European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

27 December 2013

C'est ma chanson

A while ago I went to see Petula Clark in concert at the Barbican in York.  As a fan since the 1960s it was an emotional occasion as Petula turned 81 in November and may not give many more live concerts.
Petula was a child star and first performed on radio for the BBC during the Second World War. She was a popular singer in the UK and became world famous in 1964 with her hit ‘Downtown’. In the 1950s she began to record in French, eventually moved to France, and in 1961 married a Frenchman, Claude Wolff.

Petula Clark in 1960. (Photo by Henk Lindeboom / Anefo from Wikimedia Commons) w:en:Creative Commonsattributionshare alike

She didn’t like France at first but the French took her to their hearts and loved the way she spoke French with an English accent. She became friends with the singers Françoise Hardy, Charles Aznavour, Sacha Distel and the Belgian Jacques Brel, who wrote ‘Un Enfant’ for her, and she admired the work of songwriter Serge Gainsbourg for whom she recorded a number of songs. She wrote and recorded ‘La Chanson de Gainsbourg’ in his honour and her signature is among the famous tribute graffiti on the exterior walls of his Parisian home.

It is her French recordings that I love and listen to regularly to this day. The title of this piece is the French version of one of her most famous hits, ‘This Is my Song’, written for her by Charlie Chaplin. Most of her best French songs have been captured on a set of nine CDs entitled Anthologie which cover the years 1958 to 1976. She sometimes combined her love of England and France in her singing, as in ‘La Seine et la Tamise’, the music for which she wrote herself with lyrics by Pierre Delanoe, and in ‘Hello Mister Brown,’ which celebrated English pop culture.

The collection also includes some classic French songs such as ‘Pigalle’, ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘La Mer’. There are many other songs with soulful, haunting melodies like ‘Pierrot Pendu’ and ‘Pourquoi Dis-Tu Pourquoi?’, as well as lively, upbeat numbers such as ‘Ya Ya Twist’. A search for recordings by Petula Clark on the British Library’s catalogue brings up many of these French language recordings held in our Sound collections.

Petula Clark has also starred in many films, including Goodbye Mr Chips with Peter O’Toole and Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. She has had a notable career in stage musicals too, both in London’s West End and on Broadway. She has never permitted an official biography, but two unofficial ones have appeared in 1983 by Andrea Kon and 1991 by Stephen Warner, and she gave her blessing to an illustrated French book about her life and work in 2007.

She received a standing ovation in York and I hope to see her perform on stage again before she finally ends her long and glorious career. Meanwhile, as a festive touch, you can hear her singing a French version of ‘Silent Night’ here.

Trevor Willimott, former West European Languages cataloguer    


Anthologie. CDs 1-9. Paris: FGL Productions, 1998-2002.

Kon, Andrea. This is My Song: a Biography of Petula Clark (London, 1983) YM.1989.b.544

Warner, Stephen. Petula Clark: a Biography.(London, 1991) YK.1993.a.9035.

Piazza, Françoise. Petula Clark: une baladine (Paris, 2007.) YF.2008.b.2810


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