An interview with Petula Clark
The evergreen singer tells Peter Stewart about her life and career in France
You began recording songs in French in the 1950s. How did that come about?
I had had a couple of hit records in Britain and suddenly started getting phone calls from people in Paris asking me to go over and sing to a French audience. I was asked a number of times to perform at the Olympia theatre and to appear on Europe n°1 – the hit radio station at the time. I turned down the opportunity a few times as I didn’t speak a word of French back then, but they eventually twisted my arm.
What was it like to sing in French?
It was daunting at first; my sister had attended the lycée français in London and helped me to compose songs. I produced songs using phonetics as I struggled with reading French back then because of all the accents. I eventually picked up language as I found myself living in Paris, and my musicians were all French and spoke only a few words of English.
How’s your French now?
I would say that it is very good, which is largely thanks to having a French husband [the publicist Claude Wolff] who didn’t speak much English at that time. I was in love and felt compelled to learn French.
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What was it like to live in Paris?
I had visited the city as a tourist and thought it was a beautiful place. However, I didn’t understand French then and it was all very foreign. When I moved to Paris I found it to be very French; the women were très chic and beautiful, and I felt rather mousy. The way of life was completely different to anything I had experienced, which was both exciting and scary. I ended up living in the city for seven years.
You now live in Geneva. Do you visit France fairly often?
Yes. We have a chalet in [the ski resort of] Megève which is about an hour’s drive. I had the most wonderful years touring around France, and whenever I cross over the border I am reminded how amazingly varied and beautiful a country it is.
Why did you choose to have a home in Megève?
Megève was somewhere that everyone from Paris would flock to way back when for the vacances de neige. It was and still is such a fun place and we loved the atmosphere. It became our second home and now we spend Christmas there with all the family.
Is there a particular part of France which is close to your heart?
Very early on in our marriage, my husband and I bought a place in the south of France, so that is an area that I have loved over the years. I also love Brittany, in particular Dinard, where I holidayed when I was fairly young. I enjoy its family-friendly vibe and its popularity with British visitors. Sarlat in the Dordogne is another favourite of mine; they make the most delicious prunes!
After so many years as a singing star, what was it like to present BBC TV’s Je t’aime: The Story of French Song?
It was a very nice experience. La chanson française is a bit of a cliché and I wanted to change people’s ideas about it. The programme enabled me to research some amazing French artists who are virtually unknown in Britain and allowed me to roam around Paris, which was fantastic.
So what’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a new CD in English. The album will feature a French song, which is a rather unusual one, entitled La vérité, c’est vous (The truth is you).