One year on from being diagnosed with secondary ‘treatable, not curable’ cancer, Linda Nolan is in good spirits as she chats about her autobiography From My Heart, which has just come out.
It was on March 2 last year that she fell at home and broke her hip, which led to a scan finding a tumour in her hip.
Now, the cancer’s been contained in her hip, she’s off crutches and getting ready to move back home having spent the past 12 months living with sister Denise, has come to terms with her future and is reflecting on her past.
Linda and her siblings, Tommy, Brian, Anne, Denise, Maureen, Bernadette and Coleen initially sang in Blackpool’s clubs during the 1970s, before the sisters were picked out for fame and moved to London.
Their biggest hit I’m In The Mood For Dancing reached number three in the charts in 1980, and since then they’ve gone on to have stage and screen careers,
In From My Heart, 59 year old Linda charts her life from a Dublin council estate to hitting Blackpool’s club scene as a five-year-old singing sensation, through to the deaths of her husband Brian - the love of her life, and her beloved sister Bernie, family rifts, her depression and her own mental and physical health struggles.
“I spent last year trying not to feel sorry for myself, but I really did,” Linda says “I’d had a facelift in January and had turned a corner; I could smile when I thought of Brian and was ready to start living again.”
Then the ‘crushing blow’ of cancer diagnosis came, but she says she’s ready to work again and to maybe find love - or at least companionship - once more.
She describes the book as ‘a nice thing to do’ for her young relatives, sharing her life story with her many great nieces and nephews.
“It’s hard to revisit some areas of my life but makes me realise how lucky we are,” she said.
“I didn’t want to shy away from the truth, life isn’t a bowl of cherries.”
Linda’s love for Blackpool and the resort’s place in the family’s life shines throughout.
Blackpool Victoria Hospital and Trinity Hospice receive high praise, the Maggie May show on Central Pier gave her a financial lifeline and, in times of struggle, the town is where they rally round.
“We love Blackpool, that’s why we come back,” she said of the town’s starring role in the book. “I first came in 1963 until 1973 but moved back for Maggie May’s, and gradually everyone came back.
“Our career is entirely down to living in Blackpool and going out as The Singing Nolans.”
The writing process has allowed Linda accept some of the issues she’s encountered over the years.
“There’s stuff in it about our dad and Brian,” she said. “It’s only in the process of writing this book that I have realised I had been shying away from things.
“Only now I can say Brian was a functioning alcolholic.
“All these years after he died, I have been able to be honest [with myself], but he’s still the love of my life.
“He loved me, and that [the drink] was the only hiccup which came towards the end of his days.”
Linda admits she sometimes shouts at Brian’s ashes, which she’s kept at their home in the resort since his death from skin cancer in 2007, and she’s sure that a life-time of drinking brought about his death - and hopes her admissions in the book help prevent someone else facing similar heartache.
“We were robbed of old age together,” she said.
Over all though, despite the tragedies and hard times, Linda says she’s got ‘few regrets’ and the ‘good out-weighs the bad’.
And she’s loving living her life now, following the fortunes of a whole new generation of Nolans all enjoying singing and dancing at varying levels from local dance schools to touring the UK and the world in bands.
“The little ones are always dancing and on the floor in the splits - I’m always falling over them,” Linda said.
“People say ‘would you encourage them [to go into showbusiness]?’ Yes, I would but it’s hard work but all of them have a great work ethic.
“And we would actually tell our kids if they didn’t have the talent.
“The name ‘Nolan’ will ring a bell to some people in the business but you have to stand up on your own two feet.”
Looking to the future, Linda’s determined to ‘live with cancer’ and make the most of whatever time she now has, a stark contrast to the times not so long ago when she ‘lined up tablets’ as she contemplated suicide.
“I don’t want to miss the grand nieces and nephews growing up,” she said. “My time now is to make memories and to remember the amazing life I’ve had.”
Linda met Brian in December 1979 through her sister Denise, who he was managing after she left the Nolan sisters’ group to go solo.
In the book, she describes meeting him for the first time: “He was about 5ft 11ins tall with thick dark hair, blue eyes and a smile that sparkled like sunshine on sea. He was gorgeous,” she wrote.
But he was also married, although Denise was sure they were no longer ‘together’.
Tanned and hair highlighted from a holiday in Florida, Linda ‘could feel Brian’s eyes all over’ her while the family filmed a Christmas TV special.
At 32, he was 13 years older than Linda, but that didn’t stop their attraction and, assuring her the marriage was over, Brian set out to win her over.
Their first kiss left Linda ‘physically sick with nerves and excitement and happiness for days.’
But with Brian still officially married, the romance stayed secret for a time.
Once Linda’s parents came round to the idea, Brian soon moved into the family home in Ilford, but shortly after her 21st birthday, they moved into a flat nearby and were engaged the following Christmas.
On August 28, 1981, 20 months after they met, Brian and Linda married at Blackpool register office followed by a ceremony at St Paul’s Church the next day – with Linda wearing a lace and diamante meringue dress.
“Like a jigsaw, we were two pieces of the same picture. We belonged together,” Linda writes.
He soon became the Nolan Sisters manager, but unfortunately Brian’s care and attention over the sisters eventually led to Linda leaving the band, her siblings feeling he was too ‘overprotective’ of them.
At a meeting of the sisters after a show in Manchester, Linda’s reaction to Anne, Maureen, Bernie and Coleen’s decision that they no longer wanted Brian managing them was an ultimatum ‘if Brian goes I go too’.
“Even then I was desperately hoping someone - anyone - would say that wasn’t what they wanted at all. But nobody did. I stormed out of the room feeling utterly crushed,” she writes.
Completing a further six months of shows, Linda bowed out, with a £13,000 cheque for all her work with the band - the seemingly pitiful sum setting off a bitter written battle and Linda not speaking to her sisters for more than a year.
“It’s still painful looking back on that time, because losing my sisters was like losing a limb. It felt so strange.”
Breaking away from the group, Linda found a place in the tabloids thanks to a photo shoot featuring her naked, with a sheet draped over her, which made the front cover of The Sun.
“‘The Naughty Nolan’ had a ring to it,” she writes. “In the band I’d been known for my blonde hair and big boobs - so I might as well play on that. It had certainly placed me apart from the traditional Nolan Sisters’ saccharine image.”
She ‘revelled in the independence’ and began to enjoy performing again, she ‘wasn’t “just another Nolan”’, she was a performer in her own right.
“People called us Mr and Mrs Showbiz and the industry was our life,” she wrote. “There was a lot of drinking and partying in those days. Looking back I just remember it being tremendous fun.
“We never had to get up early so there was never any reason to go to bed early. What I didn’t consider at the time is that both Brian and I were probably drinking more than was good for us.
“I loved a few glasses of wine at the end of a show but Brian was drinking his favourite whisky and Coke for longer and longer periods every day. it’s very easy to slip into that habit when you’re not in the normal day-to-day routine of office and family life.”
“Not having children is the only regret of my life. When Brian and I first got together I was still really young and it felt like we had ages ahead of us to think about things like that,” Linda writes, adding: “We just never quite got round to it.”
Come 1986, Linda, then 26, and Brian decided they would try for a family, but a couple of months later, she was cast in the lead role of Maggie May’s - a ‘massive new production’ in Blackpool, a ‘big gig’ and ‘good money from May to November’, and a ‘miracle solution to all our financial worries.’
“Maggie May was the most fabulous job. The Theatre at the end of Central Pier in Blackpool had been recently refurbished. Inside it had been brilliantly designed to look like the Liverpool docks in the Victorian era.
“The audience would come in and sit at tables, have something to eat and a few drinks while I performed as Maggie May, a ‘lady of the night’ who hosted an evening of cabaret, sang a few solos and got everyone involved in a big singalong at the end.”
Linda and Brian upped sticks from Essex and she lived in the resort once more. Her parents had also moved back and family relations started to improve.
Maggie May’s ran for eight years at Central Pier, before relocating to South Pier as Rosie O’Grady’s - still with Linda centre stage - for a further two seasons.
Again, Linda looks back on these years and admits, ‘Brian was probably drinking too much.
“You’d think that having grown up with a father who was an alcoholic I’d have seen the warning signs but in my mind Brian was the perfect husband who just happened to enjoy a few whiskies. He was never violent or nasty to me. At the time it just felt like fun.”
TAKING ITS TOLL
In 1999, Linda was invited to head a summer season at the Layton Institute - somewhere she’d belted out Big Spender with the girls as a child.
Work and money were in short supply, so she had little choice but to go ‘back to the beginning’, crying every night before the show.
“It wasn’t just the idea of going back; I didn’t enjoy performing there either. The club committee were totally controlling about which songs I was allowed to sing. They wouldn’t even agree to a big singalong at the end which I knew the audience would love. There was no joy in any of it,” she writes.
Fortunes soon changed, as Linda became the third Nolan sister to win the role of Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, taking over from Bernie on the tour as she joined Brookside, and working in tandem with Denise playing the role on the West End.
Two years later, in 2002, she was playing the role on the West End herself, when Brian succumbed to depression, ‘swamped with sadness’ and ‘still drinking too much’.
“By that stage Brian was a functioning alcoholic. It’s only in the last year that I’ve actually been able to say those words, actually been able to admit it to myself and other people,” she writes. “Back then I was still stuck with the idea that alcoholics were blokes huddled in doorways on the street, slurping cider from bottles in paper bags.”
Brian ‘was always clean, tidy, funny and never aggressive or violent. But more and more often he was drinking all day.’
Being told he’d been 40 minutes from death and having emergency surgery on a stomach ulcer still didn’t stop his drinking, however, and he was soon diagnosed with skin cancer.
That didn’t stop them from celebrating an ‘utterly beautiful’ day renewing their vows on a boat in Turkey, but back home the depression and drinking continued.
“I looked back on the early days of our marriage as such a golden, happy time. And then we’d had that magical holiday when we renewed our vows. but everyday life had lost its sparkle.”
n Linda Nolan’s memoir From My Heart (Sidgwick & Jackson) is published today.