Sixties singer Mary Hopkin on why she's appalled by X Factor judges

By Richard Barber, Daily Mail, 22nd October 2010

For someone who found international fame via a TV talent show, Mary Hopkin has little time for the current crop.

In 1968, the sweet-voiced folk singer from Pontardawe, in Wales, was plucked from the relative obscurity of performing in local social clubs when she won Opportunity Knocks six weeks on the trot, before topping the charts with Those Were The Days.

‘I hated being a pop singer,’ says Mary, who is now 60 and unrecognisable from the sweet young thing with the curtain of white blonde hair.

‘But I have happy memories of Opportunity Knocks. Everybody from host Hughie Green downwards could not have been nicer. They treated me like a star — encouraging me to be my best.’

It was with Opportunity Knocks’s successor New Faces, which debuted in 1973, that she detected the rot setting in. ‘The judges started making negative comments. I didn’t like that. I don’t think anyone has the right to demoralise anyone else.’

So her views on The X Factor will come as less than a surprise.

‘Some contestants who make it to the televised audition stages have been selected to be ridiculed. It sickens me to hear the things Simon Cowell says.

‘Does it make him feel better to tell someone they’ve just made the same sound as when he once sat on his cat? There’s a bitchiness that’s commonplace and it’s totally unnecessary.

‘Anne Robinson does it on her silly quiz show. It’s vicious and sadistic. I don’t think we should encourage public humiliation. The world is nasty enough as it is. There’s something almost gladiatorial about it — and I detest it.’

Not once has Mary raised her voice during what has been little short of a rant. But, then, that’s not her style.

She’s back living in her native South Wales after three decades in Henley and is making her kind of music in a studio in Splott, the once run-down area of Cardiff where Shirley Bassey was raised.

Spend any time in her company and it’s clear that Mary’s soft-spoken delivery doesn’t reflect the strength of her convictions. Her views were equally defined when she was thrust into the limelight. ‘But I was so shy that my voice couldn’t be heard. Literally.’

Even so, she was no pushover. She tells a revealing story about the route that led her to record on the Beatles’ new Apple label.

‘Twiggy had watched me on TV and happened to be seeing Paul McCartney the following day. The next thing I knew, I got a telegram from Peter Brown, who helped establish the Beatles’ record label.

‘Then I got a call, which I assumed was from Peter Brown, asking me to come to London. “That depends,” I said. I couldn’t drop everything. I had my A-levels to sit in a month. I was 18. He laughed: “Oh, it depends, does it? Well, go and ask your mum.”

‘She took the phone and I heard her saying: “No. Never. Really?” It turned out I’d been talking to Paul himself. I nearly died of embarrassment.’

In London, Paul took Mary and her mother, Betty, out to lunch at an Angus Steak House.

‘I’d been a Beatles fan since I was 13. I couldn’t make eye contact with him. It was surreal. Mum kept the conversation going. It felt as though I were detached, observing everything from the ceiling.

‘In some ways, George had always been my favourite. He was so dark and mysterious. But Paul was the best-looking and I’d thought he was the most approachable.

‘I’ve no idea what I based that on since I’d never met him, but you form an idea about people in the public eye, don’t you?’

After lunch, Paul took Mary and her mother back to Dick James’ office. With Brian Epstein, James was joint owner of Northern Songs, the publisher of the Beatles’ sheet music. Paul picked up his guitar and sang Those Were The Days.

‘I thought it was beautiful. But then Paul could have sung from the telephone directory and I’d have thought it was beautiful. His voice was like honey. And to have him singing especially for me .?.?. When would I wake up from this dream?

‘He explained he’d heard the Ukrainian song in a club and it had stayed with him. But he hadn’t been able to find anyone with the right voice to sing an English version. Until now.

‘It was haunting and poignant. I loved it immediately. When I die, I know it’ll be played when they make the announcement.’

The record sold over eight million copies worldwide, at one point shifting 35,000 copies a day in the UK alone, but it didn’t make Mary a fortune.

‘I wish I’d had the sense to record one of my compositions on the B side but I didn’t know better.’ She sailed to the top of the charts, unseating the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Mary ­Hopkin was hot property.

‘I was signed to agents who pushed me down a commercial route. I did panto and cabaret, which I hated. I was a folk singer. It felt alien to me.’

On one occasion, she was appearing in cabaret at the Savoy Hotel in London, singing a slab of schmaltz, A Super Special Ordinary Person Like Me. ‘I prayed I’d be saved from performing by a heart attack.’

When she faced the audience, there in the front row were Paul and his wife, Linda, and Ringo and his wife, Maureen.

‘I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. It was so humiliating and I felt Paul would know that. But I had to carry on.’ Her disenchantment with pop stardom climaxed when she sang Knock, Knock, Who’s There? at the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest.

‘It was chosen by BBC producers with no feel for music. There were six songs and Knock Knock was comfortably the worst — a cheesy singalong with an instant hook and no musical merit’ she recalls.

Her proudest achievement is her second album, Earth Song/Ocean Song, now digitally re-mastered and released with her first album, Postcard, in October.

She has reason to recall her second album — it was produced by the American Tony Visconti. They fell in love and married when Mary was 21.

Their son, 37-year-old Delaney, who changed his name to Morgan (‘I told his father that Delaney was a name for childhood’), is a record producer and living in London. Daughter Jessica Lee is 34 and releasing her first album, I Am Not.

Mary and Tony’s marriage ended, acrimoniously, in 1981.

‘I was too young when we married. The children were just seven and four when we parted and I brought them up alone. But it’s all civilised now.’

Would she like to remarry? ‘No,’ she says and doesn’t miss a beat. ‘I love living alone and my own company. I won’t perform again. I can’t handle the anxiety. But I love writing and recording the music I want to sing.

‘This,’ says Mary Hopkin, ‘is the best time of my life.’

Or, to put it another way: ‘These are the days, my friend.’

• Postcard and Earth Song/Ocean Song are re-released on Apple on October 25.