Petula Clark: Pet sounds

Petula Clark - bridesmaid to Liza Minnelli, favourite of John Lennon, Sunset Boulevard star – is still seeking perfection. Her UK tour is a chance to find it, she tells Peter Stanford
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The Independent Online

Petula Clark's profile is beautiful: slightly pre-Raphaelite, with the corkscrew curls of grey-blonde hair, long cheeks and extraordinary eyelashes cast down, covering her eyes and creating an air of stillness and melancholy. And she gives me plenty of opportunity to admire it, spending much of our interview staring at the carpet to her right. It takes me a while to realise she is not simply striking a pose, the great artiste struggling to find words to describe her craft. It's almost as if she can't quite engage, eyeball to eyeball, in this anonymous room, with the process of talking about herself, her new greatest hits CD or her forthcoming British tour.

"It's not that I hate giving interviews. I've done it so many times, yet I never quite seem to get the hang of it. I think I seem to be relaxed in most things I do, but I'm not really relaxed at all." As a summary of our meeting, it's accurate. She's not edgy or awkward and is friendly enough, but has none of the celebrity gifts for making you feel as if you are her new best friend. Her real problem with interviews appears to be not so much the process as herself. "I just hear myself droning out the same answers to the same questions. So yes, I find it a bit tedious, but really it's me that I find tedious. I don't have sharp, smart things to say. There isn't anything gritty in my life."

Soon to be 70, she has, as she puts it herself, "been around a long time" and has been giving interviews about herself since she was a child star in the 1940s. So the landmarks of her life are familiar enough – the overbearing but adored father who pushed her into the arms of the Rank Organisation; an unhappy adolescence when no one seemed to want her to grow up; her escape to France where she met, fell in love with and married the record producer Claude Wolff; her transformation there into a sexy Gallic chanteuse to rival home-grown stars such as Françoise Hardy; her global fame in the mid-1960s with "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway"; and then her life of exile, based in Geneva, cropping up occasionally in West End musicals such as Blood Brothers, or as one of Liza Minnelli's bridesmaids, or in the headlines when her marriage seemed to be on the rocks.

Unlike some of those other Sixties singers – Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Marianne Faithfull – she hasn't quite achieved iconic status. Her name is familiar – "Petula" was made up by her father – yet she isn't sought out by trendy young bands wanting to do a postmodern duet. There haven't even been any cameos in Ab Fab. Her one big recent stage role, as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, saw her brought in after others had made the role their own, as if to emphasise that she wasn't first choice but might still sell tickets. Critics couldn't help but confuse the part of a fading star, hankering for her glory days, with Clark herself. "That was really daft," she snorts. "And I certainly never sit at home watching my own old movies."

When Trevor Nunn approached her to take on Desmond, she recalls, he said he'd asked her because she would bring humour and vulnerability to the character. "That was what sold me on it. He wanted me to do it my way." If she has a humorous side, she has misplaced it today. About the only time she smiles is when she remembers the jingoistic outrage in the press in 1958 when "our Pet" married a foreigner. Of the vulnerability there are more signs, though largely unacknowledged. So when she talks about she and her husband living separate lives, she remarks blandly, again staring at the carpet: "There are things in my life that are not perfect. So what? It's part of living."

When she describes her solo routine in Geneva, she makes it sound curiously passive. "I live. I travel. People come to me with ideas. I never look for things. I turn things down a lot. I turned down Sunset. I turned down Blood Brothers. I have to be nudged. I'm not an ambitious person." She even makes Liza Minnelli's wedding sound bland. "You don't want to know about that. I've known David for a long time, so they asked me. I'm delighted for them. There were 16 of us. It was very nice..." She pauses, as if about to add something more upbeat. "No, actually very nice."

Even after decades of practice, talking about herself still makes her uncomfortable, but she soldiers on, frustratingly dropping hints that there is a story to tell, but then refusing to go any further. "I suppose I am a loner. I'm not very sociable. If I have to talk about myself, I prefer doing it on stage. I'm touring a new show in the States later this year, which will be more autobiographical. The medium of singing songs is heart-baring in itself, so there's always a bit of that, but this time I'll delve in, though only as far as I want to go. The difference will be that it's coming from me, not via an interview. I feel most comfortable when communicating with an audience."

She likens singing on stage to acting. In her passport, she describes herself as an actress. "To me, acting and singing are the same. When I'm singing I'm acting as well. Anyone can get the notes out." She gives the impression that Petula Clark has been something of a character, and that the woman sitting opposite me has observed that character with detached amusement.

If fame once interested her, it clearly no longer does. "I don't think of my career as success. Technically I don't think I've ever quite got it right as a performer. I still want to do it better, but beyond that I haven't done anything worth talking about. That's why interviews feel strange to me. I've done nothing worth writing home about. What I could do that would be worth it, I don't know. So for the moment I just try to do what I am doing better."

She's notfishing for compliments. There have been plenty of those. John Lennon said she was his favourite vocalist. If she is determinedly not a woman trapped in her past, like Norma Desmond, Petula Clark appears trapped in her present. For all her slightly strained enthusiasm for going on tour – "Cleo Laine told me I was mad, that it was all so gruelling, but I love it, to be going to York, to Scotland..." – she's on the road because she can't think what it is she'd rather be doing. Only in two flashes does she show passion. The first time is when talking of her two grandchildren in New York, who "think their granny lives in a hotel". "Oh, how sad," I say. "No, not sad at all," she rebukes me. That leads on to her grandchildren's mother, her daughter, Bara, which unleashes an angry diatribe about press intrusion into her life.

"It's the worst thing about being famous. The press won't leave your family alone. Yes, my daughter had problems in the past with drugs, but that was 12 years ago. If she wants to talk about it publicly, then that is up to her. In fact she did 12 years ago [and criticised her mother's absences during her childhood], but now she is married and has children and is getting on with that. Just because I'm trying to push a record and a tour, it's obscene that they should go back to that. Let's talk about me. That's fine."

Well, yes and no. Yes on the principle, but no because Clark has told me two conflicting things: first, that talking about herself is boring, and second, that there are interesting things to say, but she'll only reveal them on stage in America later this year. She is looking away again, in no mood to square the circle. Which, I suppose, is her privilege.

Petula Clark's album, 'The Ultimate Collection', is on sale at £13.99. Her 25-date tour starts 11 May (020-7221 7799 for details)