Maureen Nolan: ‘Humour helps my family cope with tragedy’

By Prudence Wade, PA

Maureen Nolan’s family is no stranger to tragedy.

The Dublin-born singer and actor is known for being the middle sister in girl group The Nolans, finding fame in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly with their hit song, I’m In The Mood For Dancing.

But more recently, the sisters have been dogged by cancer.

Nolan’s younger sister Bernie died in 2013, aged 52, from breast cancer which had spread to her brain, lungs, liver and bones; Linda, 64, revealed cancer had spread to her brain earlier this year; Anne, 72, was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time three years ago but is now cancer-free; and in July, Loose Woman star Coleen, 58, revealed she had been diagnosed with skin cancer.

The Nolans pictured in 1977 (clockwise from top left): Denise, Maureen, Linda, Anne and Bernie
The Nolans pictured in 1977 (clockwise from top left): Denise, Maureen, Linda, Anne and Bernie (PA)

Nolan, 69, told the PA news agency she “completely” finds humour in dark times.

“Even with my mum’s Alzheimer’s, as a family we found humour – you really have to,” she said, referring to her mother, also called Maureen, who died in 2012 aged 81.

“It’s humour that’s got us through everything. Even now, Linda with all her cancers and her recent brain cancer diagnosis, she’s still so funny.

“I’ll say to her, ‘Linda, I told you, it was this – you’ve got that wrong’. And she’ll go, ‘I’ve got brain cancer!’ – laughing. For other people watching perhaps it’s a bit shocking, but that’s how we handle things.

“We laugh, we find humour, and I think with everything that will always help.”

How would she describe their sense of humour? “Warped, I’d say is the word,” Nolan added with a laugh.

“Because we’re sisters and we worked together for 40 years or whatever it was, I only have to look in Coleen’s eyes or somebody’s eyes, and we’re absolutely gone.

“Nobody knows what we’re laughing at, but we know – a certain look. We have laughed all the way through songs, I’ve been sent out of studios laughing, because they made me laugh. They can handle it and be professional, and I can’t, so I’m gone.”

This philosophy is also what drew Nolan to her latest stage role, in Calendar Girls The Musical.

Based on the 2003 film that starred Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, it tells the true story of a group of middle-aged women in Yorkshire who produce a nude charity calendar for their Women’s Institute (WI) chapter after one of their husband’s died from cancer.

“It’s dealing with cancer, it’s dealing with loss and grief – but it’s also very, very funny,” Nolan said.

“People in the audience can really relate to it… Although it’s sad, people leave feeling uplifted, almost like: I can handle my life now. It’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”

A big part of the storyline involves the characters taking off their clothes to shoot the calendar – which Nolan said was initially “traumatic”.

She continued: “But they’ve [the producers and director] really treated us with respect and tried to help us, anything that was worrying us they addressed. Now it’s second nature, really – it’s a bit weird.

“You get to a point [where] you think, it’s just a body and we’ve all got our faults. Nobody’s got a perfect body. When you do it, I go: ‘Yeah, I’ve got some marks there’. [And] one of the other one’s will look at me [and say], ‘I’ve got the same marks’. It’s been sort of freeing.”

Blackpool-based Nolan is incredibly proud of one of her newer roles – being a grandmother – and some of her grandchildren have already seen the show.

The cast of Calendar Girls The Musical
The cast of Calendar Girls The Musical (Alex Harvey-Brown/PA)

“My son [Danny, with ex-husband Ritchie Hoyle] is the light of my life, but then for him to have four children – I didn’t think I’d have any grandchildren, so to have four granddaughters is amazing,” she said.

“Children bring you down, everything’s in perspective, isn’t it? Children have got their priorities with enjoying life, haven’t they, so we have a lot to learn from them.”

Her eight-year-old granddaughter particularly enjoyed the production, and Nolan recounted her as saying: “‘I love this, I want to come see it loads more’ – I mean she had no idea what was going on, but she loved the songs.”

Nolan’s sisters will likely be seeing the show when it’s in Blackpool or Liverpool, and Nolan said she doesn’t want to catch their eye during the scene where she takes her clothes off, otherwise she’ll burst into laughter.

She added wryly: “I hope they’re not too near the front.”

Maureen Nolan stars in the UK and Ireland tour of Calendar Girls The Musical written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth. Find out more at