Bernie Nolan: Singer who had hits with her sisters and went on to a successful acting career

‘People like Val Doonican liked working with us,’ she recalled. ‘We were not showbizzy kids’
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Bernie Nolan was one of the six Nolan Sisters who in the 1970s and ’80s achieved success with their own characteristic brand of bubbly cheeriness which made them television and recording favourites. Though never quite in the front rank, either on television or in the pop charts, they were nevertheless for years a popular staple on the entertainment scene as good-looking women who could sing well and dance a little.

Regular appearances with performers such as Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies kept them in the public eye, while their records sold well - they were, for some reason, particularly popular in Japan. Bernie, the lead singer, who has died of cancer, went on to have a career in acting, with prominent roles in shows such as The Bill and Brookside and frequent guest appearances elsewhere.

Though the sisters’ appeal was based on their sweet singing of pleasant and wholesome hits such as “I’m in the Mood for Dancing”, there was a dark side which included later family feuding. Most of all, the girls had to cope with a drunken father who beat their mother and abused one of them.

Thirty years on they had a late flourish with a successful reunion tour, described as the ultimate girls night out. “The tour was amazing beyond our wildest expectations,” said Bernie. “The whole point was to say to women, we’re in our 40s and 50s, we’re not size zeros, but we can still have a great time and be happy in our own skin. I lost a stone while I was on tour, dancing for an hour and a half every night.”

The Nolans were a large musical Irish Catholic family. Bernie, the second youngest, was born in Dublin in 1960. Her parents, Tommy and Maureen, both professional singers, emigrated when Bernie was aged around two to Blackpool, where almost the entire family performed as a troupe in clubs and halls.

Their father displayed brutality, sexually abusing one of his daughters from the age of 11. One of the sisters, Coleen, much later disclosed: “If he’d been sinking the pints he had the shortest fuse in the world and could become aggressive or violent in the blink of an eye.” Their mother, who endured this stoically, was described at her funeral as “a very strong Irish Catholic mum who acted as an anchor to provide stability to her family.”

By the late 1970s the sisters were regulars on TV and in the charts, with a reputation for being easy to work with. 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 moved on in 1994, leaving the group after its popularity waned to take to the stage in the West End and in touring productions. She secured substantial parts in TV series, playing hairdresser Diane Murray in Brookside from 2000-2002 and police sergeant Sheelagh Murphy in The Bill from 2003 on. She was also a contestant on the competitive show, From Pop Star to Opera Star.

Her later years were dominated by cancer. First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she had chemotherapy and a mastectomy before receiving an initial all-clear in 2012. Within months, however, the disease reappeared, spreading to her brain, bones, liver and lungs. During her illness her husband, the drummer Steve Doneathy, said she had stopped chemotherapy and was instead receiving palliative care. “But she’s still being as positive as you can be under those circumstances,” he said. “You get up every day, face the day, and make that day the best it can be.”

Earlier this year Coleen described her sister’s final months, saying, “She was working right up until last Christmas and touring in plays and pantomime. She just never stopped working, it wasn’t going to get her. And then she got this cough and started to lose her voice, and eventually they said, ‘You’re not going to sing again.’ And that was the first moment I felt it, because Bernie lived for singing, I think that was the biggest blow to her above everything else.”

The 2009 reunion tour had sparked family dissent, with one sister feeling she had been unfairly excluded from the project. But in Bernie’s last months, when it became clear that her cancer was incurable, the sisters made up.

She had been deeply affected in 1998 by the birth of a stillborn child and went on to donate some of her royalties to the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, and to undertake charitable work for the organisation. Her best-selling autobiography, Now and Forever, described as an honest account of her life, loves and cancer battles, was published in May this year. She is survived by her husband and their daughter Erin.

Bernadette Nolan, singer and actress: born Dublin 17 October 1960; married 1996 Steve Doneathy (one daughter); died Surrey 4 July 2013.