Maureen: "How grief helped us to heal our family rift"
As she prepares to appear on stage in Northern Ireland, Maureen Nolan tells Una Brankin how siblings ended their bitter feud, her hope that she might see sister Bernie again someday and her latest role in fabulous Footloose production
The fourth of July will be a difficult day for Maureen Nolan, her remaining sisters, Denise, Anne, Linda and Coleen, and their two brothers, Tommy and Brian. While Americans celebrate Independence Day and children delight in getting off school, the famous musical family will be remembering Bernie, who died aged 52 on July 4, 2013, after a fierce, three-year struggle with breast cancer.
Maureen stayed with her vivacious younger sister at her home in Surrey towards the end of her illness, when the cancer had spread to her lungs and prevented her from performing in pantomime in Eastbourne.
"She was on oxygen and it was very traumatic," recalls Maureen, a youthful 61. "It was horrible, but I just had to get on with it for her sake. She didn't like to talk about it. She felt she had two choices: pull the covers over your head or get up and get on with it.
"Seeing Bernie so poorly made me more aware than ever that we should do what we can to look after ourselves and make sure we live life to the full, but the grief never goes away."
Maureen and Bernie, who starred in The Bill and Brookside, had worked together a few years before Bernie's 2010 diagnosis, in the musical comedy Mum's the Word.
In Londonderry next month for the musical Footloose, at the Millennium Theatre, Maureen got back to work not long after Bernie's death, playing her long-running and critically acclaimed role of Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers.
"I did enquire about grief counselling after Bernie died, but I didn't go ahead with it," she says, a vague lilt in her northern English accent. "Linda did, after her husband died, and it did her the power of good. But I never stop missing Bernie. It's the most horrible thing that ever happened to us. But that's life, isn't it?
"I wish I had the faith that I'd see her again. She didn't. It would be a great comfort and I envy those who do have it. It would help you get through the loss," she adds.
"I do hold out some hope that she's out there somewhere. It would be amazing to see her again. We were talking about going to see a psychic when we were on tour. I would love to do that - I will do that, I think."
Speaking from her home in Blackpool, close to where Frank Carson used to live, Maureen's happy to say that the family feud that blighted Bernie's dying months is finally healed.
In 2009, Bernie, Maureen, Linda and Coleen had agreed to reform The Nolans for a multi-million pound reunion tour. Anne (now 62), who had been working as a cleaner, was not included by the producers, who wanted only four of the sisters.
Devastated, Anne accused her sisters of betraying her by not standing up for her, and was backed by older sibling Denise, who left the group before they found fame.
The tour went ahead without Anne, but the other four often had tearful arguments on the road, the result, claimed Bernie in her autobiography, of simmering resentment from the others, who were apparently envious of her singing lead vocals on all their biggest hits.
After a public appeal two months before her death for the discord to end, Bernie made peace with all five of her sisters, but the bitterness between some of them lingered. Tensions had previously arisen after Anne claimed, in her 2009 autobiography, to have been sexually abused by her father Tommy, a sometimes violent alcoholic, who died of liver cancer, at 73, in 1998.
Anne and Linda have also fought cancer.
"They're fine now - Linda's seven or eight years down the line and it's 16 years since Anne's," says Maureen.
"Coleen had a scare, too, so she gets screened regularly. I go for one once a year. I don't have that BRCA gene, but because half the girls in the family have had breast cancer, I have to be vigilant."
Named after her mother, who died at 81 from Alzheimer's disease, in 2007, Maureen has retained the dark good looks from The Nolans heyday of the late '70s and early '80s, when they topped the charts with I'm in the Mood for Dancing. Back then, the high cheek-boned Maureen caught the eye of blond tennis player John Lloyd, before he met his first wife and fellow player Chris Evert.
The good-looking couple got on well, but Maureen felt too young to settle down.
"Ah, he was a lovely person and he had a really lovely family as well, including his brother, David," Maureen recalls. "John had lovely blue eyes. I was very young at the time - 21 going on 12. He was the same age, but I'd spent my teens performing in clubs and I wanted to spread my wings.
"I only ever met him once after that - I was married by that stage so there were no sparks."
Richie Hoyle, Maureen's husband, works as a music tour manager. The couple live around the corner from their son Danny and their three grandchildren, Ava (6), Sienna, (5), and baby Roma, who is eight-months-old.
Maureen says: "We see them all the time and we're always babysitting. They love singing, they can all sing in tune. There's a whole new generation of us now. Coleen's two boys and daughter are into showbusiness too, and Bernie's daughter Erin wants to be an actress.
"She's doing amazingly well. She's 17 this month. We aunties have taken her under our wing, although she's in Surrey, so I don't see her as often as I'd like to. I keep hoping she and her dad [drummer husband Steve Doneathy] will move north. We worried about him a lot when Bernie died. He's doing better now, but she's still the love of his life."
Years of exposure to loud speakers have left Maureen with 50% hearing loss in her right year. Deafness runs in the family; she has an aunt who is profoundly deaf and her mother suffered from a condition of bone growth in her ears.
"I remember doing a 1960s themed rock 'n' roll tour and being deaf every night when I came off stage, with a hissing in my ear," Maureen recalls.
"I have been subjected to such massive noise through work -you've no idea how loud it could be on stage, even performing in the working men's clubs when we were kids.
"When I couldn't follow what the others were saying, they used to say, 'God you're deaf', but I'd protest that they weren't speaking clearly.
"And I was always turning up the TV and my son would come in and say, 'mum that's deafening!' I did find it hard to interact with people sometimes, but I never thought my hearing was making life difficult."
Five years ago, Maureen finally accepted that something was wrong as she lay in bed talking to her husband, and he noticed she was lifting her head off the pillow whenever he spoke.
"I got a hearing test at SpecSavers and it turned out I had only 50% hearing in my right ear, which was quite a shock, but apparently one in three have hearing loss. So I had more tests done and got a hearing aid - I know sometimes people are reluctant to wear a hearing aid, thinking it makes them seem old, but it's hearing loss which makes you appear older and you can't keep up with a conversation. I wear mine sometimes; in all honesty, I should wear it more."
Maureen's famous sisters weren't surprised by her test results.
"When I told them about it, they just laughed! It's funny, but I really notice hearing problems in other people now - they cock their head to one side and ask you to repeat things, or have a vacant look as they haven't heard properly.
"But I'm lucky to have good health, in general. I don't really exercise properly, but I did learn to pole dance once for a role as a woman with breast cancer, funnily enough. I got a lesson from a professional - it's a real art and I have the utmost respect for anyone who can do it. It's great exercise, too.
"I run in spurts and try to watch what I eat," she adds. "I run anywhere I can when I'm on tour - on the street or around the garden, if there's one. I don't get recognised very much at all, not when I'm all sweaty! You look different when you're all done up, don't you? I look shocking in the morning."
Maureen counts herself lucky, however, to have inherited her mother's good complexion.
"Mum had great skin; it kept its elasticity and she was quite young looking. Mine is good, but it's quite dry, so I have to moisturise a lot. I've never done Botox or fillers, but never say never. I'm tempted, always, but haven't succumbed yet.
"I just use L'Oreal products for both my hair and skin. I don't believe all the hype that comes with more expensive stuff. Fresh air is good for the skin and looking after it from the inside, too."
It's hard to believe she's 61. She finds the travelling involved with touring tiring, but enjoys being on the stage, and is looking forward to returning to Derry with Footloose, which she previously performed on tour in 2008.
"I remember going to the cinema to see the film version with Kevin Bacon - it's funny to see him in those mobile phone ads now. He's probably making millions from them.
"It's fun, this show. People may not remember how many great songs there are in Footloose - there's Holding Out for a Hero, and Let's Hear it for the Boy, as well as the title track, which was a big hit.
"There's a lot of Eighties and Seventies musicals that go around that are good fun but are lightweight. This is quite a nice story because it's based on truth."
Based on the Oscar-winning1984 film, Footloose is set in a small American town where dancing has been banned - until city boy Ren arrives and shakes things up.
Maureen plays Vi Moore, wife of the clergyman who put the ban in place.
"Vi's son has died five years previously and she has one daughter. Her husband is very protective of her and she's caught between the two, so it's a nice part. I don't do much dancing, but I make a lot of tea, which is very Irish. Except, you don't get a biscuit with it, which you would do in Ireland."
All the music in Footloose is played by the actors on stage. Maureen's the only one who doesn't play an instrument in the show.
"I love my part, but it's kind of small," she admits. "It's wonderful just to watch the talent. The cast plays multiple instruments and Hannah Price, the beautiful girl who plays my daughter Ariel, is as short as me and very slight, and she plays trumpet and sings and dances and acts really well.
"I had a chat with her during a break and found out she is also a civil engineer. It's like, 'you're just annoying!'"
Unlike her sisters Linda and Coleen, Maureen has never ventured into reality shows or TV presenting.
"I was never asked to do anything like Big Brother and I'd be terrible on Dancing on Ice, but I'd kill to do Strictly. You can let that be known!"
Footloose: The Musical runs at the Millennium Forum, Londonderry, from Tuesday May 31 to Saturday June 4. Tickets available from the box office, tel: 028 7126 4455 or visit millenniumforum.co.uk.