After teaching ballet in Canada and running her own dance school on the Isle of Wight, Ann Stephanie’s career ended in a way she never foresaw – as a member of the Roly Polys, Les Dawson’s team of singers and tap dancers, all of them women who were older and plumper than the usual dance troupe.
In 1982, Dawson was trying to dream up gimmicks for his next BBC Television series. He was appearing in a variety show in Brighton with “the usual bunch of half-starved dancers” when the brainwave hit him – “why not break all the rules and have fat dancers onstage?”
Dawson and his brilliant producer, Ernest Maxin, advertised for “large ladies of between 35 and 55 who can tap well”. They received 5,000 replies and 350 women were auditioned, of whom six were chosen.
On the night the first show was to be recorded, one of the BBC’s light entertainment bosses was on the set. Eyeing the Roly Polys, he commented to Dawson: “At least you’ll get some laughs from them in your patter.” He was, after all, speaking to a man who had once quipped: “My wife was so fat that, when I carried her across the threshold, I had to make two journeys.”
Dawson declined: “If I do that, it will be burlesque. I’m just going to accept them for what they are.” When the Roly Polys appeared on that first night, they were initially met with silence. But soon there was laughter and applause and, when they finished their six-minute act, they received a great ovation.
This was just the start. The Roly Polys appeared in the 1983 Royal Variety Performance, recorded a disco song, Lumpy Lump Lump, and performed in a Wolverhampton pantomime with Dawson and Michael Barrymore, the first of many pantos and summer shows.
Besides Dawson, they appeared on television with Bob Monkhouse, Des O’Connor and Terry Wogan. The secret of their success was that this was no freak show. These were ladies who, although overweight, really knew how to dance.
The crunch came in 1989 when some of the troupe decided they did not want to work overseas. Stephanie and another of the founders, Thea McIntyre, then formed the Jelly Rolls, who worked until 1996.
Ann Stephanie, who was born in Putney on January 12, 1935, died in Blackpool on November 26, 2012, aged 77.