It’s been 65 years since Petula Clark made her debut on British radio, entertaining World War II troops with the prodigious musical talent that earned her the early nickname ‘England’s Shirley Temple’.
It was the start of a mammoth career that’s seen Clark excel in music, theatre and film across five languages.
The 77-year-old was relaxing in a chalet in the French Alps when Sydney Star Observer spoke to her — a fitting locale for a performer of her stature, which begs the question: why on earth will she spend the better part of next month performing a 10-date Australian tour?
“The thing that happens when you sing, the communication that happens between a singer and an audience, I just love,” she explained with a crystalline, energetic voice that sounded several decades younger than her actual age.
“I love it as a performer, and as an audience member. I’m not hooked on it like a mad showbiz freak, but I do genuinely love it.”
Clark said that she would be using her Australian tour to road-test a more stripped-back performance style than audiences might be used to from her.
“I’ve wanted to try a more intimate show for some time. It’s not going to be overly nostalgic, because I’m not, but I will be doing the songs people would expect. I think they’d lynch me if I didn’t do Downtown.”
Indeed they might, but does she still enjoy singing hits like Downtown and This Is My Song, night after night?
“They’re great songs. If I’d been landed with a bunch of really naff songs, it might be tedious,” she said.
“And I have a new song I’ll be performing on tour that I wrote with [Downtown writer] Tony Hatch when I last visited him at his house in Menorca. He sort of bullied me into writing a song, even though I don’t consider myself a songwriter. I think he gave me a glass of wine, which always helps.”
As well as being Clark’s signature tune, Downtown is one of the most oft-covered pop songs of all time — most recently by Spice Girl Emma Bunton, whose version went to number three in the UK in 2006.
“There have been other covers; Dolly Parton did one which was cute, because she didn’t even try to sound like my recording. Emma’s was an outright copy, though — the orchestra was even the same. I thought she did it very well.”
Bunton’s version came complete with a rather saucy video in which she and her back-up dancers all pointed to her nether regions whenever the song’s title was mentioned.
Clark insisted she didn’t mind Baby Spice using the song as a vehicle to showcase her front bottom.
“No, no, no. It’s a pop song, for God’s sake. It’s not a hymn!”
info: Petula Clark plays the State Theatre on October 9. Tickets through Ticketmaster.