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PETULA Clark, star of stage and screen, is as famous in France as in the English-speaking world with a career spanning more than 70 years.
Born Sally Olwen Clark in Wales, the 85-year-old will be at the Canberra Theatre next month singing timeless hits such as “Downtown” and “I Know A Place”, as well as numbers from her new album “From Now On”.
Speaking to Clark by phone to New York recently, it is with a considerable amount of chutzpah that “CityNews” ventures into the touchy question of age and singing, using the excuse that this writer is a person of a certain age.
Politely but firmly, she’s having none of it.
“I am against ageism and racism of any kind, I hate it,” she says.
“I feel if you can do it, that’s what matters – if you enjoy it and if you are good at it.”
Although her home is in Geneva, Switzerland, she’s been working a lot in the UK over the past year and declares herself “energised by the music and the energy… I don’t even think about ageing. I have no vocal cord problems and I don’t do anything to take care of my voice.”
It’s a matter of some pride to Clark that she grew up performing.
“I’m half Welsh, you know, and spent my childhood in Wales where I used to sing in the mountains and in choirs… I first sang on radio at about eight years of age. I didn’t do anything to train, I just sang.”
Clark is bemused by her fellow singers, who go in for elaborate voice exercises, and tells me: “I was performing in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ on the West End for two years, you know… in the dressing room I could hear the other singers warming up and I thought to myself: ‘Maybe I should be doing that’. But I didn’t.”
While known primarily as an interpreter of songs, especially those famous urban numbers written by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent – such as “Don’t Sleep In The Subway” – she is also a songwriter, though not, she says, from the beginning.
Clark mostly composes love songs, but she says: “There’s one that’s not and I’m particularly proud of it… it’s called ‘Living for Today’ and that hasn’t been recorded at all.
“I’m a non-educated musician and I started quite late. Tony Hatch encouraged me and we did a lot of work together, until once, as they were working on an album, Hatch announced: ‘I don’t have an idea in my head – you write something’.
“So I wrote ‘You’re the One’,” she says. “It sounded so great, it was a hit in 1965, but I was never really sure myself, so I was a sometime songwriter.”
She enjoys singing the oldies, reminding me that “those hits were new in their day”.
“I don’t feel embarrassed about singing the old songs, but I enjoy doing new material, too,” she says.
It pleases her that on her last tour of the UK fans told her they loved hearing the old numbers but they also loved the new ones.
“The new ones are like my children,” she says.
Talking of children, where are hers?
“I’m a bit of a gypsy and I have been for a long time. My son is in California, my daughter and two grandchildren are in New York and a daughter, who is a yoga professor, in Paris. So, I’m sort of centrally based in Geneva.”
The shores of Lake Geneva have been home to some of the world’s greatest artists, not least our own Joan Sutherland and most famously Charlie Chaplin, who lived in the lakeside village of Vevey, where there is a large statue of him.
In the not-very-successful 1967 movie “The Countess from Hong Kong”, one of the few high points was the song composed by Chaplin “This is My Song”. Petula Clark recorded it in the same year.
“He was so delighted that that he invited me to his home in Vevey on Lake Geneva,” she tells “CityNews”, explaining that Chaplin was then 78 years old, with another 10 years to live.
“I played the piano while he danced in his living room – quite an experience,” she says.
Which brings us back to our opening subject – age, as Clark turns the tables, concluding the interview with the words: “You keep going, girl!”
Petula Clark, Canberra Theatre, Friday, May 19. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.