Bernie Nolan

Bernie Nolan
Bernie Nolan

Bernie Nolan’s obituary from “The Guardian” in 2003”.

Bernie Nolan who has died of cancer aged 52, was the youngest of the original Nolan Sisters lineup, whose cheerful, unthreatening, middle-of-the-road pop made them one of Britain’s best known acts from the late 1970s to the mid-80s. The five siblings began performing as the Nolan Sisters in 1974 and gained priceless exposure to a mainstream audience from appearing on Cliff Richard’s television programme, and then with Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies. They were the support act on Frank Sinatra’s 1975 European tour and accompanied Rolf Harris on dates in South Africa.

Bernie recalled: “People like the Two Ronnies and Val Doonican liked working with us because we were not showbizzy kids. We weren’t pretentious or obnoxious, we could just sing.” Bernie and Linda, still in their teens, had tutors accompanying them on tour so they could keep up with their school work.

Their earliest singles on EMI and Target Records misfired, but in 1978 they reached No 3 on the UK album chart with 20 Giant Hits, a set of cover versions of pop standards such as Sailing, The Way We Were and Song Sung Blue. That year, Denise Nolan left the group to develop a solo career, and the others continued as a quartet. In 1979, the group competed to perform the UK’s entry for the Eurovision song contest, and their song Harry My Honolulu Lover was regarded as certain to earn them selection. However, it was Black Lace who represented Britain at the contest, coming seventh.

Nevertheless, opportunity was knocking for the Nolan Sisters, who signed a new record deal, with Epic, in 1979. At the end of that year they released I’m in the Mood for Dancing, a perky pop tune that incorporated a timely disco beat and featured a full-blast lead vocal by Bernie. It would become their biggest and most famous hit, reaching No 3 in the UK and topping the charts in Japan, where it sold 600,000 copies.

The album Nolan Sisters was released in the wake of I’m in the Mood for Dancing and reached No 15 on the British chart. In early 1980, the Nolan Sisters became the Nolans, shortly before Anne left the group temporarily following her marriage. She was replaced by another sister, 15-year-old Coleen. That year’s album Making Waves lodged on the UK charts for 33 weeks, even though it never quite breached the top 10, and generated the hit singles Don’t Make WavesWho’s Gonna Rock YouGotta Pull Myself Together and Attention to Me, with the last two both entering the UK singles top 10. Gotta Pull Myself Together and another song from Making Waves, Sexy Music, were big hits in Japan, where Nolan-mania was still going strong. Their success was further cemented by another hit album, Portrait (1982), from which the track Don’t Love Me Too Hard became the Nolans’ last top 20 hit in Britain. The disc contained two tracks written by Bernie.

In 1982 Anne returned to the fold, but it was clear the group’s most successful days were over when that year’s compilation Altogether didn’t even crack the UK top 50. In 1983 Linda left the group to go solo, and was dubbed “the Naughty Nolan” when she launched her new career by posing naked under a sheet.

Overseas markets helped to sustain the group, and they played a stadium tour of Russia in 1986. Enduring Japanese support brought them a six-album deal there in 1987, and several subsequent releases were aimed exclusively at the Japanese market, such as Rock and Rolling Idol, and Hottest Place on Earth. However, in 1994 Coleen left to have a baby, and Bernie quit the following year to pursue a career in acting. She had appeared in the play The Devil Rides Out in 1993 and would go on to become a popular face on stage and television.

Bernie and her sisters had travelled far from their Dublin origins, though these would have been a hazy memory, as their parents, Tommy and Maureen, moved the family to Blackpool in 1962. Both parents had been singers in Ireland, and the sisters and their brothers, Tommy and Brian, joined them as part of a family ensemble called the Singing Nolans, launched in 1963. The ensemble recorded an album, The Singing Nolans, the single Blackpool (about Blackpool football club) and an EP called Silent Night. All the daughters attended St Catherine’s Catholic secondary school in Blackpool.

It was only decades later that the sisters revealed the stresses they had been subjected to as children, performing strings of shows in nightclubs, then being driven home by their hard-drinking father in the small hours before getting up again for school. It transpired, too, that their father (who died in 1998) was violent towards his wife and daughters, and sexually abused Anne.

By the time of these revelations, Bernie had built a high-profile career as an actor, having appeared on Channel 4’s Brookside after being spotted in the stage musical Blood Brothers. Later she played Sgt Sheelagh Murphy in ITV’s The Bill. In 2009, she rejoined her sisters for the Nolans’ reunion tour and in 2010 she reached the final of ITV’s Popstar to Operastar. Shortly afterwards she announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2012 she undertook a British tour playing Mama Morton in Chicago: The Musical. In October that year, she revealed that her cancer had returned and was incurable. Her autobiography, Now and Forever, was published earlier this year.

She is survived by her husband, Steve Doneathy, and their daughter, Erin.

• Bernadette Therese Nolan, singer and actor, born 17 October 1960; died 4 July 2013

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