Interview: Bernie Nolan

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STRIPPING off before a packed audience would concern any actor, but for one who’s had a double mastectomy it’s a positively terrifying prospect. Or at least you’d think it might be.

Not so for Bernie Nolan, the actress better known for singing with her famous sisters, performing on stage and TV dramas

and, more recently, for being a cancer victim.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, but despite still receiving treatment she’s now back and touring with Calendar Girls, which comes to Leeds Grand Theatre next week.

And far from reluctantly stripping off for the show, she’s proud to show off her battle scars.

“People said that I must be mad,” she laughs. “Or that I should go for a spray-tan. But what would I want a spray-tan for? These days the operation leaves you with tiny scars that you can hardly see.

“Remember that 83% of women who get breast cancer will make a full recovery. A lot of people have been in my position but because I’m in the public eye, it gets written about more.

“But in a way, I hope that my example might empower women not to let cancer run their lives.”

Now 50, Bernie certainly isn’t letting it get in the way of her career.

After leaving The Nolans in 1994 she went on to carve out a new chapter, first on Channel 4 soap Brookside then ITV drama The Bill.

She’s no stranger to the stage either, taking the female lead in Willy Russell’s classic musical Blood Brothers.

And last year she’d just completed filming the celebrity talent series Popstar to Opera Star when she received the devastating diagnosis.

Undaunted and determined not to let chemotherapy halt her life, she signed up for the role of Cora. For now at least, the only Big C she’s focusing on is Calendar Girls.

Still, it was a brave move given that one of the central characters in the story, John, is not only a cancer sufferer but also dies as a result of his illness.

“It is a bit close to home” admits Bernie. “I was watching the scene in which John gets up from his wheelchair and walks off the stage to represent his death and I was in tears.

“But it didn’t just make me cry. It made me realise how lucky I am. I was shocked to realise just how short a time John had been ill: there was only five months between diagnosis and death.”

But she wasn’t about to pass up such a plum role for anything, particularly as she’s in such famous company.

Other cast members include Lynda Bellingham, Jennifer Ellison, Ruth Madoc, Lisa Riley, Danielle Lineker, not to mention ex-Coronation Street star Bruno Langley and Joe McGann.

“I like Cora and I think that there’s a little bit of me in her. She’s a rock chick, like me, and very laid-back, which isn’t like me,” says Bernie.

“Had things been different, I think she’d have liked to have stayed with the father of her daughter, but she’s allowed herself to be pressurised into returning to her home village.

“She plays the organ in the church and the piano at the WI. I’ve had to learn to play the piano and it will be a daunting prospect, having to convince a live audience that I know what I’m doing.

“She’s obviously been a bit of a rebel in the past and she seems very different to the others in the WI. But it represents a bit of an escape for her; it gives her an excuse to get out and to escape from her parents.

“Women seem to come to the WI to talk about their husbands and kids. That’s not really my scene: I’d rather be down the pub.”

Of course, audiences of a certain age will always Bernie as one of The Nolans, the troupe of sisters who achieved chart success and enormous popularity during the 1970s and 1980s.

The sisters reformed last year for a major revival tour and Bernie was amazed at the scale of the public response.

“My biggest fear was that nobody would come” she reveals. “Then I started to hear talk about playing the arenas, big venues, and I was convinced that we’d never fill such large concert halls but we did. It was so successful that they’re talking about doing it again. But would we get the same numbers?

“Of course, there were arguments. It’s inevitable when you’re together 24/7. And there’d be occasional rows if I said something when I was speaking for myself and it was represented as having come from the whole group.

“We were nothing like the sweet wholesome girls we were made out to be when we first started – we were just like everybody else.

“We’re publishing a book this month called Survivors and we’ve each contributed a chapter, although nobody has read what the others have written. We’re normal girls and we’ve had our low points. But that’s life. You just have to get on with it.”

Bernie insists acting was the last thing she thought she’d end up doing when she was part of The Nolans. As is often the case, it came about completely by accident.

“I was in pantomime with a girl whose partner was setting up a rep company to do musicals and she suggested that I join them. I played Eliza in My Fair Lady and Maria in The Sound of Music.

“I was doing Oh, What A Night! in Blackpool when the producer Bill Kenwright asked me to go into Blood Brothers in the West End and on tour. Three of my sisters followed me into Blood Brothers and now we’re in the Guinness Book of Records.”

She was then invited to join the cast of Brookside as Diane Murray before she accepted the offer to appear in The Bill. She loves the challenges of dramas. “I like getting the technical side right – hitting my marks, learning the lines on the spot – sometimes you’re handed new dialogue as you go on set,” she says.

“I love that immediacy and I’d love to get back into it. I left The Bill because my character had been so involved with the rogue cop, played by Todd Carty, that when he was written out, there was nothing left for me.

“‘We don’t know what to do with you,’ they explained. I felt like saying to them: ‘This is a soap – write something!’

“But, honestly, I was happy to leave and there were no hard feelings. I never used to believe in fate but now I think that I’ve changed my mind. Since I left The Nolans, I’ve gone from job to job and one thing has led to another. “

And far from taking things easy, after Calendar Girls she has even bigger ambitions to fulfil.

Bernie says: “I’d love to create a role in a West End production and I’d love to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. I’d love to appear on Broadway and I’d love to do a really good sitcom. I’m not comparing myself with Helen Mirren but I’d love to star in a really good drama. Something like Prime Suspect would do.”

l Monday to March 19, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, Wed and Sat mats 2.30pm, £12.50 to £28.50. Tel: 0844 8482705. www.leedsgrandtheatre.com

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