Hey, Petula!

by John Harvey

A good few years back, when Petula Clark was starring in the musical version of Sunset Boulevard in the West End, I managed to persuade Deborah Orr, then editor of the Guardian Weekend Magazine, to commission me to write an interview-based overview of Our Pet’s career. Our Pet, that’s what she was called back in the early days when she was a child star who made movies as well as singing, and had a weekly comic strip based on a loosely fictionalised version of her character.

Why I should choose her as the subject for one of my rare forays into print journalism, might have been a surprise to many, but not at all to those who knew me well. Okay, Dusty had the greatest voice, that goes, almost, without saying, but Petula had always had something special – and, besides, hadn’t I already fallen in love with her in my early teens, myself and Alec Guiness realising, at roughly the same moment in The Card, that she was worth two of flashy old Glynis Johns? Or had that happened a year before, seeing her as a young nurse in White Corridors –  a film in which the hospital scenes were so realistic they caused my mother to faint in the cinema?

Either way, I’ve always enjoyed seeing her live and listening to her recordings – despite some of the material. I mean, how many performances of ‘Downtown’ or ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ can you take?

Well, as I found out, skipping through my recording of Jules Holland’s New Year bonanza, at least one more. For there she was, in amongst the Emeli Sandés and Paloma Faiths, our Pet at the age of 80 – yes, that’s right, 80 – looking great and belting out ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ in front of Holland’s big band, backing singers wailing away, and Petula, her voice a little dimmed but, by heavens, not by much, still going for the high ones and pretty much nailing them. Just fantastic, Pet, and a Happy New Year to you, too.

Happy New Year also to soul singer Bettye LaVette, recently name-checked in the new George Pelecanos novel, What It Was, and strutting her stuff on the same show in all its raw-voiced glory, a spring chicken at the age of 66.

Just don’t get me started on Bobby Womack, y’all …