Alan Bennett once said: “If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.”
Do we have a fixation with age? Maybe, but witnessing Petula Clark on stage in her current British concert tour, where she delivers two hours of songs from her vast catalogue, it is impossible to believe she turns 84 next month.
Sally Olwen Clark, renamed Petula by her ambitious father and manager Leslie, was a child star who entertained the troops on the radio during the Second World War.
Her first hit single came in 1954, heralding ultimate career sales of 70 million records from such standards as Don’t Sleep in the Subway, and the glittering Downtown.
She was the first British female artist ever to win a Grammy, appeared in 30 films, and on stage headlined such musicals as The Sound of Music and Sunset Boulevard.
If her vocal range on the current tour is, perfectly reasonably, not quite what it was when she first recorded Downtown 52 years ago, it is still powerful, while her speaking voice and bearing are those of a woman a generation younger.
The tour culminated in London on 23 October with her 15th show in 20 days. But when we met the morning after the opening night, Clark shrugged off any questions about her demanding schedule even though she’s well into her ninth decade.
“I just don’t think about my age,” she says, at the Chelsea house that has served as her London base for decades, when she is not at home in Geneva. “Then again, sometimes I realise my oldest child is 54 and I think, ‘How did that happen?’
“Being on stage is invigorating. People have the impression I’m a workaholic when I’m really not. This is my first tour in three years. I’ve been doing concerts here and there, and making a record. Mostly I’ve just been living. Watching television – I love quizzes or a good drama, although I think I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey – doing a bit of shopping, a lot of walking.
“I travel a lot to see my children. I have a daughter in New York, where my two grandchildren are, a son in California and another daughter based between Paris and Brussels. We’re a gypsy family.”
Clark retains a low-key British reserve, evidenced even in the details of her dressing-room rider. “Over the years I’ve found I enjoy ironing my own outfit for the show, so I ask for an iron and ironing board,” she says.
“I find it a stress-free, therapeutic time. I did have a disaster once when the iron was a bit fierce and I burnt a hole in my skirt. Fortunately I had another one. I also ask for a bottle of port, although at most I have one glass and sometimes none. It’s a tradition.”
She cheerfully admits to doing “pretty much nothing” to keep her voice in shape. Not for her the regime of 24 hours’ silence before a show or a recording session as espoused by Celine Dion.
“It works for her, I guess,” muses Clark, who never so much as warms up. “I’m disgraceful, I know. In 2012 I did a duet with a French singer called Ben l’Oncle Soul, who was then in his 20s. On arrival at the studio I was ready to go straight away, but he needed almost two hours, blowing bubbles into a bottle and doing all kinds of funny exercises. I thought, ‘Blimey’.”
Clark in 1953
Observers might take that “blimey” as confirmation that, despite half a century spent living primarily in Switzerland following her 1961 marriage to French PR executive Claude Wolff, she remains thoroughly British.
But she hesitates when asked if she considers herself European. “I don’t know. I’ve been living out of Britain for so long. I like adjusting to different cultures. When I come back here it’s like putting a pair of slippers on. Something in me can only be touched by England, so I guess I’m British.
“I was in Berlin when news of the Brexit vote came through, and all the people with me were saying, ‘What happened?’ And I replied, ‘Don’t look at me.’ I don’t want to say how I would have voted, but it would be interesting to see how the vote would go if we had it again.
“My Swiss friends weren’t expecting it. But that decision is made so we’ll go with it, and it will be fine.”
She is equally opaque about her private life. She and Wolff, the father of her three children, effectively separated 25 years ago, but they still share the same house.
Meanwhile, for several years she has had a new partner whose name she declines to divulge.
“It works and we’re both enjoying it. We were friends first and the romantic side happened later. Yes, he’s younger than me. I don’t want to elaborate. If I start getting into details it won’t work. It’s a delicate subject.
“Of course he’s seen me perform. No, that’s not really a particular thrill. The thrill for me is performing to the audience, rather than stopping to think about somebody else out there. I’d rather not know.”
For now, the tour occupies all her thoughts. “I’ll probably be knackered by the end of it. It’s intensive, but that’s the job. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And I’m not getting out of the kitchen for a long time yet.”