was having fun,’ she says. ‘Adolescence was pretty awful. I had to tie a band around my breasts and they kept me young for a long time – until about 19. So all through that I wasn’t in control of anything.’
As a child star, aged 13, in 1946 film Trouble At Townsend
In 1957, after a string of hit records and films, she went to perform in Paris and ended up living there. ‘By then my father and I had parted as manager and artist,’ she says. ‘That situation had to end, it had become difficult. I could never figure out who I was talking to, my father or my manager, we were disagreeing on so many different things.
‘I didn’t actually want to go to Paris. I didn’t speak a word of French and the last time I’d been there I thought it was a bit smelly. Eventually they talked me into it and I went. I was in the office of the record company boss with a terrible cold and didn’t want to be there. I just wanted to go home and go to bed.
'Then the office light went out. Claude, who was the PR man, came in to change the bulb and, when the light came on again, I took one look at him and that was it. A coup de foudre [a bolt of lightning].
‘I suppose there have been a couple of those since, but not like that. It was so totally unexpected. He spoke very bad English with a lot of rather gross words he’d picked up from some jazz musicians, but I’d fallen in love with this bloke.’ Her eyes, which are focused on a distant picture, such is her shyness, are turned upon me.
‘Suddenly I was leading a very different life. Of course there was sex, but it wasn’t just sex. I was living in Paris and was liberated not having this thing over me – Little Pet, that stuff. Eighteen months after the lightbulb incident we were married.’ She shrugs. Her eyes are back on the picture.
Petula and Claude Wolff on their wedding day 55 years ago. They no longer live together
‘We didn’t have a lot of money, and then we did. So we had the house in the South of France. It was the English dream of having a little house with a palm tree on the terrace. The children [she had two girls, Barbara and Catherine, in quick succession in the early 60s, then son Patrick in 1972] were delightful. It was perfect.
‘Then one day Tony Hatch [the composer] turned up at our flat in Paris with a song called Downtown and suddenly our lives changed.’ The year was 1964 and the song was a huge success, particularly in the States where it went to number one. Petula was a huge star on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Suddenly I had all these hits in French and English,’ she says. ‘I remember going to Montreal [in 1969] and deciding to do a bilingual concert, but when I sang in French, the English weren’t happy and vice versa. I didn’t understand it. Everyone around me was saying it was fine but it wasn’t. I thought, “I’ve got to talk to somebody who’s got nothing to do with me.” I knew John and Yoko were in town.’
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were at the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel spending a week in bed as a peace protest against the Vietnam War. ‘It was pouring with rain so I walked into the hotel after my show like a drowned rat,’ says Petula. ‘They were in bed. John put his arm around me and said, “What’s the matter?”. I explained the whole sad story. He said, “You know what? F*** ’em.”’ She shrieks with laughter at the memory and then recalls hanging out with showbiz pals.
‘Those were the party days. I was never into drugs but we used to drink this weird drink: gin and Merrydown cider. There’d always be music and singing. We were crazy about harmonising together.’
But there were discordant times too. ‘I’m not manic depressive but I am bi-polar. I can get very low. Claude and I had some fantastic times together in the States, but I don’t think it was that easy for him. His English was never all that good so I don’t think he was ever really happy there.
‘I also had two full time careers – in Europe and America – and a family, so it was crazy. The girls were just three and five. We were all in it together but later I realised that wasn’t the right way to bring up children. I was absent for quite a long time. I’ve spoken to them about it and they say, “We were having a great time. We loved it.” What is a perfect childhood anyway? Is it that childhood we see in Little Women? That lovely, perfect thing – the white picket fence and all that stuff? I don’t know how often that happens.
‘We’re not a normal family. Barbara is in New York, Paddy is near LA and Kate is sometimes in Paris and sometimes in Brussels but we are very together in some strange sort of way – in a very grown up way.’
And Claude? ‘He’s in Geneva and I’ll see him when I go back. It’s funny. Life does these things to us. Of course, it’s painful to think something that was so wonderful had changed but he has his life and I have mine. We had three wonderful children together and we love each other very much. It’s just different now. It’s perhaps not perfect but we make the most of it.’
It is, though, these less than perfect parts of life as well as the joyful bits that Petula strives to find a voice for in her music. ‘I’ve had my share of unhappiness, disappointments and loss,’ she says.
‘There have been quite a few people who’ve left us recently. It makes you stop and think. We have to make the most of the time we have and do the best we can. For me that’s taking a song and making it my own. It’s the part that comes from inside you – your heart, your soul, whatever you call it. And it’s about pouring love into everything you do. It’s amazing the difference that can make to your life.
‘It’s a tough world and you have to somehow infuse your life with some kind of love, despite all the hardship around. The more you see of life, the more you realise that’s all you can do: give the world the best of what you have. For me, that’s singing. But I haven’t nailed it yet. Maybe next year.’
Petula’s new album From Now On is released on 16 September.Petula will embark on a major UK tour from Oct 3. Tickets are on sale now from 0844 249 1000,www.eventim.co.ukandwww.ticketmaster.co.uk.