Hello Dollies

Their comic double act The Dolls has been a hit on stages throughout Scotland and beyond. Now Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy take their gallus Glasgow cleaners onto the big panto stage. By Mark Brown.

WHEN I arrive at Glasgow's famous Armadillo auditorium to interview The Dolls (aka Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy), the comedy duo are already in costume and larking about with the photographer. For two people at their work, they're having way too much fun.

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This will come as no surprise to their legions of fans. Since The Dolls, Agnes and Sadie (west of Scotland cleaners with a solid and uproarious friendship), began their meteoric rise in the spring of 2015, they've been having a laugh in full houses all over Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK.

Now the pair are bringing their riotous brand of comedy to the Armadillo's pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, in which they star alongside Greg McHugh's much-loved creation Gary: Tank Commander. The 3,000-seater auditorium at the rebranded SEC (Scottish Events Campus) is the biggest panto venue in Scotland; previous Christmas shows have starred such big names as John Barrowman, David Hasselfhoff and The Krankies.

For Telfer Stevens (who plays Caitlin McLean in the TV soap River City) and McCarthy (currently appearing as DC Andrea McGill in the police spoof Scot Squad) the mega-panto is a wonderful and unexpected opportunity. "We never thought it would get this big this quickly," says McCarthy of The Dolls' success.

"I never thought beyond the end of the week," adds Telfer Stevens. At that, the friends crease up with laughter, which, it must be said, is an infectiously regular occurrence throughout our interview.

The Dolls are a fascinating phenomenon. Very much referencing a golden past of Scottish music hall, they are, surely, the most successful Scottish, female double act since Fran and Anna. Indeed, one might think of them as a female equivalent of Francie and Josie, the glaikit Glaswegian characters played by the late, great Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton.

What, I wonder, accounts for the irresistible rise of The Dolls? "I think we're at a point now where people are looking for nostalgic things," McCarthy suggests.

"Things are really tough for people just now. People are saying, 'Do you remember when it used to be good?', because just now things are pretty crap. I think what Gayle and I do is nostalgic, but with a modern twist."

"There's also an element of us being a female comedy duo coming out and saying, 'Here we are world! We don't really know what we are, but we're here to have a good time'", adds Telfer Stevens.

Agnes (Telfer Stevens) and Sadie (McCarthy) are, she continues, influenced by "our heritage and our upbringings, the working-class families we were brought up in". Telfer Stevens (36) hails from the village of Renton, in the Vale of Leven, while McCarthy (33) was raised in Maryhill in north-west Glasgow.

The success of their act is, Telfer Stevens believes, down to she and McCarthy inadvertently tapping into the zeitgeist. "There is," she says, "nothing else like that just now."

Dolls audiences split, they reckon, about 80/20 women to men, and they are most definitely up for a good night out. "When women are out together, we're worse than men," says Telfer Stevens. "The behaviour's off the scale", she adds, with a laugh.

"We encourage it, I think," McCarthy chips in. Cue the kind of laughter you'd expect from Glasgow schoolgirls when the teacher's out of the class, or from women factory workers when the foreman's slipped out for a cigarette.

If The Dolls' fan base is overwhelmingly female and working-class, it is also cross-generational. "Our audience goes from 16-year-olds to women in their 80s. It spans that far," comments Telfer Stevens.

"It's like a kitchen party," adds McCarthy. "Women from our kind of working-class families, you'd go to a kitchen party with your grannies, your aunties, your mum."

The Dolls began as an old-style, music hall routine, combining stand-up comedy with humorous songs. They started their career, in May 2015, in the less-than-auspicious surroundings of the Easterhouse masonic hall.

The act may have been rooted in a proud tradition, but the venue's management reflected a less wholesome kind of heritage, which hangs on tenaciously in many Scottish communities. "They wouldn't allow my second name on the poster," remembers McCarthy.

The man arranging the booking at the hall told them he would, "need to put a piece of black tape" over McCarthy's Irish, Catholic surname. And so, in a moment of sinister comedy, The Dolls began their professional life as "Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise".

From that, decidedly odd, opening gig, the duo went on to play numerous clubs, including a memorable appearance at the Grampian Club in Corby in Northamptonshire. The former steel town is famous for its massive Scottish diaspora (around half of the town's population are either Scots or of Scottish descent).

"It's full of Scots," says Telfer Stevens. "They're all cutting about in their Rangers and Celtic tops as if they're in Glasgow."

It was in Corby, McCarthy remembers, that the duo realised they'd made it. "The queue was round the block, we sold it out. There were folk round the corner going, 'We'll sell you a Dolls ticket for 50 quid.' The tickets were £10!"

Which is not to say that the pair want their fans being ripped off by ticket touts. In fact, they enjoy a close relationship with their audience. Sometimes it's a bit too close, as Telfer Stevens recalls: "After we played the Fairfield Centre in Govan – what a mental night that was! – this woman contacted us, and she said, 'Listen hen, I had diarrhoea on Sunday, can I get a ticket for another one of your shows?'"

The performers laugh uncontrollably at this (as, I confess, dear reader, do I), until McCarthy adds: "I take comfort in that. That's our audience. They're like family members."

From sectarian blanking out on their posters in Easterhouse, to inflated black market ticket pricing in Corby, and too much information about the bowels of a fan in Govan, the rise of The Dolls has been unconventional, to say the least. 2017 has been their breakthrough year, with sell-out performances of the show The Dolls Abroad (co-written by Telfer Stevens, McCarthy and fellow comic actor Fraser Boyle) and, now, a major Christmas show staged by UK's biggest pantomime producer, Scarborough-based Qdos Entertainment.

"It's been fantastic," comments Telfer Stevens. "It's been a riot," adds McCarthy. "It has been a riot," her partner agrees. "And a lot of pressure, I think, when you put a show like that out.

"It's been mental. We never ever envisaged it becoming this big. We've just found ourselves here. That's the point."

As the cliche has it, it takes a lot of hard work to make an act like The Dolls seem so effortless, and no-one can doubt the serious graft the pair have put in to land where they have, on the Armadillo stage with Gary: Tank Commander.

Telfer Stevens has worked with Greg McHugh, recording an episode of the army comedy. "He's a nice guy," she says. "He's very talented."

"I remember watching him on YouTube, before he ever went to TV," McCarthy adds. "It was just him on a chair being interviewed by somebody, and I remember going, 'This is the funniest thing I've seen in years.' I think we're going to have a good time."

Telfer Stevens agrees. The combination of Gary Tank's camp-as-Christmas humour and The Dolls' outrageous working-class comedy is, she says, a "no brainer".

The pair profess themselves somewhat "lucky" to have enjoyed such a stratospheric rise with their double act. However, they know their success is based on something much more fundamental.

"I've never worked with anyone that I've had this kind of chemistry with," says Telfer Stevens. "It's a special bond, and that's not just about friendship, that's about what we do together on stage. It's about someone having the same values and the same ethic.

"It's about saying, 'We're not going down here without a fight. I'm going to die here on this stage, I can't give any more.'

"But there's that person across from me going, 'We can do this', it's in the eyes. I'll never give up for her, and she'll never give up for me. That's it in a nutshell."

"We love to kick our height and do the splits. That's it!" adds McCarthy. "An opportunity has presented itself, we're going to go for it and have a laugh."

Jack And The Beanstalk is at the SEC Armadillo from December 16 to January 7 www.sec.co.uk